GAA Football

'A man of integrity. A man of dignity' - Pete McGrath on Eamonn Burns

Pete McGrath was the manager who guided the county to All-Ireland wins in 1991 and 1994. He recalls the immense contribution that Eamonn Burns made to those teams and pays tribute to the man behind the jersey...

The Down 1994 team pictured earlier this year at a reunion dinner at the Canal Court Hotel, with Eamonn Burns pictured far left in the middle row.

APART from being an outstanding natural footballer, the two words I’d associate with Éamonn Burns are integrity and dignity.

The news of his death is just so sad and sudden. Devastating, really.

The last time I was speaking to him was the drawn All-Ireland final, when we were down with the jubilee team. He was just himself that day.

Eamonn was quiet, reserved to a point, and even as part of that ’91 and ’94 team and all those days and occasions, Eamonn was never shocking vocal. But when he said something, people listened.

He was easy going and always in control of his emotions. That team had the whole kaleidoscope of personalities, and you need that in any team. You’d those who were fiery, those who were very driven, those who were more composed and nearly sedate.

Eamonn was somewhere in between. Whenever he had to be fired up, he was fired up. But a lot of the time, he was very measured in his approach in terms of looking at the big picture.

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His finest hour was the ’91 final against Meath. He really came into his own that day. The athleticism, the workrate. He scored two points from play.

It was a real cauldron. Meath threw everything at us. The whole team rose to the occasion, but Eamonn really stood out.

It was his finest performance in a Down jersey in my view, and he produced it on the biggest day.

Eamonn was versatile, and he was athletic. For a big man, he was light on his feet. He glided over the ground and he was a very natural footballer.

The way he carried himself on the field, there was nothing manufactured about him.

His kicking, his fetching, his high fielding, his vision – he was the type of player you didn’t have to coach a lot. He’d no flaws to his game, and it came very naturally to him.

He ended up at wing-half back on the ’94 team. He got a serious foot injury in the semi-final against Cork that year and it was a race against time to get him ready for the final. But the fact that he was such a naturally athletic player, he was never a doubt to start. He played very well on the day as well in ’94.

I think of that year and the position we were all in after the ’93 season when Derry beat us in the Marshes and we had to face them again the following year.

Eamonn Burns was one of the players that decided ‘right, we have a serious amount of work to do over the winter to get ourselves ready for Celtic Park’. Like other senior members, he led the way that spring in terms of the ferocious training they went through, particularly in the mountains above Rostrevor. He was one of the men who led from the front.

Prior to the Derry game, we went for a training weekend to Waterfoot in Antrim, to the De La Salle Brothers’ house. Weekends away then were quite unprecedented.

When we beat Monaghan in the Ulster semi-final, the day after the Loughinisland massacre, we did a light training session the next night in Rostrevor. I remember Eamonn coming to me very purposely saying ‘Pete, we need to get back up to north Antrim before this Ulster final’.

He wanted to us to get back up to north Antrim out of the way. I told him we had it taken care of, but that was the only time I remember Eamonn coming offering advice in that way.

The foot injury that he got in ’94 did come back to haunt him a bit. We were in the Ulster final in ’96 and Barry Breen had gone by that stage, Eamonn was more or less gone by injury, and Aidan Farrell was sort of out of the picture.

People ask could Down not have won more, and we maybe could have if those players hadn’t succumbed to injuries. Today, those injuries could almost have been dealt with, but there wasn’t the same expertise then and his career did come to a bit of a premature end because of it.

There’s no doubt he took on the job of manager at a difficult time. Under Jim McCorry, the team got promotion to Division One and you’re looking at the team knowing in your soul they’re not ready for Division One. Everyone in Down knew that.

Nevertheless, they found themselves there and it was a very difficult first season for him. But the fact he got them to an Ulster final the following year, beating Armagh and Monaghan, was a tribute to his perseverance.

He did everything humanly possible for Down football over those three seasons.

The win over Monaghan was a game that very few people gave Down any chance of winning.

Éamonn wasn’t one for showing his emotion a lot of the time but because of all the frustration and disappointment and the hard times he had the previous season, all those things came out on the final whistle that night. He deserved that night in Armagh.

I’m still trying to process the fact that he’s gone. But when something like that happens, you look back on great days. It’s poignant that the team was due at the county final on Sunday to be presented to the crowd, given that this is 25 years since ’94.

The last time I saw Eamonn was the day of the All-Ireland final replay, walking on the footpath down past the Skylon towards Croke Park.

Cathal and Thomas were at training for Bryansford last night. It’s very sad for those young fellas, to lose a father so young, and an iconic father at that. I extend my deepest sympathies to Sinead, the boys and the entire family.

A lot of people will be very saddened and shocked in county Down this morning, and will feel we’ve lost a man who has contributed so much to Down football over this last quarter of a century.

A man of integrity. A man of dignity.

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