From the Archives: Eugene McGee is one of GAA’s authentic voices

Man who halted Kerry’s five-in-a-row march 32 years ago releases autobiography

Seán Moran's column was originally published on November 5th, 2014

It was Eoin Liston who for me most vividly expressed the enormity of what Eugene McGee had wrought on Kerry. Twenty four years ago this month, the great Kerry forward was carousing late into the Perth night with Australia's international rules captain Terry Daniher, whom he had known since the first series in 1984.

I was among a handful of less senior attendants, mostly younger Australian players to whom it must have appeared that I was playing the role of Bomber’s grinning but generally silent amanuensis.

Eugene McGee had managed Ireland to a series success but the Aussies had been unimpressed by his blunt and direct style, maybe best summarised by his comments after the big second-Test win, which had made the third match a dead rubber.

There had been some talk that the final match might be played with an oval ball and, after the second Test, McGee was amenable to the idea but added, “We would have won out there with a square ball”.

After allowing a short period for cackling at the Ireland manager’s dourness, Liston dropped his voice and assumed a grave demeanour, strikingly at odds with the prevailing, bibulous good spirits.

He told the tale about how his Kerry team had been on the verge of five (translating fluently) premierships but had failed and that the man most responsible for this coup had been McGee.

Old Kerry adversary

The man himself accepts the centrality of this achievement in his GAA career. The cover of his book The GAA In My Time, launched last week by his old Kerry adversary Mick O'Dwyer, is dominated by a picture of the ball that Séamus Darby had flighted over Charlie Nelligan at the end of the 1982 All-Ireland final.

Nelligan later evocatively told RTÉ's Breaking Ball that he could still feel the rush of air as the ball passed his hand on its way into the net.

McGee is, however, quick to point out that there has been more to his life in the GAA than that wet September day 32 years ago, and there’s no arguing with that.

Although his life has been in journalism, he has always thought of himself as more of a practitioner than an observer when it comes to football and facts bear this out.

From his early involvement building the foundations of the modern GAA in UCD – as well as winning a clutch of Sigersons, Dublin county championships and two, back-to-back All-Ireland club titles in the mid-1970s – to last year’s high-profile chairing of the Football Review Committee, the ground-breaking consultative process that produced amongst other things the so far successful innovation of the black card designed to counter cynical fouling, McGee has occupied a unique spot in the GAA, at the interface between the games, their administration and the association’s media coverage.

The book is episodic in nature; more a series of essays rather than the conventional, linear narrative of an autobiography, but the range of topics covered is wide and varied. The brisk, at times grumpy style is recognisable from his newspaper columns, but the material isn’t always.

McGee knew Kevin Heffernan better than any intercounty manager because he had duelled with him at club level when UCD were something of a bête noir for Heffernan's St Vincent's.

He is shocked decades later to hear that one of his Offaly players had, within Heffernan’s earshot, casually belittled Dublin after the 1982 Leinster final and ruefully reflects how he wouldn’t have been as complacent when facing the Dubs a year later had he known.

Untimely bereavement

His personal life has been buffeted by untimely bereavement. For instance, his older sister Alice who looked after him when he first arrived in Dublin from Longford is only 26 when killed in a staggeringly freakish accident.

As well as the serious and sad content, there are flashes of the characteristic deadpan humour in the parenthetical one-liners scattered throughout. I remember in Australia in 1990 at an informal press conference to announce a team, one of those present irascibly barked that he couldn’t hear and needed a few names repeated.

McGee glanced up and muttered loudly enough to be audible: “You’d have heard four years ago,” – a reference to his predecessor as manager, Kevin Heffernan.

We once had a regular Saturday afternoon slot on Newstalk and would adjourn afterwards for pints. This was how I heard for the first time some of the stories in the book but most of all I remember what good company he was and is. Once, in that familiar digressive style, he spoke about conversation as an art form that is being lost in the techno-babble of modern communications.

It was impossible to disagree. One of the highest commendations that can be paid the book is that the voice is so authentic it sometimes feels like an exercise in conversation, albeit one where you’re waiting a while to get a word in.