Belfast Telegraph

Tony awards will keep on coming

The difficulty in framing the story of Tony McEntee's life in football is the jump-off point. There is no real beginning and even in stepping down from the Crossmaglen manager's job, his work is far from done.

It is said that some footballers' sideboards groan under the weight of their silverware, but consider the text that Tony sent a journalist when asked how much he and brother John had won by the time they retired from inter-county football back in 2007.

Four All-Ireland club, five Ulster club, 12 Armagh senior club, five Under-21 club, 1 minor club, one Ulster Óg Sport, one Community Games All-Ireland, one All-Ireland county senior, one national league, five Ulsters, one Ryan Cup with the university. That's most of them, I think.'

That haul would require the installment of a mezzanine level, never mind a sideboard.

After they were done playing county football, they soldiered on with the club but knew the right time to step back. While Enda McNulty warmed up along the line during a national league game for Armagh in Crossmaglen in 2009, it was Tony who came over and told him to let it go.

His departure as manager of Crossmaglen along with Gareth O'Neill was not unexpected. Again, his timing was exemplary.

When they took over as a management team, expectations were low. Pearse Óg had just beaten them in a close game in the Armagh Championship. Teenagers from Cross had never witnessed such a phenomenon.

John was retiring. John Donaldson had called time. Cathal Short and Francie were fading out of the picture. Johnny Murtagh would soon head away for work.

Cross were looking for nothing more than a sensible man to guide their youngsters through in the right way. What they got was three county titles, three Ulster titles and two All-Irelands. Incredible.

Since the announcement, it was said that Tony intimated that this chapter of his life is over. He will not be back as senior manager, and he has no interest in becoming manager of Armagh.

Himself and Gareth will now go and concentrate on bringing the next cycle of superstars; the Aarons and Jamies and Oisíns through to become Crossmaglen players. There is a beautiful symmetry to how the circle will be completed when that happens.

Although he has no need to prove himself as manager of his county, the idea of him not rising to the challenge of inter-county management at some stage, seems absurd. In the past, he has chosen to kick for touch when asked if he was interested, memorably stating last summer that he felt he did not have enough experience as a manager to go for the role.

How many times have you heard of a manager taking the reins of a county only after it was put to him by a third party? This is the way it will be with McEntee.

His keen tactical brain would thrive in that arena.

Joe Kernan has admitted in the past that when he put his stamp on the Crossmaglen and then later Armagh teams, it was a mixture of fist-passing and then long diagonal balls. Quite often, the man hitting that diagonal ball was Tony.

When Tony became Cross manager, he looked at the playbook and football trends that were en vogue and rebelled against it. He decided that Cross would win through a kicking game, but first he would have to educate his team in making runs and finding space.

He would bring Cross back to their traditions, only this was a souped-up 2.0 version for the 21st century. It was a revolutionary, rather than retrograde step.

Those who would put themselves in the bracket of 'traditionalists' loved them for it because it resembled something they recalled in their mind's eye, but is far more complex in reality.

In conversation once about defensive systems, Tony expressed his surprise that Dublin went from a kick-passing game that tore Tyrone to shreds in the 2011 All-Ireland quarter-final, to one that played into Donegal's hands in the semi-final when they erected a defensive wall.

While he will not agitate for the role of Armagh manager, that door will open for him some day. A few years back, before he took the Cross job, the twins approached the Armagh county board with an idea of taking two dozen players just below county standard, and bringing them up to scratch.

They wanted nothing in return, but they were turned down.

Perhaps it was revolutionary at the time and the board got cold feet. Either way, they now operate a system just like it, entitled the 'Armagh Academy'. He was ahead of his time back then.

And he will be back. Winners crave a challenge.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph