Soccer

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

PART TWO 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 Dundalk Golf Club. (Pic: Arthur Kinahan)

Click here, to read part one

"My view on it would be you write what you think and if you can't stand over what you write then you don't write it."

As he strode into the Crowne Plaza lobby with that intent look etched on his face and a notepad underhand, he immediately created an impression. Here is a guy, Gerry McDermott, who is absolutely modest despite the fact that he was one of the country's most-read soccer writer for nearly a decade.

Leaving an impression seems to have been his thing and the Irish Independent chiefs as much as proved this point when they head-hunted him to fill a soccer writing position in 1997. Already an established journalist at the time, Gerry leaving his role at the Star to join the Indo was a big switch.

Philip Quinn was their soccer correspondent, however, the prestige of getting to work with the country's most popular print product still brought with it some satisfaction. After all, this was the paper his father bought every day.

"I would have seen it as a great opportunity, but I suppose I was a little bit daunted because it was like being a coach who was asked to go back playing. I honestly wasn't sure how I'd cope. It was a case of going from the desk back into the field.

"The people at the Indo obviously had a lot of confidence in me. Pat Courtney, who was the group Sports Editor, and PJ Cunningham, who was the Irish Independent Sports Editor, saw that I had that interest in sport so I was able to write on Gaelic Football, I was able to write on Golf. I was able to do different things."

However, soccer was to be his main duty. He covered the Irish underage teams, and started by travelling to Greece to watch a side which later that year won the European U18 Championships under the tutelage of Brian Kerr, a man whom he developed a close relationship with.

Space is always the journalist’s enemy. Sometimes there is too much to fill, often there is not enough and the editors and sub-editors must make the decision about what should or should not go in and how much space they will give it. Gerry soon found out that discovering future stars from the realms of obscurity, stories which, in hindsight, had more substance than relevance, were more likely to be thrown to the bottom of the pile and literally 'boxed' away.

"I found Katie Taylor before almost everyone else," he panted as if pitching to a time-pressured editor.

"The idea of finding a young female footballer, who boxed, was brilliant and I went out to the Citywest one day to meet her and do the story.

"But editors want stories that will resonate with the majority of readers so when you are plucking a story out of the obscure, they're sort of like, 'do I put in a story about Liverpool or Manchester United or do I put in a story about the Irish women's football team that happens to have a boxer..."

THE MAIN JOB
By this stage, Gerry had replaced Quinn as sports correspondent. It was in the aftermath of Saipan and the whole debacle which involved the nation's 'old-friend' Roy Keane. Kerr had come in as senior team manager and had talked the Corkonian out of international retirement in the midst of a campaign which had Ireland teetering on the brink of both success and 'failure'.

"I can remember that day in Portmarnock. It was box office.

"It was the fact that he was coming back. It was a big thing and everyone was interested to hear his opinions on why he came back. He obviously had unfinished business with the Irish team and his presence would have been seen as a big boost for Brian Kerr, to persuade him to come back. I think Brian deserved a lot of credit for that.

"I had been covering all of the underage players coming through. The likes of Liam Miller and John O'Shea. I remember being in Scotland covering the 1998 European U16 Championships, which we won and seven of them went on to become senior internationals.

"Brian was bringing all of these players through and Roy was then seen as the guy who could help integrate them, his experience around the group would have been key for Brian."

However, things would end on a sour note for both Kerr and Keane when they narrowly failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup. Having drawn home-and-away with both Switzerland and Israel in ultra-agonising circumstances, as well as taking a point from their visit to France, a 1-0 loss to the French in Dublin ultimately led to Kerr losing his job as Ireland finished fourth in qualifying. Keane would retire for a second time.

Considering his relationship with Kerr, McDermott felt the trigger was pulled too quickly.

"He got very close to qualifying and we were a wee bit unlucky. Of the eight games played between the top four teams, Switzerland, France, ourselves and Israel, of all the games there was one only one victory and that was France beating us and that proved to be the result that knocked us out so it was very unfortunate.

"The FAI made the decision. I didn't agree with it because I thought Brian had merited another go at it, but they decided not to renew it and at the time I would've been critical of that decision because I would've felt Brian was building something and unfortunately he didn't get the opportunity to continue to build."

DUNDALK ROOTS
During his time with the Indo, Gerry's Dundalk roots remained strong, as did his allegiance to his beloved Dundalk Gaels. He trained juvenile teams in the club for a period along with Andy McCrave, Richie Ford and Gerry Copas. Former Louth captain Peter McGinnity, ex-Dundalk FC player Padraig Gollogley and current Louth forward Gerard McSorley are among the players who featured in various underage teams where McDermott was among those on the sideline.

Indeed, he was perhaps never more content than when Dundalk FC General Manager Martin Connolly asked him in to aid the club's behind-the-scenes team during their amazing Europa League run of 2016. With his years of experience in media operations at the FAI, he helped orchestrate those memorable nights at Tallaght Stadium having also lent a hand during that spine-tingling participation at the 'Dublin Arena'. That was, of course, the Lilywhites' Champions League play-off with Legia Warsaw at the Aviva. He admits that that occasion ranks among his all-time greats and considering the games he has attended previous, the 2006 World Cup final being one, it's some statement.

There's something more appealing when the success directly relates to your 'home'. We agreed that Dundalk is 'like nowhere else in the country' when it comes to celebrating and supporting 'our own', especially in a sporting context. Perhaps this is why there was such anger locally regarding the treatment of Steve Staunton during his time as Irish manager, an assessment which Gerry unanimously agrees with.

The pressure intensified on Staunton from an early stage, he feels.

"I think the media turned against him very early. I remember we lost 4-0 to Holland in August 2006, it turned out to be the heaviest defeat of his managerial career, three-days before the start of the Premier League season and a lot of the players wouldn't have been sure of their places on the Saturday so there was a little bit of ' minding yourself' and Shay Given wasn't playing. They'd Paddy Kenny in goal and they got beaten, and I remember the Star the next day had (Eamonn) Dunphy saying 'Sack Stan Now' on the front page and to me that was wrong.

"The problem was that because somebody had come out and said it, and because it was someone so influential, an awful lot of people said, 'well, if Dunphy is saying it, it must be right' and they all rolled in behind it.

"I think from that moment on he was never given a chance and the fact is he was given a four-year contract so judgment should have been based on that four-year contract instead of three games, of which he had won one, lost one narrowly and then lost one in which there were extenuating circumstances. It's interesting now that we don't have August friendlies, particularly for that reason, so that just shows you how much of a factor that played in the Dutch result."

Curiously, though, while all his peers were beginning to cater for the 'Anti Stan' audiences, Gerry remained resolute, taking the logical and analytical approach to writing on each game. He portrayed great courage in not mounting the bandwagon against Staunton despite there being a public clamour to do so. Hypothetically, this could have been a conscious move as they were compatriots, however, Gerry puts it down to principle. This takes us back to the opening paragraph and the idea of being able to stand over one's work.

"I would only write things that I was happy to stand over and again when I am making arguments they would be logical.

"After the Netherlands game, I was writing a piece and the angle that I went after was the goalkeeper whom I thought had played particularly poorly and had been at fault for a number of the goals because he hadn't set up the defence right. I would have felt that that was the correct angle and the mature way of doing it rather than going for headlines and I felt I was proven right by what subsequently happened in Cyprus because the same player was the goalkeeper when we conceded five-goals .

"I was looking at the game in a logical way and others didn't look at it like that."

His final competitive match as the Indo's soccer correspondent was Staunton's first competitive game, the 1-0 defeat to Germany in Hannover, with the aforementioned defeat in Cyprus McDermott’s first as part of the FAI's media/communications outfit.

The transition wasn't difficult. Staunton had respect for him, perhaps because of his local-link, but more likely because he hadn't indulged in thinly-veiled criticism of his short tenure. The players had no issues with him. Robbie Keane joked that it was 'one less journalist to worry about'.

He watched the Staunton-era come to an inevitable ending and was with the FAI for the entirety of Giovanni Trapattoni's duration in charge. Gerry even notes that a lot of the success stories of the Italian's early results were with the players that Staunton had blooded, though, typically, there weren't too many seconding his motion of support for the Ard Easmuinn-native.

Having watched Marco Tardelli play for Italy in that 1982 World Cup final from his vantage point at the Millstone Hotel, Co. Donegal, getting to relive his childhood through the eyes of a yesteryear hero and the Ireland assistant manager was a perk to his job.

He would continue working for the FAI in varied roles until April 2016.

MEMORIES
The newspaper game can often be taken for granted. People can be quick to point out a piece in which you included an error as opposed to commenting on a terrific article you penned elsewhere. This is par for the course, though, being a journalist, or certainly one of Gerry's calibre, allows you privileged access to the coalface of the major events.

And, while thousands pick-up the Indo on a daily basis, expecting the quality that the paper's reputation brings, it is often the story behind the story which is of more intrigue. But, more often than not, these are never heard.

Take Roy Keane's appointment at Sunderland for one. Gerry wrote the Indo's back page piece on the hard-shoulder of the Dublin Road, near Balbriggan.

"I was driving down the road home and I got a call from the Sports Editor Dave Courtney to say that 'Roy Keane is going to be the next Sunderland manager, we have an edition going at 9:30pm , and we need 10 pars for the back page'. So, in this case, I had to pull in off the road and technology wasn't like what it is now. I was trying to find out what’s going on myself, and he's (Dave Courtney) sending you stuff and I finally managed to cobble together 10 pars for the back page.

"I then drove home and wrote 1000 words for the next edition at 11pm . Fortunately, because I’d been in Sunderland the week before talking to Niall Quinn and people like that I was lucky. I had a lot of things to put into the 1000 words."

The filing of a high-quality match report on the full-time whistle is another art which singles out the men and the boys so to speak. But, like in any industry, there were days when disaster struck. Recovery being the key.

"My first match as the soccer correspondent was also Brian Kerr's first match in charge against Scotland in Hampden Park in 2003 and I remember that vividly and having my copy ready on the full-time whistle. That was a source of great pride for me.

"But then the total opposite. I remember being at the France vs England match at Euro 2004 and as we hit 90-minutes, I’d my report done. England were set to win and I was ready to press send. Then Zidane scored twice in injury-time and France won the match 2-1. I remember ringing the office and saying 'you've got to give me 10-minutes here' and they're saying 'we understand, we were watching'.

"Even when it went 1-1, you could tweak it a little, but when France went and won the game you had to re-write the whole thing, it was a major re-do job. They’re the things I remember, when things go wrong or you're put to the pin of your collar to sort something out."

The mention of Zidane sparked Gerry to recall a thrilling interview he had with Bobby Robson on the morning of the 2006 World Cup final. Another memory worth telling.

"Talk about highlights, the day of that World Cup final in 2006, I interviewed Bobby Robson in Berlin that morning to get his thoughts on the tournament and his thoughts on Ireland’s future opponents.

"He was fascinating, he was so passionate, he could talk for hours. I always remember he talked about Zidane because in the semi-final against Portugal when France won 1-0, it was a Zidane penalty and his thing was 'what if France get a penalty tonight, what is Zidane going to do because he ‘stuck’ it that way the last day and they'll know what he is going'.

"He said to me 'I think he is going to do something special'.

"And, sure enough, in the first few minutes of the game France get a penalty and up steps Zidane and I think he chipped it. Robson nailed it. He just called it absolutely right and it was great for me because that was my intro for starting off my piece, particularly as France looked like they were going to win the game from that point. I really thought that I had hit the bullseye this time.

"As it turned out, Italy won, but I still managed to get the Robson comments into the piece because the whole story of the game revolved around Zidane. Not only did he do something special, he did something stupid and at the end of the day Robson was right. He was the one they would all be talking about, but for all the wrong reasons."

ON THE FAIRWAY
In April 2016, Gerry decided to change tack and move away from the world of sport especially as he was on the verge of completing a Masters in Strategic Public Relations from Stirling University, 20-years after attaining his diploma. He left the FAI after a decade dedicated to the promotion and governance of football and moved into the Local Government sector.

He's the Media and Communications manager at Fingal County Council presently, a sphere away from the first 30-years of his working life. In fact, attending football matches, what he was paid to do for so long, is not something that he does much nowadays.

"I went to two live soccer matches last year, the EA Sports Cup final and the FAI Cup final. I find when I go to matches, I’m not watching the match, I’m watching what’s going on around me because I would’ve been very much involved in match operations and the organisation of matches. My eyes and ears are tuned to spot things, you get too distracted. I'll come out of that, but at the moment I'm happy watching the games on the television."

However, he maintains his presence in a sporting context through Dundalk Golf Club. As communications officer with the men’s club, he continues to provide the local media with a weekly round-up of all the weekend's action from Blackrock. Caolan Rafferty, Eoin Murphy and Josh Mackin, all budding golfers, were name-checked in the midst of the conversation.
Also prominently mentioned were his family, his wife Yvonne and daughter Mia.

"When you're a journalist and even with the FAI, you're away a lot on international trips and they were always very supportive, but now I get to spend a lot more time at home which is good."

Asked if he wanted to make any further observations at the end of our two-hour conversation, the humble tone was again employed: "I've been very privileged. My career as a journalist was a great privilege."

But this is a two-way thing. Gerry proved that you can make it at the top while remaining loyal to your roots. The Corrs and Steve Staunton are the automatic alumni spoken of in relation to Dundalk. Enter Gerry McDermott to that list.