Feature

From Dundalk to Stuttgart via Donegal - The story of former Irish Independent soccer correspondent Gerry McDermott

PART ONE OF TWO

Caoimhín Reilly

Reporter:

Caoimhín Reilly

Email:

caoimhin.reilly@dundalkdemocrat.ie

From Dundalk to Stuttgart via Donegal - The story of former Irish Independent soccer correspondent Gerry McDermott

Gerry McDermott outside the Dundalk Gaels clubrooms. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)

He strode into the lobby, notebook underhand and looking intently, just like he did at Oriel Park nearly five-years ago.

My first meeting with Gerry McDermott was at the 2013 EA Sports Cup final between Dundalk FC and Shamrock Rovers. He was in charge of the media that day and I was commissioned to sell programmes in the away end. Our careers have taken us on alternate paths since then and little could I have expected to be sitting down with him just a few years later in a quiet corner of the Crowne Plaza Hotel. The rain lashed on the windows.

Our more than two-hour conversation scratched the surface of Gerry's encyclopaedic knowledge of sport and of life. He's an unassuming , if fascinating character.

He once went on a trip of a lifeline whilst working with the Donegal Democrat, perhaps he could even be Joxer himself. I had asked him if he attended Saipan in 2002 for the World Cup in his role as a soccer writer for the Irish Independent. The answer being that he hadn't, but then came an extraordinary story.

"I was at Euro ‘88 as a journalist," he said.

"At that stage, I was working for the Donegal Democrat and Packie Bonner wrote a column every month for the paper and when we qualified for the European Championships I sort of explained to my boss that we would have to run the Packie column every week rather than every month as this would be a huge thing.“

Gerry’s argument seems unbelievable today, but 1988 was pre-internet, pre-smartphone, pre-instant communications. A portable typewriter was Gerry’s equivalent of the modern-day laptop and the recent arrival of the fax machine had been a game-changer for journalists.

He told his boss that he couldn’t guarantee that he would be able to get hold of Packie Bonner on the phone in Germany during the tournament, but if he was there himself he would be able to guarantee the column would be done.

"They agreed to run it every week and it was very funny as some of my colleagues were wondering 'what are you going there for, like what is going on' and this sort of thing, but myself and photographer Paddy Gallagher took my car and drove to Stuttgart. We left Donegal on the Friday , got the boat from Rosslare and drove all day Saturday through France and into Germany.

"We got into Stuttgart at midnight and hadn’t made a hotel booking, but we needed to meet the early morning flights so we slept in the car at the airport.

"We were sitting there waiting for all the Irish flights coming in on the morning of the match. There were a huge amount of people from Donegal on the flights and we got pictures, and we got quotes and colour and everything like that and that then gave us our local angle for the thing. Then we went to the stadium and got accreditation and then went to that unbelievable game in the afternoon when we beat England. Ray Houghton, whose father was from Buncrana in Donegal, scored the winning goal and Packie Bonner was the man of the match. Fran Fields, President of the FAI at the time, was also from Donegal so there was a huge Donegal involvement and with Fran being President, we got to access all areas including a very happy team hotel.”

Digital photography was also unheard of in 1988 so they had to come up with a way of getting their undeveloped rolls of film back to the Donegal Democrat in time for that week’s paper.

"There was a photographer, James Meehan from the Inpho Sport Agency, going back to Dublin the next day so we gave him the film and he took the rolls back to Ireland and put them on the bus to Ballyshannon. They got to Ballyshannon on the Tuesday and they were developed while I was sending copy back all through the week. On Monday and Tuesday I was faxing back loads of stuff but I distinctly remember what happened on the Wednesday . I rang them to ask 'have you got everything' and they asked for the front page piece. I said 'what do you mean the front page piece' and they said 'we are leading with this, this is massive and we are the only ones with a reporter out there'. So they got a front-page piece, it was just magic.

"I think we only realised what it had meant at home when we got to Cologne and found a shop that sold Irish newspapers. It was the Tuesday when Monday's Irish papers arrived in and we saw the crowds out on the street and everything like that. That’s when we realised, this is a big, big thing. It was great. We went to Hannover for the 1-1 draw with Russia and I was in Gelsenkirchen on the Saturday for the defeat by Holland which was a disappointing moment. I stayed on for the rest of the tournament and I went to the semi-final between Italy and Russia in Stuttgart and then I went to the final between Holland and Russia and that was a fantastic experience in the Olympic Stadium in Munich.

"After the match, I pointed the car towards Donegal and was back there on Monday."

THE BEGINNING
Gerry McDermott is originally from the Dublin Road in Dundalk. A man of great integrity, he is a former soccer correspondent for the Irish Independent, a former deputy Sports Editor of The Irish Star and an ex-communications operative for the FAI.

An alumni of Coláiste Rís secondary school in the heart of Dundalk, he never considered his talent for writing despite admitting that, in hindsight, the signs were there. He wanted to be a commentator, particularly on football. He recalls watching Match of the Day and recording personal commentaries of the highlights as if broadcasting to the nation and writing match reports of late-night 1978 World Cup matches for his grandfather to read at breakfast.

After completing his Leaving Cert, he enrolled in a Business course at the Regional College in Dundalk, and during this time he began testing the waters of broadcasting.

"I started working on one of the pirate radio stations, North-East Radio. A couple of my friends, like Alec Fennell, were involved so I sent them in a demo tape and I ended up getting a slot out of it as a DJ.

"I remember Dundalk beat Shelbourne 9-0 in January 1980. It was the first match since Synan Braddish came back from Liverpool. I wasn’t at the match, I was in the studio feeding scores into the on-air presenter. During the afternoon news was coming through that Dundalk were putting up this big score so I went up to Oriel Park and did a few interviews with the players after the game. We put that out and I started doing sport from there.

"I went to Telstar Radio after that and it just grew from there. When I finished my Business Studies course in the college, I applied for a lot of courses and I got accepted for them all so I had to decide did I want to do Business Studies, Human Resources, Advertising, Public Relations or Journalism.

"I remember going to Frankie Watters and Peter Fuller in the College and asking them what should I do and they told me to do the journalism. Frankie was saying, 'look, you're showing an aptitude for it, you should go and do it' and at that time that was the only journalism course in the country.

"There were 25 places on it and there would’ve been 1500 applicants. For the place you had to do a day of tests which cut it down to 100 and then they did an interview and picked 25. John Murray of RTÉ was in my class as was David O’Connell, who is the editor of the Connacht Tribune, Claire O’Grady, who was the first woman editor of the Irish Independent, and Miriam O’Donoghue, who was news editor of the Irish Times and is Head of Communications in the National Lottery.

"And in the year ahead of me was Philip Quinn, Greg Allen, John Brennan, Una O’Hagan, Brenda Power, people like that, so there was a very strong calibre of journalists that came through it and, because it was the only course in the country, they’ve moved up through the ranks of journalism over the years."

As, indeed, has Gerry. But, while the majority of those who enrolled alongside him have gone on to positions of some power in the media world, there wasn't a rose-petal path into the industry either. Most important in his development was the eight-weeks of work experience the course guaranteed.

"I started off in a newspaper in Dublin called the Sunday Journal, but I was only there three-weeks when it closed down," he said with a smirk.

"I still had five-weeks to do and the course directors said, 'look, leave it with us and we’ll see what we can do' and they came back to me with a paper, the Donegal Democrat in Ballyshannon. Now, I hadn’t a clue where Ballyshannon was, I thought it was way over by Glencolmcille, but it turned out to be a little bit closer than that. So I went up there and I'll always remember the first night. It was July 11, 1982, the day of the World Cup final between Germany and Italy and I remember being the only person in the residence lounge of the Millstone Hotel watching that match. It’s very funny to look back on because the most memorable goal scored in that final was by Marco Tardelli and many years later we ended up working together with the FAI which was amazing.

"So, I did my five-weeks with the Donegal Democrat and went back to college and later that year, a new newspaper started in Dublin called 'The Daily News'. They started recruiting journalists from newspapers around the country so people went from the Irish Press and Irish Independent which meant those newspapers had to recruit somebody. The Irish Press recruited Gerry Moriarty from the Donegal Democrat, Gerry’s now the Northern Editor of the Irish Times, and I got a phone call around Halloween from The Democrat saying 'Gerry Moriarty’s leaving to go to the Irish Press, would you like his job?’

"My mother and father weren’t too keen on me leaving college, but I spoke to the college and they said ‘we can’t guarantee you a job out of here and if they think you are ready now, you are ready, so go for it’.

"I was in my final year at the time and John Murray left rather soon after and it turned out a lot of people didn’t finish the course because they got jobs and that didn’t do anyone any harm.

“It turned out to be a great move for me. I was up there for seven-years and I loved every minute of it. I started off as a general reporter so you were doing everything, but one of the breaks that I got came because they knew that I covered sport. The guy who did Finn Harps, Liam Gallagher, who was based in the Letterkenny office was quite happy to let me take over covering Finn Harps, which was what I wanted to do. I went to their home and away matches every Sunday and that was a big break for me.”

Donegal was a sporting hot-bed with GAA, soccer, rugby, athletics and golf the predominant sports and Gerry’s interest in soccer allowed the Democrat, which was seen as the GAA paper, to penetrate into areas such as Inishowen and Fanad, which were soccer strongholds at the time, and grow its circulation.

His radio experience from Dundalk also came in handy while he was based in the North-West. Derry City came into the League of Ireland in 1985 and BBC Radio Foyle came calling as they wanted a reporter at the Finn Harps game who could give them reports and Gerry was their man.

RTÉ Radio were the next to acquire his services and, while still a print reporter by trade, his interest in radio and broadcasting was renewed."RTÉ came to me and I got the chance to be one of the North-West reporters for Sunday Sport. Donegal got into Division One of the National Football League so RTÉ wanted a person at the games so I ended up having very hectic, but very enjoyable, Sundays and it got me back into broadcasting which was fantastic."

Towards the end of the eighties, the government started to distribute local radio licences which meant pirate radio stations became no more and, here, the Donegal Democrat saw a gap which would allow them to move into broadcast as well as print media. Gerry was involved in the bid and ended up being the unfortunate one to receive the phone-call that they were unsuccessful in their proposal. And, to bitter things further, the consortium who received the licence flopped before reaching the broadcasting point. The day he received that call remains one of his most disappointing.

A NEW DAWN

However, a new opportunity would arise, one much closer to home. After bumping into local broadcaster Ray Stone during a weekend visit to Dundalk, he ended up receiving an offer from Gavin Duffy, one of the Dragons on Dragons Den, who was LMFM's chief executive at the time and he became the station's new Dundalk-based reporter.

Gerry left the Donegal Democrat in August 1989 having undoubtedly made a positive impression during a stint in which he managed to upgrade Dundalk in the eyes of the Tir Chonaill. He joked that one person had told him the only things they knew about Dundalk was the football team and El Paso when he joined the paper first.

At LMFM he worked his way up the ranks, and filled in as Acting General Manager of the station for a year before he realised he was at a crossroads. Did he want to go down the business route or return to being a journalist?

The latter was his option of choice and after a spell as the station’s Head of Sport he left LMFM for a sports sub-editor's role at the Evening Press in Dublin.

He had resumed his own playing career by this stage, soccer with Glenmuir United and gaelic football with Dundalk Gaels.

Indeed, he was a member of the Gaels panel that reached the 1992 Louth Senior Football Championship final - their most recent showing on the county's showpiece stage until last year.

It was a realisation that the future of the Evening Press was uncertain that led him to enrol on a two-year part-time course run by the Public Relations Institute of Ireland and he was actually in the middle of his first-year exams when the Press printed its final edition.

Gerry worked as a freelancer while undertaking his studies - something which involved a hectic lifestyle - before being offered work as a sub-editor by The Star on the reference of Paul Lennon, who is still the paper's soccer correspondent.

And, somehow, he managed to make his incredibly intense days translate into incredibly high standards.

"I used to have to do lectures on a Monday, which was our busiest day because that was the day we produced our Junior Soccer Supplement , Target, for the Tuesday. So you were in early in the morning and it was a 12 to 13 hour day.

"I had an arrangement that I could get off at 6pm to go in and do my course and then come back to work. In second year, I think I only did about 50% of the lectures, but I ended up with best results in Ireland and I won Student of the Year. I don’t know how that happened, I just had a natural affinity for the course topics, it just came naturally to me. I just got what it was all about and I think that showed in my results.

"I got my diploma in ‘96 and the All-Ireland award, but I was Deputy Sports Editor in The Star by this point and I was enjoying that. The journalism career was still going well and so public relations was put on the back-burner..."