Every conversation with Eugene McGee was truly a privilege

A packed St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford for the funeral mass of Eugene McGee yesterday. His willingness to innovate and to find a new angle, to plan and to plan again, characterised so much of what he did in his life. Picture: Lorraine Teevan

One of the most interesting things in life was receiving a phone call from Eugene McGee. He didn’t waste time with small talk or even with much by the way of greetings. 

Instead, it was as if he was continuing a discussion he had been having with you on a previous occasion, or that you were joining a conversation he was having with somebody else. 

Or, best of all, when he started talking he just set out what he was thinking on a particular issue, as if there was not really anything else that needed to be talked about.

That is not to suggest that he was rude or thoughtless or selfish. Entirely the opposite, in fact. He was a thoroughly decent, kind, considerate man and he did not need you to agree with him. He was a good listener as well as a good talker — it was a proper conversation, not a lecture. 

He understood that an argument was an argument and a debate was a debate and just because you thought differently or disagreed, it didn’t necessarily signify malice or personal dislike.

In this respect, every conversation can only be considered a privilege. He never thought of himself as being above anybody else. And he did not live in the past – he cared too much about the present and the future to be marooned in nostalgia.

Last summer, after Offaly footballers had lost to Wicklow in the Leinster Championship and were preparing to play against Antrim in the qualifiers, Eugene McGee wrote a few lines to be given to the players.

The Offaly footballers had come in for a lot of very public criticism and, indeed, some abuse. But McGee was generous enough to offer support and wise enough to point out what needed to happen.

He wrote: “Offaly has a badge of honour in playing fast, aggressive football. That is the Offaly style. Offaly also has a badge of producing fearless footballers. Absolute courage is the hallmark of every serious Offaly team. Be a serious Offaly team. Be tough. Be disciplined. Be ruthless. Be brave.”

Offaly manager Eugene McGee makes his way onto the pitch before the start of the 1982 All-Ireland final. Picture: Sportsfile
Offaly manager Eugene McGee makes his way onto the pitch before the start of the 1982 All-Ireland final. Picture: Sportsfile

And he talked about skill. More than anything else, he promoted the idea of skilful footballers.

That he had managed the Offaly team that had won the All-Ireland in 1982 ensured that within the county he enjoys iconic status. It is not too much to say that he is revered.

And it also conferred a respect and status on McGee that extended out across the association. Over the decades that followed 1982, he became synonymous with the victory. 

It was as if his name had been extended: “Eugene McGee, manager of the Offaly team that won the 1982 All-Ireland…” was the way he was routinely introduced or explained in the media.

The context of the 1982 All-Ireland win was what ensured its enduring importance as a frame of reference. 

That Kerry — then acknowledged as being as good a team as had ever played Gaelic football — were stopped from winning an unprecedented (and apparently inevitable) five in a row was a stunning achievement.

It was somewhat ironic that McGee himself was unmoved by the context of that success: “Preventing the five in a row was never a target for me — I was merely aiming to win an All-Ireland as a team manager and get satisfaction for a coaching and managing programme that started on August 24, 1976 and ended on September 19, 1982.”

If such words were written by other men, they might be dismissed as somewhat disingenuous or even outright spoofing, all the better to lend importance to the achievement. But Eugene McGee was incapable of acting out like that. He said and wrote what he wished, dealing in facts and opinions rooted in research, and never indulged in plámás. He was also singularly fearless.

A great example of how Eugene McGee carried himself can be found in his relationship with Kevin Heffernan, who once said: “In the 1970s McGee and I would have spat at each other up and down the sidelines, first when he was with UCD and I was with Vincent’s, then when he was with Offaly and I was with Dublin. We would have disliked each other intensely. Now we can be civil to each other. Now we can have a chat and I think we are both surprised that we have a lot of views in common about the GAA. Back then, however, he was the enemy.”

In response, Eugene McGee wrote: “I would echo those words. I always had immense regard for Kevin and what he did for the GAA in Dublin.”

McGee explained the animus as being rooted in the fact Heffernan saw football as not just a contest between two teams but also a battle of footballing intelligence between two managers who were out to outwit each other. 

For that reason, he felt that Heffernan was “very hostile in football terms to anybody who he regarded as a threat to his ability as a manager”.

If beating Kerry in 1982 has always been the crowning glory of Eugene McGee’s career as a football manager, seeing off Heffernan’s Dublin to win three Leinster Championships in a row between 1980 and 1982 was in itself an enormous achievement.

Later, the softening of the relationship between the two men came when they had both long left the inter-county scene and McGee was writing a book entitled

Classic Football Matches

. He rang Heffernan to discuss the 1955 All-Ireland football final. 

Heffernan’s opening comment was: “Don’t you know I never talk to journalists, so what are you ringing me for?”

But Heffernan was just enjoying himself and immediately invited McGee over to his offices in the ESB for a chat.

It was, recalled Eugene McGee, “a very long and stimulating chat…. I would regard Kevin Heffernan as one of the greatest GAA persons I have ever met and when he passed away a couple of years ago, I felt genuinely very sad but privileged to have fought, and sometimes won, many battles against such a warrior down the years.”

Having started managing Offaly in the summer of 1976, he finished in the summer of 1984. It was a hugely productive time. It really matters, though, that in his public life Eugene McGee was not defined only by the success of 1982. He was immensely proud of what he achieved in Offaly, but it was just one aspect of a rich, rounded life where his skills and passions were extensive.

He spent four years managing Cavan. He won no Ulster championship or All-Ireland title, but he noted that they were nonetheless “four happy years.” He was a thoughtful and insightful journalist who ran a successful local newspaper, as well as producing excellent weekly columns for the national press.

Perhaps the great unifying thread that runs through his public life — whether in work or in sport — is the great restless intelligence that he brought to everything he did. 

This was seen in Offaly when in 1978 he raised funds to buy a Sony Portable VTR camera and related equipment: “This allowed us to record all our games on black-and-white video tapes and that was sort of revolutionary at the time. I found it a huge help if only to convince certain players that they were in fact doing some things wrong and also that these things could be corrected.”

He embraced sports psychology in the 1970s, reading books and doctoral theses from American universities, including Frank Ryan’s Sports and Psychology, from Columbia University.

He also drew extensively on coaching manuals from other sports. One book which he particularly admired was Understanding soccer tactics, which was written by Conrad Lodziak. 

McGee pulled various tactical options from this book which he then applied to Gaelic football.

He adhered to the principles set down by the famous Hungarian soccer player, Ferenc Puskas, who said: “The history of war proves that tactics are the most important thing in winning battles. 

The same thing applies in football matches. Here, too, one must consider the opportunities of both sides: and when both sides are of equal strength, it is the side with the better tactics that will win.”

And Offaly’s triumph in 1982 was a tactical masterclass. The fact that Seamus Darby’s goal came so late in the game suggests a sort of miraculous or fortuitous heist. It was nothing of the sort.

Offaly went after Kerry’s strengths, exploited their weaknesses and scored 1-15 in the 1982 final. Those scores were the product of planning where key players were shifted into key positions. It had taken a couple of years for Offaly to get past Dublin and win Leinster. 

It then took a couple of years for Offaly to get past Kerry and win an All-Ireland. There were brilliant, brilliant players on that team — but McGee was the one who figured out the puzzles. It was a meticulous lesson in the art of the possible.

It was this willingness to innovate and to find a new angle, to plan and to plan again, that characterised so much of what Eugene McGee did in his life. He thought about things, thought deeply, challenged himself, challenged others. He is a huge loss.

Paul Rouse is associate professor of history at University College Dublin.

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