WE’RE at the Subiaco Oval in Perth. It’s the first Test. Sitting in the press box, I can see that Páraic Duffy has stationed himself at the edge of the tunnel where the players will come onto the pitch.
I wonder why the Director-General of the GAA hasn’t taken his seat in the VIP section so I keep watching.
Eventually, the Irish squad emerges from the dressing room. When Darren Hughes appears, Duffy steps out and slaps his fellow Monaghan man on the back of the shoulders.
Very quickly, it all makes sense. But a few days later I challenged Páraic Duffy about his conduct. It was a bit of light-hearted banter.
I told Páraic his behaviour was most unbecoming. Given his position, I said he couldn’t afford himself the luxury of being so parochial in his outlook.
As the chief executive of a 32-county organisation, if he was going to encourage one player, then he had to encourage them all and he couldn’t just be singling out his fellow Monaghan men.
A peace-broker rather than a warmonger, Páraic Duffy is a diplomat to his bones. I assumed he would gently deflect my allegations of favouritism. I was wrong. Páraic met me head on. He told me that he had coached Darren Hughes at Scotstown. He said he had watched Darren’s progression from underage player to county minor to county senior. And on the day that Darren Hughes ran onto a field with an Ireland jersey on his shoulders, Duffy told me in no uncertain terms that he would be damned if he was going to make any apologies for wishing him good luck.
Delivered with good humour, it was an excellent retort. And the real beauty of Duffy’s response is that it crystallises the very essence of the GAA. In short, he was saying: ‘Yes, I might very well be the Director-General of the GAA. But first and foremost, I’m a Monaghan man and I’m never going to make any attempt to disguise that fact.’ This is what defines the GAA.
It is parochial to the core and unapologetically so. You stick to where you are from, and you stick at it.
For many supporters, this often involves suffering through many lean years. Sometimes the waiting seems interminable. Ultimately, however, when success does come, the long famine only makes the feast taste even sweeter. Consider the outpouring of joy that followed Limerick’s triumph in the Munster hurling final.
On Saturday, Cavan’s fans also flooded onto Celtic Park as they celebrated their victory over Derry.
Then on Sunday, we had Monaghan’s shock victory over the All-Ireland champions.
It was the scenes in Clones that got me thinking about Páraic Duffy. Naturally, he will have enjoyed Monaghan’s success. But he will also have savoured the performances that were delivered by Darren and Kieran Hughes. Having coached them at Scotstown, Duffy will feel he has played his own small part in helping Monaghan end their 25-year separation from the Anglo-Celt Cup. Like all seasoned GAA men, Páraic Duffy has learned that with patience and perseverance, almost anything is possible.
Kieran McGeeney is another individual who understands the importance of those two qualities. Back when he was still playing, he once told me a story about his early days in the Armagh panel.
Still a student at Queen’s, he was at the Botanic Inn one night when someone in his group asked him about his ambitions as a county footballer. Bear in mind this was the early ’90s and Armagh were going nowhere.
McGeeney said he wanted to win an All-Ireland medal. Everyone in the group laughed in unison. McGeeney’s response sounded ridiculous. Fortunately for Armagh, it didn’t seem like a preposterous notion to McGeeney. And on September 22, 2002 he was the last man holding the ball when the final whistle confirmed Armagh were All-Ireland champions for the first time.
McGeeney’s playing career taught him the value of dogged determination. It took him a decade to realise his ambition with Armagh.
So far, he’s been managing Kildare for six seasons. When questioned about his future with the Lilywhites at the weekend, he said: “It’s not easy, but even in our own days it took playing 10 years for Armagh before you won anything. It was just before you were ready to quit when things seemed to change. Things can change in a heartbeat and you can go on to win a few things. It’s about keeping knocking on the door and never giving up. That’s what sport is about.”
If Kildare are smart, they will keep McGeeney as manager. But if they have any sense, they will get someone to sit down and have a conversation with Seanie Johnston.
The Cavan man came on as a sub for the Lilywhites at the weekend. Introduced in the 55th minute, Johnston pointed a sideline ball in the dying embers of the game. Having made the move from his native county to Kildare, Johnston can’t even get on the starting 15. His prospects mightn’t necessarily improve. Kildare have won this year’s minor and U21 Leinster titles. Their conveyor belt has started to move.
Kildare don’t need Seanie Johnston. But Cavan, the county where he was born, the county where he works, could do with Seanie Johnston. The Breffni Blues secured a fantastic victory over Derry. If, as expected, they see off London in the next round, Cavan will be in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, and they will not be easily beaten.
It is a genuine pity Johnston is not part of the current squad. Looking to next season, it would be a huge boost if their panel contained a recuperated Gearóid McKiernan and a reconciled Johnston.
The question Seanie must consider is: what satisfaction will he gain even if he does win something with Kildare? When Kieran McGeeney sank to his knees with the ball in 2002, his success was celebrated by all the people of Mullaghbawn. They would have included all the men who coached him through the underage ranks. But if Seanie wins with Kildare, the party will seem somewhat hollow. All his former mentors, and the people who watched him grow up, are in Cavan. He is a son of Cavan. In Kildare, he will always feel like a stepchild.
Kieran McGeeney is quite right when he says success comes from “never giving up”. But he’s wrong when he says: “That’s what sport is about”.
It’s not. Never giving up is how you achieve glory.
A more pertinent question is why strive for glory at all? In the GAA, you do it for the people where you’re from. It’s their joy which makes the journey worthwhile.
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