Sean McCaffrey? He was why Robbie Fowler turned up to play Oriel Celtic
Tipping Point: Our late coach showed us the world was out there. We just had to go get it
Sean McCaffrey: he brought teams from United, Liverpool and Ajax to Monaghan. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Storm Eleanor was clearing her throat last Tuesday as we stamped our feet in the guard of honour for Sean McCaffrey and laughed at the fact that he still had us standing in the cold. We were already swimming in memories since the news came through that he’d died, the previous Saturday, but this took the biscuit. Straight away we were 14 again, shucking on our gear on rain-skittered sidelines in Cavan and Ratoath and Carrick and looking across to see did the other crowd have many big lads.
Sean’s death brought a press release from the FAI in honour of his time as Ireland underage soccer coach and tributes from around the League of Ireland for his various involvements over the years. But to us, proud as we were of what he went on to achieve, Sean McCaffrey meant Oriel Celtic, the youth club he ran in Monaghan town between 1989 and 1998.
You only had to walk inside the door of the cathedral to see it. Dotted throughout the huge congregation were faces of lads aged between 37 and 46. You looked around and all you saw were nicknames: Ginley, Badger, Bunty, Cheesy, Monkey. Everyone older, greyer, balder, doughier, and all of us standing there silently thinking of a time when those words didn’t mean a thing. And of the man up the top in the coffin, who for a while in the mid-1990s meant the world.
I used to think that everyone had a Sean McCaffrey in their life at some stage. But the older I got the more I realised I was just plumb lucky to come across him
I used to think that everyone had a Sean McCaffrey in their life at some stage. It’s nearly a cliche: the Mr Miyagi who gets under your skin at a crucial time and changes you in a way the other adults in your life can’t. But the older I got the more I realised I was just plumb lucky to come across him.
Certainly luckier than he was to come across me. When you’re standing in a funeral crowd two decades later you can’t help but look around at faces and conjure up the player you remember. Ginley was brilliant, never made a mistake. Badger was always in your face, a nightmare for wingers. Cheesy was busy. Monkey was stylish.
Any of them spotting me wouldn’t have come up with those words. “Always came to training,” would have been about the best of it. Sean was always gentle, though, and could make even the most clod-footed trier feel as if they weren’t wasting his time.
He was a brilliant coach. He had a way of simplifying the game and clarifying match situations so it made absolute sense what the right move was. Every so often in training he would give a piercing finger whistle and shout “Freeze!” With everyone rooted to the spot he would ask the player on the ball and the players around him what they intended to do next. You couldn’t lie to him, either: he knew by your body language what was in your head even if you didn’t.
Beyond the technical stuff he was a rocket launcher for possibilities. We were a tiny club in a small town in rural Ireland. We had no pitch, no money, no history. Just Sean and his band of perpetually harassed underlings driving us here and there, packed tight in the back of cars and vans every Saturday.
Look, John Aldridge is retiring and Ireland have nobody to take over from him. If it’s going to be you, you need to get this right
And yet we won heaps of trophies across those nine years, locally, nationally and internationally. He brought underage teams from United, Liverpool, QPR and Ajax over to play in Monaghan. Robbie Fowler, Rafael van der Vaart, Wes Brown and more all had afternoons in what must have seemed beyond the back arse of nowhere, playing a crowd called Oriel Celtic for God knows what reason. Sean McCaffrey was the reason.
One night he was teaching our centre forward a move where he would get the ball with his back to goal, feint to go one way and roll the centre back the other. At one point, when they were both getting ratty, he stopped the play and said: “Look, John Aldridge is retiring and Ireland have nobody to take over from him. If it’s going to be you, you need to get this right.”
We were 15 years old in a cold gym in Monaghan town and he was talking about playing for Ireland. None of us took over from Aldridge or anyone else, but that wasn’t really the point. His point was that the world is out there. Go get it.
A few months before our Leaving Cert we were in his car coming back from planting Christmas trees in Armagh – Sean was a serial entrepreneur, occasionally even a successful one. He asked us what we were all going to do at college. None of us had a clue, least of all me. “You’d be good at doing reports on matches,” he said, catching my eye in the rear-view mirror. It was the first time the thought had entered my head.
Seven years later I was in his living room, waving a dictaphone under his nose to his obvious discomfort and informing him it was his fault that I was there at all. He had just taken over from Brian Kerr as the Ireland under-19 and under-17 manager, and talking to reporters – even one he’d done more than he knew to create – was not his idea of fun.
“I don’t want to be famous,” he said at one point. “This isn’t a stepping stone to anything bigger for me. I hope to still have this job in 15 years. The fame of a bigger job doesn’t interest me. I have no desire to see my name in the paper or get recognised in the street. That’s not what gives me a buzz.
“I get a buzz out of looking around Monaghan and seeing fellas who are in their mid-20s and early 30s with wives and kids and houses, fellas who might have ended up on the wrong side of the law without the bit of football they had when Oriel was going. That’s what I love.”
He was a private man, and as his health failed over the past few years he retreated into himself still further. But, walking alongside his hearse last week, you could only hope that he went to his end having some sense of his impact on so many of us. And that, somewhere along the way, it was a small comfort to him.