March 05, 1993
Mayo great Willie McGee gets another well earned pat on the back.
Willie McGee - Ex Mayo Great
The man who hit 17 goals from play in one competitive season
Unlucky not to have tasted All-Ireland Glory
Ask any gaelic football manager to describe his ideal full forward and he would probably use modern day stars Vinnie Murphy or Tony Boyle as an example Strong and determined, capable of acting as target men with an eagle eye for goal, the Trinity Gaels man and the Donegal All-Star are among the best there is around right now. But if any team supreme was to think a wee bit longer and go back a little further to the late sixties or early seventies, there he would find one of the greatest of them all.
Tall, strong, direct and a real poacher on the edge of the square. Mayo's Willie McGee was, in his day, a model full forward. It has even been suggested that the likes of him will never be seen again. Scorer of four goal in an All-Ireland final and seventeen in one season, many would wish that his skill and tenacity was still a feature of modern day fare. Yet, unfortunately, as highlighted in a recent newspaper survey, poachers of McGee's cut are no longer to be seen.
When the red-haired Burrishole man was in his prime, goal scoring was an attractive feature of gaelic football. But since the outlawing of the handpass goal and the retirement of classy forwards like Keaveney, O'Neill, Sheehy, Spillane and Mayo's McGee, the scoring average per game has dropped dramatically. So dramatically in fact, that McGee's four goal salvo in the Under 21 decider of 1967 has only been equalled on one occasion since then by Kerry's Billy O'Sullivan, ironically in another Under 21 final of that 1990.
A record breaker by nature, the big breakthrough came in '67 against Kerry in the Under 21 final. The first game finished a draw but the replay in Ballinasloe belonged to the Harcourt Street based Garda Inspector, soon to be Superintendent. Taking pride in his performance and clearly remembering that 4-9 to 1-7 victory well, McGee draws a blank on his marker of the day. "I don't know who I was playing on that day and I don't think I heard much about him after that," he claim with a tickle of pride in his tone.
Deriving from such a headline making performance, he was called into the Senior panel shortly after they had lost out of Meath in the All-Ireland semi-final. "My first match was against Cork in the Old Grounds Tournament in '67. I think I played very well that day". A shoulder injury put him out of action for a time but on his return in '69, the record breaker extraordinaire scored seventeen goals from play in Senior inter-county competition.
About ten years later the great Mickey Sheehy surpassed McGee's total. However, the Mayo man still claim the title, highlighting the fact that some of Sheehy's goals were scored from penalties. McGee's seventeen strikes were all from play.
Apart from making the headlines for his own personal achievement, the year 1969 proved to be a rather fruitful one for Mayo who won the Connacht title beating Galway by three points in a reply. One could describe the Mayo team of that era as a classy side who just lacked that little extra strength. Indeed, Willie is quick to admit that "teams played harder than we did and at the end of the day, in a lot of cases, there was only a point in it."
Mayo went on to lose to Kerry in the '69 semi-final on a 0-14 to 0-10 scoreline. Five years later, Sligo were winners in the Connacht final by a single point after a reply while in '72 and '73 the men in red and green were losers but only by a couple of points. "Yes, we were always unlucky to lose games by just a point. In the end, there was only a hop of a ball between us." Nevertheless, while luck may not have favoured him nor his colleagues on occasion, the Mayo side of that era still enjoyed quite a deal of success. In 1970 the Westerners defeated Down in the National League final and two years later they came close to beating Kerry in the decider of the same competition.
Monday evening newspaper headlines heralded "McGee made it and messed it" He outlines what brought about such a heading in Joe Sherwood's Evening Press column on the particular occasion. I scored a goal before half time which brought us back into that game, but then early in the second half I let fly with a shot which went inches wide. Kerry went on to win the game."
Indeed, the National League provided the stage upon which Willie McGee continued to shine brightly. A typical Micheal O'Hehir commentary shed the spotlight on McGee, who scored two spectacular goals on Offaly's Paddy McCormack in another League game around that time. One each in the first and second halves, typical of McGee's craft and cleverness brought about high appraisal from the high-king of G.A.A. commentary. McGee held onto that particular tape recording until it was stolen during a house break-in afterwards.
Of McCormack, McGee says he has a lot of respect for "the Iron Man from Rhode". But was he the toughest opponent? "No. Definitely one of my toughest opponents was a player from Wexford whom I faced in a Railway Cup match. I never head of him after that and I can't remember his name."
Looking back on a relatively short but somewhat distinguished career, the Burrishole native has happy and unhappy memories. Ranking alongside the disappointment of not winning a Senior All-Ireland "and all the hype that goes with it," he says that his biggest disappointment was losing a Connacht Minor final against Roscommon led by Dermot Earely in 1965.
Maybe his career in the county jersey should have lasted longer. A player of immense quality and with so much left to offer, considering that he continued playing Senior club fare up until eight years ago, his last game for Mayo in 1975 seemed to come so early. We were doing some training for the '76 Championship when I injured my ankle playing basketball," is McGee's excuse. That injury put him out of the game for eighteen months before he resumed playing with the Garda Club in Dublin.
A player in his prime, young, fit and still a force to be reckoned with, he was willing to return to the county set-up but major problems arose. Following a spirited and classy performance three years after the injury, Mayo captain Henry Gavin approached him to ask if he'd like to return. "He asked afterwards where I'd been and would I be interested in coming back. I was willing to play for the county again," he point out.
At the time, he was Garda based in Pearse Street Station, which meant that he was forced to work Sundays. McGee planned a way of accommodating the two. For loss of work, he though it natural to apply to the County Board for reimbursements if he was going to be playing with the county. "I told them that I didn't want to lose any money. Because I was a Garda, I had to work on Sunday. So if I went back I would be losing out financially."
Never a militant of any description, more genial in appearance and manner, as a young man with a young family and all the run of the mill costs to boot, such a request didn't seem too much out of the ordinary in hindsight. But such was the etching of his inter-county epitaph and such is the answer to a much asked question.
Nevertheless, not to allow his footballing calibre to with away in the same instance, the eleven handicap golfer continued to form an integral part of the newly formed Garda G.A.A Club. Initiated in the early seventies by Jim Murphy and Mick Connor, McGee was one of the early administrators. "We went from Division 4 to Division I within a few short years." Following retirement in '85, McGee delved in team management and still remains heavily involved with the Garda G.A.A establishment.
His tenacity on the golf course has also caught the eye in recent times. A record breaker on the field of play, the father of four has also made headlines on the fairways in more recent times. A familiar figure at the newly built Westmanstown Sports Complex near Lucan, he won the Captain's Prize in 1992 while his son Brendan annexed the Junior prize to complete a unique double.
McGee states that as far as he is aware, the Golf Union of Ireland have not come across any similar occurrence of father and son winning the Captain's Prize double at the same club in the same year. At the moment, he is a member of the hard-working committee at the splendid new complex, one of the biggest of its kind in the country.
Golf has become a most popular sport in recent times and it's game which he readily enjoys playing with his Garda colleges at their luxurious west city location. Separate to that, the handball tradition in the McGee clan has been well documented. His brother, Peadar, has won ten All-Ireland Senior handball titles. Ironically, while Willie was recovering from the shoulder injury he sustained soon after his Senior football debut in late '67, he took up handball to exercise the shoulder. There he unearthed a new talent
Two years ago, he won the world doubles handball title in the World Police Games in Memphis Tenessee. It brought about further pride for McGee who is married to Tipperary born Liz. They have four children - 18 year old David, Sandra (16), Brendan (14) and recently confirmed Ailish (12). Together they reside in Leixlip where Willie still plays handball with the local club.
Named at full forward on the "best team never to win an All-Ireland', Willie was also nominated for a position on the 'team of the century'. "One of the highlights of my career was being nominated for the 'team of the century'. In the end, Tom Langan got named at full forward. I was thrill to be nominated."
The footballing C.V. makes for impressive reading alright. A colourful stint in the red and green of his native county ended with an All-Ireland medal in the Lilywhite of Kildare in '91 when a super-fit McGee lined out for his adopted county in the Over 40's competition. But his heart is in Mayo epitomised by his heavy involvement in the recently formed friends of Mayo. "It was set up to generate money and help Mayo players," he states as he prepares for a trip to the U.S. next week seeking sponsorship for their forthcoming Golf Classic in April Along with Arthur French, he was first to approach Jack O'Shea about taking over Mayo. The rest is history. A sportsman and a gentleman, McGee will be first to hope that a star of his type springs to the fore very soon as Jacko goes in search of ultimate glory. The one glory that eluded Willie McGee.
Taken from Hogan Stand Magazine
5th March 1993
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