GAA Football

John Morrison was a coach loved and admired across many counties

Then Monaghan manager John Morrison with his players after a Ladies' NFL game against Cork in 2014 Picture by Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

EVEN the legend that was John Morrison could not live forever – but happy memories of the man will always remain with all who had the pleasure of meeting him.

The former Antrim football manager, better known as a coach with his native Armagh, Derry, Donegal, Leitrim, Mayo, and many other sides, has passed away, but the tears will be mingled with much laughter.

Tales will be told, and re-told - and they'll still only scratch the surface.

One county website briefly killed him off a few years ago after an admittedly serious health scare, but ‘Beefer’ bounced back. ‘Thinking outside the box’ indeed.

Although he was waiting for a heart operation, his death still came as a shock to his many, many friends. John seemed indestructible, immortal.

Idiosyncratic, iconoclastic, individual, inspirational too. John Morrison was so much more than those sorts who tell you ‘There’s no ‘I’ in team’.

Knowledge

The burly body presumably brought him that nickname; the brain he developed himself, and he then passed on his knowledge far and wide.

A coach, an author of training manuals and articles, a columnist, with this paper in the past, and with the ‘Ulster Gazette’ and ‘Gaelic Life’, he loved to communicate, in person and in print.

He took no persuading to get involved with Armagh, recalls Jim McCorry, who brought Morrison in to assist him as senior football manager in the early 90s, “It wasn’t, take a breath and think about it; it was ‘Absolutely, Jim. When do you want to meet? Let’s plan this out and let’s move forward’.

McCorry still used the present tense when he spoke about John yesterday: “He’d been in ill-health but he was his usual oul’ self when I saw him recently and was doing well.

Positive

“John’s probably the most positive person you could ever speak to. Whenever you speak to him about health issues it’s like talking to him about football – nothing is ever a problem to him.

“I’m very, very sad indeed to lose such a great friend and a great person. I think everyone who knew John was mighty impressed with him.

“His character was so distinctive – he always had a joke for you and a laugh, but when it came to giving you a bit of good advice, I know I got plenty over the years, even recently with me re-joining the Armagh set-up. We were out for dinner recently for a catch-up.

Family

“More importantly, he’ll be missed by his family, including his beloved grandchildren.” John’s pride at one of his sons, Patrick, being an Armagh goalkeeper in recent years was evident.

“It’s a big, sad loss to the GAA family as well,” says McCorry. “He was known from one corner of Ireland to the other. His coaching was second-to-none. Everyone wanted to hear the latest coaching techniques.

“Some would have laughed at some things he came out with. I think he did that deliberately to get a rise out of people. But in terms of output and outcome, he always got the players to do exactly what was required to become better.

“Many will look back and say they became better players because of him – and better people as well, because he was a very, very genuine, straight person. You knew where you stood with John.”

Teacher

A teacher both by profession and by nature, Morrison helped with the process that took Armagh from laughing stock to All-Ireland Champions in 2002, remembered by the victorious captain and current senior boss, as McCorry points out:

“Kieran [McGeeney] still talks about him now, the change in culture and attitude, how we trained, how we went about it, didn’t get the full success we needed.

“John brought new training techniques and was always building up confidence in players. He’s going to be a big, big miss for all of us.”

Off-the-wall

His off-the-wall methods didn’t always achieve success, but they are still remembered fondly, like the man himself.

Thirteen years ago tomorrow the Mayo senior footballers had a Valentine’s Dinner and received a card from ‘SAMantha’ telling them that they were ‘meant to be’, as John and Mickey Moran set their sights on winning the All-Ireland with the westerners.

They went all the way to the final before being thrashed by a terrific Kerry team but David Brady, who came off the bench that day said that Morrison `came to Mayo as a stranger and left a legacy of much more than just football’.

A great clubman with Armagh Harps, a former player, manager, Chairman, and Hall of Fame inductee, he was known and loved much further afield.

No matter how early you arrived at the Athletic Grounds, John would always be sitting in the press-box, turning to greet incomers with a warm smile and a cheery comment.

John thought deeply about the mental side of the game too. Some might have said he was ‘mental’ himself; he would have laughed – and then probably agreed with that assessment.

'Managers'

‘Beefer’ was self-assured without ever being arrogant, as McCorry recalled: “He would send me through his article every week for the paper [the Ulster Gazette], we’d have some texts back and forth on it, although he didn’t need any input from anybody, he was so sound and secure in his footballing views – and I don’t think many people could question him.

“Even last week’s one, he was talking about the time me and him were ‘managers’; I was manager and he was assistant but it was always we were ‘managers’, we laughed at that. We were joint in everything we did, went through an awful lot of re-structuring.”

Humour was one of his many assets, as a means to improve, but there was huge intelligence behind the joking, built on degrees in sports management, sports psychology and coaching, education management, geology, and accountancy.

He revelled in one literally captive audience, as a coach with prisoners in the Maze/ Long Kesh, but anyone who knew him would have freely sought out his company.

He loved to play, including lining out for Glenavon FC, but McCorry says: “He had a reputation on the soccer field as well as the Gaelic field but his strength was as a coach, not only with his own county.”

Mickey Moran

Morrison became best-known on the inter-county scene for working alongside Mickey Moran, with Donegal, then Derry, then Mayo, and finally Leitrim.

“I’m sure Mickey Moran will be very, very sad,” said McCorry. “John spoke very highly of Mickey, they were a partnership.

“Mickey and he would have travelled a lot of miles together, as did John and I. There were manys a long chat about family and football, but when you were having the craic with John the time went very quickly. I don’t think there would have been much silence in the car.

“Even when we went our separate ways he was always available for a chat on anything you wanted to talk about.

“We did a lot of Ulster Council coaching too, making presentations. He’ll be a big loss there. He put hundreds of people through Ulster Council programmes – and coached thousands of players.

“There’ll be an awful lot of people very sad, but also appreciative of what he did for them, as a player and as a person.”

To alter the description of Lord Byron, John Morrison was ‘Mad, good, and wonderful to know’. RIP, Beefer.

 

** Brendan Devenney, former Donegal footballer

“Brilliant memories, I kinda loved the guy. People talk about ‘a one-off character’ – certainly in my time there has never been anybody like John, he was a very special person. He did so much when he was in Donegal along with Mickey. A really kind person.

“I always remember Mickey landing up to our disastrous Drumboe training and the two of them straightaway said ‘We’re not training here, we couldn’t take a team here’. Lucky for us Castlefinn had a good sandy pitch because they were all about the ball.

“For me, working around the north, John had gained a reputation as a wee bit too ‘out there’ for some people that he’d coached previously – but we in Donegal absolutely loved him.

“If he was a bit of off-the-wall, then so be it – so were most of us. I got on the best with him.

“His pre-match talks were something you would look forward to. He’d go away off on one, nothing to do with football at all, and then bring it back to the game in hand. I remember Mickey a few times, before Championship games, saying ‘How do you follow that boys?! Let’s go!’

“Every time you met him he was always smiling. There’s a lot to be said for guys like that. He was always someone you’d be glad to meet.”

Devenney remembers John’s emotional intelligence too: “He had real depth, he’d be thinking things out. He had great awareness too, he would know if you weren’t right, if you were under pressure, and he’d have a word with you. Not everybody had that in them, which was why I had such time for him.

“As well as that, his philosophy of playing football was exciting, fast. Although Donegal at that time were kind of a ‘nearly’ team, a lot of people liked us because of the way we played. The two boys always wanted entertaining football.

“I had massive time for John – all the Donegal lads had.”

 

Twitter tributes to John Morrison

Kevin Cassidy, Gweedore and former Donegal footballer:

Another sad phone call to get this morning. Since I first met him in 2002 he has been with me every step of the way since. And my last text message from him was his instructions for me to carry out in the game on Saturday. What a man!! Truly once in a lifetime sort of guy.

Kevin Madden, Irish News columnist and former Antrim footballer:

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