Brendan Crossan: John Morrison's legacy was one of generosity and warmth
THE last time I saw John Morrison was in the Athletic Grounds press box a couple of months ago.
Good seats are hard to come by in the claustrophobic press room at the back of the main stand.
But John always had the best seat in the house: Right, bang, centre. The early bird catches the worm – and John was always up early.
I’d mentioned to him that day about doing a proper sit-down interview on his life.
He didn’t say anything; he just smiled back at me.
I wrote on our sports desk WhatsApp group I was planning to interview John Morrison over the coming weeks. You could imagine a thousand stories John could tell about his experiences in football.
Of course, the impossible challenge was trying to squeeze his life into 2,500 words.
In all likelihood, the interview would have to run across two consecutive days in order to do the man justice. While a daunting prospect I looked forward to visiting him in early March.
The headline was already written: ‘John Morrison: a life lived.’
A few years back John had suffered a minor stroke.
Around that time, one of our telephone conversations started off talking about football and the upcoming Ulster Championship.
But with John the conversation could shoot off in any direction at any time, and you’d enjoy the ride.
I enquired about his recent health scare and happened to mention to him a health complaint I had.
I didn’t profess to know John intimately but the conversation was always easy. You felt you could talk to him about anything from physics to an upcoming hospital appointment.
John was knowledgeable about most things and he knew a bit about my health complaint.
Thankfully, it wasn’t serious; nothing a few dietary tweaks couldn’t sort out.
Over the next few weeks I received three telephone calls and a few texts from John asking how I was doing.
He offered me bits of advice, not in a preachy kind of way.
I remember coming off the phone thinking that John Morrison was way more generous than me.
In fact, he was way more generous than most people.
There were times he’d ring and I simply didn’t have 40 minutes to spare. It was never anything less with John.
“I’ll ring you back, John.”
The most generous thing you can give is your time. John gave it in spades.
“Technique was everything to him,” says former Armagh captain Ciaran McKeever, whom John mentored in more recent times.
“When I retired and decided to go down the coaching route I was doing my Level Three GAA management course and I regularly would have called to John’s house for a cup of tea for him to look through my stuff and pick his brains.
“He was a great, great help to me. A half hour cup of tea would turn into two hours! We’d be walking around his living room and him showing me how to strip the ball off an opponent.”
John nailed the essence of coaching a long time ago.
Known as the Man of Phrases, he once said: “Players don’t care what you know until they know you care.”
If there was a piece I’d written that he liked, he’d send a text or lift the phone to dish out his warm praise. Here was a man of boundless knowledge and intellect praising me.
Sitting beside him occasionally in the Athletic Grounds press box was an education.
He didn’t give you a running commentary of the action in front of us.
He’d speak sparingly but incisively - and some of his thoughts probably found their way into my match reports the following day.
He was a prolific writer too and posted me several of his coaching books and WhatsApp’d his weekly Gazette articles on occasion.
A lot of what John said about football made you think. He approached a subject from a different angle than the rest of us.
It’s part of the human condition to complicate common sense. One of John’s greatest skills was being able to strip away the nonsense and present theories and tactics as they should be: clear and simple.
Antrim footballer Patrick McBride only encountered John Morrison a few times but on each occasion he left a lasting impression.
When former boss Frank Dawson got John up to give a talk to the Antrim players, McBride recalls: “He was doing stuff in that session that I’d see a couple of years later.”
More recently, Gearoid Adams asked him to come up and take a session with the Antrim footballers.
“It was one of those sessions that stays with you," says McBride. "A random one was he had us tackling with tennis balls.
“Sometimes you can tackle and pick up bad habits, grabbing people’s arms and giving fouls away. But with tennis balls, he said you’d concentrate more on the ball and your tackling was more focused on timing. It was all about technique with John.”
A couple of seasons ago, I covered the Armagh senior football championship final between Armagh Harps and Maghery.
Maghery were favourites to retain their crown but the Harps edged it thanks largely to the near-perfect performance of goalkeeper Patrick Morrison, John’s son.
With his unique two-step run-up, Patrick was the consummate quarter-back that afternoon, calmly pinging balls with unerring accuracy to his 'wide receivers' before making an unbelievable one-handed save to deny Ben Crealey in the closing stages.
I heaped praise on Patrick's performance in the following day’s match report. John was on the phone first thing, thanking me for my kind words about his son.
“He deserved it, John,” I said. “Patrick was awesome.”
There wasn’t a prouder father in Ireland that week.
A short time later, I interviewed Patrick.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. It was just like talking to John himself.
“There’s an old saying about the sculptor and the piece of stone,” explained Patrick.
“Everyone says to the sculptor that it was brilliant how he made that. And the sculptor says: ‘I didn’t do it at all – I just brushed away the hard edges.’
“So the game is there – the coaching and coaching development brushes away those rough edges and makes the game what it is.
“If you do something this way, it makes the game better. The game is actually there – we’re just brushing off the rough edges. That’s the way I see it.”
And laughing, he added: “And that’s listening to my da for so long!”
John was an energy-giver, a one-off, a genuine and most generous soul who was a pleasure to know.
I wish he was around to feel the love and affection people across Ireland had for him. And I hope the countless heartfelt tributes will in some way sustain his grieving family during the weeks and months ahead.
It's a real regret of mine that we didn't get around to doing that interview.
“We were privileged to have him on our doorstep in Armagh,” says Ciaran McKeever.
“He was an exceptional man. He was the greatest coach in Ireland.”
The Athletic Grounds press box will be a different place without him.