GAA Football

Down team-mates devastated by Eamonn Burns' sudden death: Conor Deegan

Eamonn Burns died suddenly on Wednesday afternoon

DOWN’S Conor Deegan felt “numb” and “devastated” after reading a WhatsApp group message informing him of the sudden death of former Mourne team-mate Eamonn Burns on Wednesday afternoon.

Deegan had just returned to the changing rooms after watching a Queen’s Freshers game and couldn’t believe what he was reading.

“My phone was in my bag and we came in after the game and I was just taking off my boots. We’ve a WhatsApp group [former Down players] and I read the message from DJ Kane,” Deegan said.

“To say I’m numb isn’t even close. We are absolutely destroyed. We were together only a few weeks ago down in Croke Park and there he was.

“I was speaking to him on Sunday night. Unfortunately, my club [Downpatrick] and his club [Bryansford] are at the bottom of the table. I remember him walking up the side of the Downpatrick pitch and we shared a joke. That’s the last time I seen him.”

Down GAA was left reeling after the news broke of Burns’ sudden passing at lunchtime on Wednesday, aged 56.

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Burns was an established member of the Down panel when Deegan was drafted into Pete McGrath’s set-up and occupied one of the midfield berths alongside Gregory McCartan in their triumphant march to the 1994 All-Ireland title, with Burns moving to wing half-back.

“The whole thing was seamless,” Deegan said. “Eamonn was there when I first came onto the panel,” Deegan said.

“He always would have looked out for you, he loved a laugh, loved a joke. Ross [Carr], DJ [Kane] and Eamonn would have been great pals, they would have soldiered all the way through.

“He was a big guy, a fit man. I remember the All-Ireland weekend and he was singing away. It’s just devastation. I can only imagine what Ross and DJ are going through at the moment.”

Deegan was scheduled to take charge of his first competitive game as manager of Queen’s on Wednesday but the Ryan Cup game against St Mary’s was postponed as a mark of respect to Burns.

Deegan always admired Burns’ “phenomenal engine” during the early-to-mid-90s and marvelled at his two famous points in the 1991 All-Ireland final against Meath.

“He could run the midfield,” he said. “By Christ, that man could power up and down the field.

“He scored two points against Meath in the ‘91 final. I don’t think he scored two points in his life. What is it they say? ‘I’d rather remember you and smile than remember you and be cross.”

Deegan, who has picked up a wealth of managerial experience both in Dublin and his native Down, was full of admiration for Burns when he decided to take the Down reins following the controversial departure of Jim McCorry at the end of the 2015 season.

In his one season in charge, McCorry delivered an unlikely Division One promotion before losing back-to-back Championship games to Derry and Wexford.

With the squad ravaged by absenteeism for the 2016 season, few people expressed an interest in the vacancy until Burns was persuaded to take it on.

As expected, Down dropped into Division Two but the squad rallied the following year and reached the 2017 Ulster final, the high point of which was that unforgettable Saturday evening in The Athletic Grounds when they slayed favourites Monaghan in a pulsating semi-final.

“He took the county team on when it wasn’t fashionable,” Deegan said. “Nothing was ever about Eamonn; there was no ego with him. He just cared about the county. It’s hard to believe we’ll never see him again.”

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