Through Gritted Teeth #1: Eamonn Cregan

(This is going to be an occasional item on people or things in the GAA that are instinctively unlovable but still manage at some level to be a source of admiration. The idea is shamelessly ripped off, right down to the title, from an ongoing series on the soccer blog, Twisted Blood.)

If ever there was a glossary for figures of speech and you were to look up the meaning of “found a penny and lost a pound”, the explanation would simply read “Eamonn Cregan, 3 September 1994”. When he became manager of Offaly, he must have been aware that there would be a possibility of winning the All-Ireland. In fact presumably this was his intention, and he could look forward to getting more pleasure out of sticking it to Kilkenny than Diarmuid Healy ever did when he was in charge of the Faithful. What Cregan would not have anticipated was that the county who would get it stuck to most was his own.

My first encounter with Eamonn Cregan was after his rather impressive hurling career had finished, popping up as a pundit on The Sunday Game where his TV persona stood in stark contrast to the avuncular Donal O’Grady. While O’Grady was the type who took great delight in keeping an utterly straight face when pronouncing that Galway and Antrim would win their respective provinces, Cregan would never dream of being so flippant. He was a crotchety old git, routinely denouncing players for such crimes against humanity as going for points from sideline balls. So it was a relief when he left to become manager of the Limerick hurlers. His three years in charge were an unremarkable time for the Shannonsiders. Heck, they weren’t even good enough to win the League! They did beat Waterford in what was my first Championship match, but we were so bad you wouldn’t hold that against him. When he left, he didn’t return to our screens and that looked like that.

Yet when he did return to the airwaves in more recent times (usually on the radio), what struck me as crotchety in the 80’s came across as a cussed honesty in the 00’s and beyond. He has the happy gift of responding to the question asked rather than what stock boy-done-good response is most appropriate. When asked recently by a listener on RTÉ whether the tub-thumping excitement of the Munster Under-21 hurling final was proof of the superiority of the winner-takes-all format, he paused and politely disagreed with the listener, observing that he had endured many a time when the season was over before it had even started. He had been at the match and managed to mix delight at the success of his county with enthusiasm for the quality of the hurling on display, all delivered in a cool Limerick drawl that belied the notion that he’d nearly had a heart attack during extra-time. The borderline-contemptuous attitude towards that of which he does not approve is still there – witness an exchange with Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh regarding what he thought of  those who are “a technical referee” – but  Cregan’s desire for excellence is not a function of vanity as it might be in the case of Babs Keating.  He wants the best because there’s nothing like hurling at its best, especially when produced by Limerick.

And it is that unexpurgated love for his own county that really makes Eamonn Cregan one of the good guys, exemplified by his reaction to what should have been his finest personal hour, i.e. finding the right blend among the notoriously mercurial talents in the mid-1990’s Offaly panel to win the All-Ireland. He would probably deny it were it put to him, but his reaction in the days following the victory was one of dazed disbelief. Every lash of those late scores from Offaly that turned a five-point deficit into a six-point victory must have felt so bittersweet that Mel Gibson could have made an anti-Semitic film out of it. He would get back to Limerick a few years later but that team’s moment had passed and he would not be able to work the oracle. Still, in a world where no one seems bothered that Italians are seemingly the only ones capable of managing international soccer teams it was refreshing to see someone for whom that sense of place was so important. Even if he didn’t find out truly how important until it was too late.