'I absolutely love the game - I get up every morning thinking about the game': Why the fire still burns bright for Seamus 'Banty' McEnaney
Ten years ago Seamus McEnaney was helping establish Monaghan as a force to be reckoned with on the senior stage, and tomorrow he will lead the next generation of Farney stars into battle at Croke Park. In the middle of a busy week, the Corduff man sat down with Neil Loughran to talk risks, ruthlessness and reward...
A SCATTERING of blue and white flags flutter from lampposts as cars jockey for position on the main street in Carrickmacross, busy even early on a Wednesday morning. There’s bunting hanging here and there too, but no sign of any painted cars or decorated livestock.
In just four days’ time Monaghan will appear in a first All-Ireland semi-final for 30 years. And before Malachy O’Rourke’s men run out at Croke Park, the Farney minors will have contested a last four clash for only the second time in the county’s history.
These are heady days for Monaghan, whose faithful followers will descend upon Dublin in their droves for tomorrow’s double-header. Yet, despite all the expected excitement and anticipation, a mood of quiet understatement prevails.
There will be no grand send-offs here, no hotel rooms booked for September 2. Instead candles are lit and rosaries offered.
Tucked away in a corner of the Homebake Café, far from the hustle and bustle of the main thoroughfare, Seamus McEnaney sits at a table with friends Ken and OJ, deep in conversation.
The frys will be finished, the pots of tea emptied, but not yet.
Debate buzzes back and forth, everything from the Farney county’s chances against Tyrone to club rivalries, Twitter spats and wider issues affecting the GAA.
The hullaballoo that surrounded the tribute match for late Republic of Ireland soccer player Liam Miller, and particularly the reaction to it from some quarters, still has McEnaney’s back up a couple of weeks on.
“Absolutely, the right decision was made in the end, and it could have been handled a lot better from a PR point of view,” he says.
And then, with a thump of the table, the fuse catches fire.
“But how dare the likes of Damien Duff and Stephen Kenny start calling people in the GAA dinosaurs. They should be ashamed they hadn’t anywhere suitable to host the match themselves.
“Stephen Kenny’s togging out in a portacabin a few weeks ago with Dundalk and they’re taking pot-shots at the GAA? How dare they.”
McEnaney, known only by his nickname ‘Banty’ around these parts, is seldom sat still as he flits between full engagement and total distraction. One minute he’s leaning forward, eyes wide, arms animated.
The next second the phone rings and he’s away.
“I had a country music festival here at the Fiddler’s Elbow last weekend - Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday. My young buck John has three places in Drogheda; the Fleadh starts in Drogheda next Sunday and we have eight nights in-a-row, jammed to the rafters I hope.
“I’m on top of my head business-wise, and I do a bit of farming as well.”
And then there’s the football.
Eight years after his time in charge of the Monaghan seniors came to an abrupt end, and following stints in Meath and Wexford, the Corduff clubman returned to take charge of the county minors, leading them to the Ulster title and into tomorrow’s All-Ireland semi-final clash with five in-a-row chasing Kerry.
Business calls aside, his phone is red hot with requests for tickets, while a steady stream of well-wishers send their best across the café’s low din as they make their exit.
“I suppose with my business here everybody’s going to be phoning you - hold on, I have to take this…”
The phone is pressed to his ear again.
“Yes… yes… for yourself is it? You’ve only the blue coat? Okay okay, no problem.”
Backroom team members looking sorted out for gear is now added to the list.
With so much going on, most men would be a ball of stress. But it is weeks like this that ‘Banty’ lives for. Ever since he started lifting glasses in the Mart Bar as an 11 year old, he has become used to being a man in demand.
By 19 he owned his first bar and in 2000 sold a car, a tractor and 150 cattle to buy the Fiddler’s Elbow, the popular restaurant and nightclub in Carrickmacross, along with his brothers and brothers-in-law. It was an opportunity he felt they couldn’t pass up.
But when the recession bit, it bit hard.
“Thankfully business is going well again now but from 2008 to probably 2015, it was tough to stay in business, very tough.
“All that was going when I was at Meath too when the shit was hitting the fan; the real shit was hitting the fan on the ground too. You get battle-hardened.
“I’ve always tried to look at the positive side of things and in a situation like that, if you’re doing four days a week, you get back doing seven days.
“What else can you do? You just have to roll up the sleeves and get on with it.”
THERE were certain experiences in business that helped when it came to inter-county management, although early lessons had already been learned during his first spell in charge of the club’s senior team years previous.
McEnaney felt a new broom was needed when he took up the post in 1998. Aged 30, there were players older than him in the changing room, but a message was sent out early that the previous culture of indiscipline – both on and off the field – was to be no more.
He introduced a rule that there would be no drink eight days before league and championship matches, and the night before their first league outing a major test presented itself.
His brother Frank, the Corduff captain, and one of their best players, George McKittrick, went for a night out in Dundalk. Locking up the pub that night, ‘Banty’ got wind of their indiscretion.
The next day he dropped the pair of them. Statement made.
Corduff went on to win the Monaghan intermediate title and would play senior football for the first time in the club’s history.
“The players knew then the party was over.
“If you bring in disciplinary rules, you have to be ruthless on it if you want to change the mindset. But you have to time your run, and early on is the time to strike.
“You set the standard about dress code, punctuality, discipline, and if anybody steps outside that standard he has to go out through the door for you to have the impact you need to have. It’s the same in business.
“Ruthless, but fair – that’s the key.”
And when he took over the county team in the autumn of 2004, he felt a similar approach was required. Here was a team capable of toppling the great Armagh the year after their All-Ireland triumph, but who could just as easily blow up against counties they were expected to beat.
Something had to change, but change did not come easily.
“When I came in we had a serious bad culture of indiscipline.
“I remember years when you’d have had men drunk before games, they’d been out to maybe four or five in the morning. In some cases they wouldn’t even turn up.
“I met a few challenges that first year, quite a few challenges, but I dealt with them. I let a few players out the door.
“I was lucky because I had two great people I could talk to every Monday morning because we were in different divisions; Eamonn Coleman, Lord have mercy on him, and Joe Kernan.
“In 2005 we were no threat to Joe or Armagh in any shape or form, so I could ask them advice – ‘this happened last week, what do you think…’
“I remember ringing Coleman and saying ‘Eamonn, we were supposed to train in Donaghmoyne on Sunday evening and two particular players didn’t show up’. I’d heard where they were in between. Because of my job, I know everything – I hear everything! Even now.
“So Coleman says to me,” recalls McEnaney, screwing up his face before delivering a pitch-perfect impression of the man who led Derry to the promised land 25 years ago, “‘tell me Banty… do you think you’re going to win the All-Ireland this year?’
“I said ‘no Eamonn, we’ll not win it this year, we haven’t the tools – but I will win one with them’.
“And he says, I can still hear him now… ‘the hatchet so’.”
Tea cups shake as he springs back from his seat, roaring with laughter.
“I was only looking someone to confirm my thinking, and he duly obliged.”
Within 12 months, McEnaney had Monaghan moving in the direction he wanted.
“By then I didn’t hardly have to say anything because you have statesmen there, the likes of Vinny Corey, Damien Freeman, brilliant leaders.”
Trainer Martin McElkennon was brought on board in 2006 in a deliberate attempt to add a bit more steel, similar to that enjoyed by a crowd of boys across the border who had managed to land Sam the previous summer.
“I needed to bring a Tyrone influence into my dressing room.
“Do you want to call it toughness? Hardness? Cynicism? Dark arts? Call it what you like, but I needed it.”
Monaghan were now a serious force to be reckoned with and the key to their success then, as it is now under Malachy O’Rourke, was the ability to call upon all the best players in the country and eke every drop from them.
“You have to look after players. To get the best out of players, they have to be looked after. They’re the jewel in the crown, no matter what team you’re managing.
“It’s the manager’s responsibility to get the best players playing, it’s the manager’s responsibility to make sure everyone within that group is happy.
“I remember me, in 2010, going to a player’s house to meet the wife and make sure I could give commitments - baby-sitting commitments and whatever else went along with it - to make sure I got that player back to play.
“Another time I sent a player and his wife away for a weekend to get the wife to convince him to come back. These are just the things you have to do.”
In 2007 they reached the Ulster final, narrowly losing out to the Red Hands, and pushed eventual All-Ireland champions Kerry right to the edge in the last eight.
Yet that breakthrough continued to elude them in an era when the twin towers of Armagh and Tyrone remained the dominant forces at provincial level.
Kerry just got across the line when they met again in 2008, two defeats to Derry did the damage in 2009 and another Ulster final date with Tyrone in 2010 ended in disaster as the Farneymen were swept aside.
With young players coming through and Conor McManus beginning to realise the potential that would make him one of the most deadly forwards in the land, McEnaney asked for one more year - but it wasn’t to be.
The request was controversially rebuffed, and Monaghan moved on without him.
HE clears his throat and starts belting out names like a morning roll call. Vinny Corey, Dessie Mone, Darren Hughes, Kieran Hughes, Kieran Duffy, Owen Duffy, Conor McManus, Neil McAdam. Colin Walshe and Drew Wylie in the latter stages.
Pride oozes from every pore as Seamus McEnaney considers how these men he soldiered with now stand on the cusp of greatness. There was no happier man in Clones in 2013 when they finally ended 25 years of hurt.
“Looking back, there’s a sense of satisfaction, an unbelievable sense of enjoyment and there was disappointment. The one thing I would hope I contributed something to was in changing the mindset.
“I was disappointed we didn’t get an Ulster title out of it, no doubt about that, but I was delighted that 70 per cent of my players got an Ulster title in 2013. Absolutely delighted. People say was it bittersweet – it was sweet-sweet for me.
“The only bitter part for me was the men who didn’t get them – John Paul Mone, Damien Freeman, Gary McQuaid, Dermot McArdle, Rory Woods, Shane Duffy, Colm Flanagan; these were brilliant players.”
Freeman, now a member of his minor backroom team as they prepare for their own date with destiny, has been there through it all with McEnaney – and occasionally chides his former boss that he is mellowing with age.
“The line of business I’m in helps me greatly. I’m working with 19, 20-year-olds all my life, so I know the way the trends go.
“Damien will say to me the odd time if I let something slip with these boys ‘you’re getting soft to yourself’. Things like white boots, which would have been a 100 per cent no-no with the team I managed from 2004-2010. Coloured hair…
“I remember Darren Hughes came in as a youngster in 2007 or 2008 with a new pair of white boots and it wasn’t long until they were in the bin.
“I’m not saying it’s right, it’s just my way. If a fella comes in with dyed hair or new boots the week of a game, I’m wondering where his head is – it’s in the stand. Straight away I’m thinking if he’s not going well early in the game, he might have to be chucked.”
Any Monaghan minors reading this may well be advised to dig out the old black boots before they board the bus tomorrow morning.
These are the days of their young lives, but so too for the familiar figure who will be prowling the lines, fists curled, chest out, driving on the next generation from the Farney production line.
“I absolutely love the game - I get up every morning thinking about the game. It is special when it’s your own lads, no doubt, but if you want to be an inter-county manager for a long period, very few people will get the opportunity Mickey Harte has got or Brian Cody – and they’re entitled to them because they’ve won All-Irelands and they’ve come with two or three different teams.
“Coming home from Galway last weekend my wife asked me would I have liked to have been involved and I said there’s nowhere else in this world I’d have rather been than on that line on a day like that. What a performance, and what an occasion that was.
“For anybody who wants to be a manager, it’s on days like that when you feel alive. And then when you lose you feel like you don’t want to get out of bed for three days!
“But days like this, with these boys, an All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry, that’s what you get up in the morning for.”