'We've always felt we were lucky as a group because we'd a really good bunch of lads, we had such good fun and Eamonn was in the middle of it all'
WHEN he thinks back, there was barely a step along the way that Eamonn Burns wasn’t part of.
The Bryansford man was already an established member of Pete McGrath’s Down side by the time goalkeeper Neil Collins joined the panel, and the pair were often side by side thereafter.
Both had huge parts to play in the All-Ireland successes of 1991 and ’94, but even beyond those trophy-laden playing days their lives have intertwined over the course of the past 30 years.
Whether it was on the course at Mourne Golf Club, in the bar for a quick post-round pint, or plotting how to improve the county’s fortunes when Collins was coach and selector to Burns the Down manager, their journeys have been inextricably linked from the earliest of days.
“I’m absolutely devastated,” said Collins in the hours after his former team-mate’s passing.
“There’s been a lot of phone calls between ourselves. DJ [Kane] rang to tell me… it’s unbelievable. Eamonn wasn’t just a team-mate but a very close friend
“We both live in Newcastle, I played golf with him, know the family very well – I’m just devastated for Sinead, Cathal and Thomas.
“The two lads would’ve been at training when Eamonn was Down manager and I was a selector with them. They came to training and to matches, I’ve known them since they were no age… I just can’t take it in.”
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From his station between the posts, where he made a game-defining penalty save to deny Dublin’s Charlie Redmond in the ’94 decider, Collins could appreciate more than most the part Burns played in that unforgettable era.
“Eamonn had a wonderful playing career - he was a great footballer.
“He played midfield in ’91 and scored two magnificent points, particularly the second one where Greg Blaney, as per usual, drifted inside and pulled a couple of Meath defenders with him.
“Eamonn made a brilliant overlapping run, Greg popped it off to him and he split the posts with the outside of his boot – it was a super score, and summed up what that team was about really.
“He moved to wing half-back in ’94, got a bad knock in the semi-final against Cork and was touch and go for the final, but he made it and again went out and delivered again.”
Off the field, Collins has only fond memories of time spent in Burns’s company, and recalls a man who was completely comfortable in his own skin when surrounded by friends and team-mates.
He added: “Eamonn was one of the quieter guys in the dressing room but one who demanded of others and would throw things forward.
“He went on to be a very good coach and manager… he was just an absolute gentleman with a brilliant, dry sense of humour who loved to be in the middle of the nonsense that went on in dressing rooms.
“He was actually one of life’s great storytellers, a great man for holding court when we were there or when he was with friends in the golf club or wherever.
“Even in the management team he was always on the wind up… just a great lad who will be sorely, sorely missed.”
It was only last month, over All-Ireland final weekend, that the class of ’94 were celebrated on the same sod where they had downed the Dubs.
That gathering ran over the course of a couple of memorable days, old friends reunited, reliving the best days of their lives.
“It was such a brilliant, relaxed weekend – I haven’t laughed as much in ages,” said Collins.
“It’s funny, one of my favourite photographs is of us from behind as we paraded under the Hill in ’91, a sea of red and black in front of us - and there’s Eamonn scratching his ass. We used to give him dog’s abuse about that.
“But we had great craic with each other that weekend. We’ve always felt we were lucky as a group because we’d a really good bunch of lads, we had such good fun and Eamonn was in the middle of it all as usual.”