In the days leading up to the All-Ireland football final, Eanna Casey popped into his parents’ home on the Sligo Road in Ballina with a kit bag, writes Terry Reilly
His elderly father, from his chair in the sitting room, asked him what he was carrying. The son told him. Reaching inside, the man in his 80s pulled out a jersey. Number 21. A tear rolled down his face. “That was the first number I was ever given on the Mayo team,” Willie Casey said.
Now Willie was not an emotional man. Far from it. He was the hardest of hard men in an era when the rallying cry of defenders was “get your man carried off on a door”. And many a door was dismantled for men that crossed the line with Willie.
He wouldn’t like this piece. In fact, if he knew that opening line would appear about him in a paper, someone would be removing a door with my name on it. Barring a few conversations with Joe Sherwood from the Evening Press, he stayed well away from the limelight. It never sat well with him.
But Willie carried mythical status in Connacht. Entire generations were reared on tales of how he put the best players in the country in his pocket.
When Jinky Joe Corcoran announced himself on the Mayo scene, he was young and anxious about playing on the big stage. Willie took him under his wing and said: “Don’t worry. I’ll do the battering and you do the scoring.”
Joe ended his career as Mayo’s all-time leading scorer, a feat that was only surpassed in the latter days of Conor Mortimer’s career.
Unsurprisingly he wasn’t a man for diplomacy. He fell out with Mayo and the GAA for a few years. He was caught playing a game in New York and received a suspension. He wasn’t about to plead for a reprieve so he just stayed out there. He became a close friend of the legendary John ‘Kerry’ O’Donnell and was given a job as caretaker of Gaelic Park.
There was a Maltese exile in his apartment who coaxed him into playing soccer. Willie had been asked on numerous occasions to play on a Rest of Ireland team v the League of Ireland despite never playing the game. In the era he played, that was just the esteem he was held. And so, annoyed with the GAA and thousands of miles from home, he played his first soccer game with a Maltese team in New York.
People who didn’t know him well confused him for one of those men who disliked every other sport but the GAA. He loved talking about rugby and saying “sure what kind of sport would the referee point one way and give the free the other way?” It was a front though. He loved sport. Particularly the discipline and camaraderie it brought. The draw to him was about learning and improving constantly. This is where his heart lied. There was a great code of honour to Willie.
And that is why he had no time for any players who didn’t put full focus into their game. True devotion lay in complete commitment. Even duel players were a complete mystery to him.
At a time when the Railway Cup signalled the start of the season, the provinces never trained collectively. Willie invented his own preseason running laps around the James Stephens Park complex in the snow.
As the ground hardened and the games approached, he would taper it down, kicking balls off the ground and out of his hands with either foot. He was dieting before the term was known and didn’t drink when playing.
Doing something the correct way was an obsession. Even around the family home, everything had to be neat and tidy. Everything was done to the best of your ability.
When current All-Star David Clarke was struggling to earn a spot in the club underage teams due to his kick outs, Willie took him under his wing — standard practice, he was dedicated to nurturing the underage players at the club. Willie saw a dedication in the youngster that he associated with. Within a year David was on the county minors booming the ball down the field. It was a proud moment to see David win the gong this year because the Stephenites meant a lot to him. It was no surprise to see him wearing the club blazer at his funeral.
But he was a family man too. He met Regina in 1960 and married her in 1968. When asked by the kids who he most admired in his life, they expected him to answer one of his buddies like Frank Stockwell or Sean Purcell. He said it was Regina. Willie loved the way she carried herself. Her modesty, simple values, honesty. The traits he admired most.
His daughters Sinead and Hilary were always the apples of his eye. It was a bit tougher for the sons. Rowan looks identical to Willie and was held to impossible standards within the county. Eanna, that little bit younger, was a mainstay for the club for years.
When the club won the All-Ireland in 2005, Willie was in the Mater Hospital preparing for a triple bypass. He watched the game on the TV in the room. The team bus stopped off to visit him afterwards with the cup. Eanna had played as a defender in the second half but got forward to kick a point. He was excited and asked his dad if he saw it. Maybe this youngest is getting ideas above his station.
“What do you want me to do, wear a black tie? Where was your man?” the room erupted with laughter. But as they were preparing to leave, the father and son had a quiet moment.
“Come here auld stock, well done, I’m proud of you,” he said. “Don’t go mental in that hotel.”
That was Willie. He is survived by his wife, children, grandchildren Adam, Gemma, Jane and Matthew, sister Carmel (Baxter), sister-in-law Marian Casey, son-in-law Jim Reidy, daughters-in-law Aileen O’Connor and Emer Rouse, nieces, nephews, relatives, and many friends.
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved