You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. ‘Seán’ Alan Bradley’s compelling documentary on the life and times of Seán Boylan is an elegy for an era fast fading in Meath football even if that is not the substance of the film.
Football fortunes have interesting trajectories. There’s a cluster of counties with a handful of, four or five, All-Irelands, most of which were put together over a 25- or 30-year period – too brief to threaten dynasty but too prolonged to be just the harvest of an exceptional team.
Boylan's 23 years in charge of Meath yielded four in 13 seasons and catapulted the county out of the pack and behind only the top three on the Sam Maguire roll of honour.
It’s an achievement that puts him right up with some of the most successful coaches or managers in the game’s history – trailing only the outlier legends of Kerry, Mick O’Dwyer and Eamonn O’Sullivan.
His was a career of apparent contradiction: a lifetime Meath hurler being handed the reins of the county’s underperforming footballers – Colm O’Rourke in his droll recollections, describes them as ‘a bit like a downtrodden people’.
Then there was his background as the son of a War of Independence hero, General Seán Boylan, ‘a born leader’ unlike his son, who had to pick up leadership skills as he went but who still gets emotional when remembering a fleeting gesture of paternal affection and the comfort it gave.
The family tradition in herbalist remedies stretches back over generations and Boylan’s career in healing doesn’t immediately chime with the rugged and unflinching agenda of the teams he sent out – something that a number of former players try to get to grips with.
“What he wanted from us was honesty of effort,” says Gerry McEntee, “tough but fair; give in to nobody and never complain. That was a big thing.”
McEntee, O'Rourke and Joe Cassells were a core of footballers from the previous decade when Meath looked like they were on the way somewhere but the 70s turned out a dead end. Having become almost fatalistic in the face of this decline in fortune, they above all others were alert to the possibilities Boylan unveiled.
They would never have struck anyone as easily impressed but there was something about the new manager who arrived in 1982 that got their attention. To anyone who remembers the era, what Boylan, now 77, appeared to bring was firstly, energy – the recurring concept of radiating enthusiasm for the tasks at hand – and an ability to get into the heads of his players.
With the odd exception his teams were pitch perfect for big matches. Players were ingeniously redeployed at various stages of their careers. He had brainwaves that worked like inspiration – taking the team to Scotland for a week before the fourth and final showdown with Dublin in 1991.
Behind much of this was another paradox. Someone as cheery, affable and chatty as Boylan seemed at odds with the almost shamanistic quality of the healer and believer in the force of nature.
Taking the team up for runs on the Hill of Tara brought a hardy and pragmatic bunch of footballers into the mystic. He speaks of the 'phenomenal energy' on the hill and 'finding the soul within yourself'. Colm Coyle recalls how the manager told him 'the guy who gives up here will give up in a game'.
O’Rourke, having dispensed with the ribaldry of observing that the players would be ‘so knackered’ there wasn’t much energy about, goes on to amplify the point.
“There was something about Tara and going up there you had the wind in your face and could see for miles and this was home, part of Meath, part of history, part of our tradition, our culture – something to be proud of and we embraced that.”
The emphasis is on the team of the 1980s, who made the breakthrough with back-to-back All-Irelands and it’s easy to gloss over Boylan’s achievement in cultivating a couple of slips from that first team and growing two more title-winning sides.
The challenges were different. Instead of an older, more seasoned collective he was dealing with young players finding their way in both football and life. Two of them, Darren Fay – "I owe Seán Boylan a whole lot more than two All-Ireland medals" – and Trevor Giles also contribute.
Fay jokingly addresses the difference between the decades – “we were a bit more refined!” – whereas Giles as usual does laconic like he did 45s and penalties: “We were nicer fellas”.
Giles's penalty in the '96 final replay is shown, hit with such force and precision that it looks like he conjured it from the mark to the net without anyone seeing it in between – least of all Mayo goalkeeper John Madden who just throws up his hands in resignation.
Sometimes Boylan could erupt. In an interview on these pages in 2001, he admits, ‘I lost the head completely’ when Giles got rough treatment in a challenge match against Dublin.
On a more public stage, as Ireland manager he goes mad on the sideline during the villainous 2006 second Test in a packed Croke Park, when after a week of Australian trash talking targeted at Graham Geraghty and some visceral violence, the player, who in the documentary describes Boylan as 'a father figure', is stretchered off in a grim tableau that effectively spelled the end of the international series' halcyon days.
The end came for him as it comes for everyone but as Meath faltered, the loyalty of his teams remained intact and no former player sought for the job while he was there.
There’s a striking hint of Seán Boylan’s major asset as a manager, something that underpinned the energy, the tactical acumen and the ability to motivate: a humility that paradoxically made him comfortable and secure.
“You mightn’t be able to do things as good as other people,” he says, “but don’t be afraid not to be as good as other people. Just be yourself and be the best you can.”
Bradley’s documentary isn’t a run-of-play sports story, laying out big matches stitched together with anecdotes. But nobody interested in football is going to have a problem with that.
– Seán: the unexpected King of the Royals is on RTÉ 1 this Thursday, August 6th at 10.10 pm.