GAA Football

Straight-talker Tony McEntee taking a punt with Sligo

Tony McEntee is hoping to push Sligo into the promotion play-offs tomorrow Picture: Hugh Russell

TONY McEntee was polite in his text reply. Sitting him down for an interview at this stage of the season was a non-runner but we’d keep in touch.

A follow-up text asks what he won both as a player and manager. He’s not exactly sure but thinks he won six Ulster titles and one NFL title with Armagh.

He won 12 county championships with Crossmaglen Rangers, but wouldn't be 100 percent on how many Ulsters in a career that straddled the mid-90s and ‘Noughties’ before he and his twin brother John retired in 2009, aged 32.

Remembering the All-Irelands is the easy bit.

One with Armagh (he came on as a 43rd minute substitute against Kerry in ‘02), four as a player with his club, two as joint-manager with Gareth O’Neill and a hat-trick of Ulsters.

After three memorable years working with Stephen Rochford in Mayo (2015 to 2018), he was surprisingly overlooked for a number of inter-county posts.

At different times there was interest from Down, Monaghan, Louth and Antrim – but none of them took the plunge.

“Tony is set for one of the top management jobs,” Oisin McConville says of his club-mate and former manager.

“I know he went for the Monaghan and Antrim jobs and how they overlooked him I do not know.”

In February, Sligo took a punt on him.

Or, to be more accurate, Tony McEntee took a punt on Sligo – a county that dropped into Division Four and played no Championship football in 2020 because of a COVID outbreak.

On McEntee’s managerial debut earlier this month, the Yeats men defeated Leitrim with a bit to spare before succumbing to Antrim at Corrigan Park last Sunday, courtesy of Paddy Cunningham’s last-gasp winner.

Tomorrow in Haggardstown, Dundalk it’s a straight shoot-out between Mickey Harte’s Louth and McEntee’s Sligo to see who joins Antrim in the Division Four promotion play-offs.

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ASK Oisin McConville, Stephen Rochford, Tom Parsons, Johnny Hanratty or Benny Tierney and an easy consensus is reached with regard to Tony McEntee.

Straight-talking. Passionate. Intelligent. Charismatic. A student of Gaelic football. A deep sense of community. And good fun.

It’s a well-worn story at this stage but his forthright nature was never more apparent when Brian McAlinden and Brian Canavan invited Willie Anderson in to talk to the Armagh squad in the late 90s.

Anderson split the players into pairs and asked them to discuss each other’s strengths and weaknesses before reporting back to the group.

Only 19 at the time, Tony McEntee told his partner Marty Toye, a fine player with Armagh for many years, that he could no longer cut it at county level.

“Tony would be straight-talking to the extreme,” McConville smiles. “There’s honesty and then there’s brutal honesty – and Tony is brutally honest.”

Johnny Hanratty, who played alongside and under McEntee at ’Cross, says: “Whenever Tony Mac talked you shut up and listened. He was brilliant.

“There was no beating around the bush. If you weren’t playing well, he would tell you.

“He would say: ‘You’re playing shite, Johnny.’

“But if you deserved the plaudits he’d give you that too.”

As a footballer, McEntee’s renowned versatility ultimately counted against him. Injury at key points of his inter-county career didn’t help either.

“He played at number two, three, six, eight, nine, 10, 15 – I’d say he played in most positions other than goals," McConville says.

“As a result of his versatility he wasn’t recognised in the way he should be. But people in the changing room knew his worth. That was the most important thing.

“Tony was a real thinker about the game. I suppose a lot of us just played whereas he was conscious of every move that was being made. I also think he definitely quit too early.

“There was a lot more in him. Tony Mac is still in excellent condition; he is probably the same weight as he was when he played.”

Injury curtailed him during Armagh’s victorious march to All-Ireland glory in 2002. Upon his 43rd minute introduction in the final Armagh trailed Kerry by three points.

McEntee didn’t swing over any Hollywood points in those last tumultuous minutes at Croke Park but in the time he was on the field he bolted the Orchard’s middle third alongside John Toal and Paul McGrane.

“He was one of those players who should have started more games than he did,” says Armagh’s All-Ireland winning goalkeeper Benny Tierney.

“He came on in the All-Ireland final and shook us up big time.

“I remember giving him a hug and saying to him: ‘You changed the game, Tony.’ And he said: ‘Ah sure, I should've been on after 20 minutes...’

“And it wasn’t him being big-headed, he was actually telling the truth. He’d a mammoth game when he came on. He’d a footballing brain. He just knew where to be. John always had a settled position and Tony didn’t. Tony played everywhere for us and never looked out of place.

“Stick Oisin McConville in at half-back and see how that would've worked out for you.”

John and Tony would have been regular fixtures of the card school during their Armagh days. Tierney says the pair were virtually unbeatable at poker.

"If Tony had a good hand, John would close it."

Laughing, Tierney adds: “Tony doesn’t talk, he mumbles and I’d say: ‘Would you stop f****** mumbling. And he’d be going: ‘The pot’s shy, the pot’s shy…’

“So I called him Ebenezer McMumble the whole night. So the craic was good, I was walking to the room and the next thing there’s Tony at the door.

“He says: ‘Tierney, give me a second. I tell you what it is, that was good craic and I don’t mind you calling me ‘Ebenezer McMumble’ tonight but I don’t want to hear it again. You’ve christened men on this panel for the rest of their lives – I don’t want to be known as Ebenezer McMumble.’ [laughing]

“In fairness, I had christened a few boys and the names stuck!”

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THE dynamic between McConville and Tony Mac changed considerably when the latter took the managerial reins with Gareth O’Neill at Crossmaglen Rangers.

Just when the south Armagh men’s weighty reputation was beginning to fray at the edges by allowing Pearse Og to nip in and win a county championship in 2009, McEntee and O’Neill took the reins and claimed three Ulster titles and back-to-back All-Irelands in 2011 and 2012 before the pair stepped away at the end of the following season.

McConville was on the wrong side of 30 but still hungry for more success.

“I was under no illusions who the boss was. Himself and Gareth were like very bad cop and very bad cop. I suppose they complemented each other in that they both thought about the game a lot and they both made up their mind that they wanted a certain type of player. If you didn’t conform, you were gone. And it’s exactly what 'Cross needed.

“I was probably fitter, faster and stronger than under any other manager which was amazing because I was maybe 32, 33. I just knew there was going to be no half measures and I wanted to part of what they were selling.”

After the drawn All-Ireland final with Garrycastle in 2012, the Crossmaglen camp was bubbling with tension.

Before the replay, McEntee and O’Neill took the squad to Wexford for a weekend where High Performance boxing trainer Billy Walsh talked to the 'Cross players before setting up some sparring sessions to run off a bit of steam.

Bad idea.

Players punched lumps out of each other in the ring.

McEntee and O’Neill had lined up some team meetings and video analysis for later that evening, but ditched those plans. They let the players go out for a few pints instead.

“There was a lot of tension among the players, fellas were looking their place,” Hanratty recalls.

“It was something different, you weren’t going down to train listening to men talking shite in the middle of the field, stuff that you’ve heard over and over again. It was a totally different approach.

“But at the same time, Tony knew we needed a blow-out because everybody was narking at each other. There is a true statement there: a team that can drinks together, wins together.”

McConville notes: “A lot of managers would think twice about doing something like that because they’d be afraid of somebody saying: ‘You cost us the game because of that…’

“But that just wouldn’t have come into their thinking.

“Tuesday night at training we were very relaxed and won the replay comfortably.”

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IN the autumn of 2015, Stephen Rochford and Tony McEntee agreed to meet in coffee shop in Galway.

Rochford, from Crossmolina, was handed the onerous responsibility of trying to squeeze an All-Ireland out of a brilliant crop of footballers that had come so close to the Holy Grail under James Horan.

Since stepping away from the Crossmaglen job in 2013, McEntee penned a regular column for the Irish Examiner and did some broadcast media.

Rochford liked what he read and heard. He researched his playing and managerial career and felt the south Armagh man could add value to the new set-up along with Donie Buckley.

“With Tony,” Rochford says, “it was very straightforward, it was to the point. Even though our first conversation wasn’t a straight ‘yes’ or a straight ‘no’ but he showed real interest…

“And when you play for a club like Crossmaglen and all the success they had and go on to manage them to an Ulster Club and All-Ireland success, and then you look at those Armagh boys who were knocked down a lot of times under the two Brians, and they finally knocked the door down in 2002 [under Joe Kernan].

“Those experiences and that tough south Armagh streak, I felt, would be a good fit.

“Tony was new. We didn’t have any close relationship but I knew he’d challenge us. He didn’t know Mayo football any more than watching it on TV and would come with no preconceived views of guys in club football or that. That’s the type of guy we wanted.”

Despite being derailed by Galway in the 2016 Connacht SFC, Mayo surged to the All-Ireland final, only to be outdone by the narrowest of margins by Dublin who managed to retain Sam Maguire for the first time since 1977.

Mayo’s wait for a first All-Ireland crown since 1951 would continue. But, the closer they got, the more pain they’d endure.

Across three finals (one replay), only a point separated the Dubs and Mayo in the 2016 and ’17 deciders.

Under Rochford’s leadership, Mayo played a high-intensity, front-footed, aggressive game that in other years would have been enough – but not against Jim Gavin’s Dublin side that were evolving into the greatest that ever played the game.

Tony McEntee, a two-time All-Ireland club winner as joint-manager of Crossmaglen Rangers, was also part of Stephen Rochford's Mayo backroom team for three years. Picture by Seamus Loughran

“Tony was straight-talking, there was nothing fluffy about him - that toughens your own character," says Rochford. "Loyalty and that trust element were huge.

“You know, there would be robust discussions but at the same time you knew he had your back. We always had open, honest dialogue.”

The Mayo management team were never afraid to roll the dice during those years.

Aidan O’Shea was moved back to full-back to man-mark Kieran Donaghy in 2017, Lee Keegan’s attacking instincts were often sacrificed to shadow the opposition’s go-to man, while Rob Hennelly taking over from David Clarke in goal for the 2016 decider were huge calls.

“Our decisions weren’t playing to the gallery,” says Rochford, “they weren’t meant to be crowd-pleasers. Of course, results pleased people but it was ultimately about getting results and getting performances, and we got a certain amount of those – we didn’t get the biggest result that we set out to get but at the same time we were very honest in backing our decisions.

“It was great to have guys like Tony and Donie [Buckley] who were strong but not stubborn in their views, by really debating it out left us all the better for it.”

If you got praise from Tony McEntee, you earned it. Former Mayo midfielder Tom Parsons, who was a vital cog in Rochford’s team during those years, was quite taken by the no-nonsense approach of the Armagh man.

Describing him as a “breath of fresh air” and having a “unique presence”, Parsons had to work for his praise.

“I remember Tony kept challenging me on every play needs to be progressive, it needs to be a forward pass,” Parsons says.

“It just changed my game. After a game he might focus on two plays on why you made that decision in that play and he put a lot of thought into that. He could probably describe that play more than I could because he’d watched it that many times.

“Tony didn’t go around telling you that you were great all the time. When you deserve to be applauded and you actually deliver on how you want to play your game, he does acknowledge that.

“You’re not going to get it in every training session or every game but when you do get it, you appreciate it because you know it’s honest. And maybe other managers are quick to acknowledge good play but Tony isn’t quick to do that and that’s why it’s memorable when he does pull you aside, when you do the good stuff and play to your ability.”

As the Sligo footballers grapple with the new man at the helm, they have every chance of reaching their potential, whether it’s in this year’s promotion push or the Connacht Championship or next year.

“He is totally engaging,” says Tierney.

“He loves the craic too – doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke – but he’s a guy you’d want to sit at a table for a damn good laugh. As forthright as hell but totally engaging. In fact, he’s the type of manager I’d like to have played under.”

With a busy day job and clocking up the miles from south Armagh to Markievicz Park now, McEntee still has time to take a couple of underage teams in his own parish.

“I think Tony had a unique way about him and players got a sense that this guy really cares, really cares about the team and we got a sense of how important family, Gaelic Games and community is to him,” says Parsons.

“When you’re in the moment, you’re thinking nothing will divide us because we’re so tight in the moment [but] as the years go on and you are divided, you lose contact with people you care about, but you never forget. Tony is someone I care about and will never forget."

“Tony’s a very likeable guy when you get to know him,” McConville says.

“You could meet him and he would say something and you’d think: ‘What a f****** plonker’. Until you get to know him.

“He has four kids, he has a full-time job, he’s managing Sligo but he also is our coaching officer in the club and he’s done wonders in that role.”

Tony McEntee (left) alongside Gareth O'Neill both of whom guided Crossmaglen to two All-Ireland titles

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