Gospel ac­cord­ing to John still res­onates

Through per­sonal tragedies on both sides, Davis shares a spe­cial bond with his play­ers

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - CAMOGIE - DARAGH Ó CONCHÚIR

JOHN DAVIS has en­joyed suc­cess al­most ev­ery­where he has spread his gospel, but it is un­likely that he has de­rived as much sat­is­fac­tion any­where as he has dur­ing his decade-long stint as man­ager of the Meath camo­gie team.

There are no signs of the play­ers get­ting bored with the ever-present West­meath na­tive or that, at 69, he is a relic whose doc­trine has no place in the mod­ern era.

Six play­ers re­main from the team that won the All-Ire­land ju­nior ‘A’ ti­tle in 2008. There are a few more sur­vivors from the out­fit that gar­nered the premier ju­nior crown four years later. With a smat­ter­ing of fresh blood from the vic­to­ri­ous mi­nor ‘B’ squad of 2015, they now find them­selves back at Croke Park for the Lib­erty In­surance All-Ire­land in­ter­me­di­ate de­cider.

The bond be­tween play­ers and man­ager is ob­vi­ous. Davis cher­ishes it, em­pha­sis­ing the im­por­tance of sport as much more than a means of ex­er­cise. There are a few among them who have known per­sonal dif­fi­culty and camo­gie proved a vi­tal dis­trac­tion, out­let and balm.

For­mer dual player Chris­tine O’Brien, a three-time ladies’ foot­ball All-Star who is still play­ing club camo­gie at 44, is games de­vel­op­ment ad­min­is­tra­tor of Meath GAA and a vi­tal mem­ber of this team’s coach­ing staff. Her hus­band died of lung can­cer in 2009 when their third child was just three months old.

Ex­pe­ri­enced player Kristina Troy’s par­ents have both been bat­tling ill­ness this year. Just as O’Brien did last month, she spoke in the build-up to to­day’s big game about how help­ful camo­gie has been dur­ing dif­fi­cult times.

Davis has en­dured his own tragedy. “Nine years ago, my son Derek died. He got a brain tu­mour when he was 26, died when he was 30. The girls re­ally stood by me. Then 14 months ago my wife Teresa died.

“We’re a group that’s there to­gether a long while and the day we were play­ing Down in the league — it was be­fore the hurlers were out in the re­played fi­nal of the Christy Ring Cup — and the girls wanted to can­cel as my wife was buried that day but I said no, that I’d rather they’d go, en­joy the game and get used to Croke Park in case we ever get back. And now they are. They didn’t want to do it but I knew my wife would rather they’d go. They were all in tears, they stood by me and that’s what sport is about.”

They would do any­thing for him; and he for them.

Davis was well known as a suc­cess­ful hurl­ing coach when ap­pointed to his cur­rent post. A na­tive of Brown­stown in West­meath, he brought them to three se­nior cham­pi­onships — the first two as a player/man­ager. He also guided Castle­pol­lard to a pair of ti­tles.

He had a short spell in charge of the county team be­fore de­camp­ing across the bor­der to Meath where he had an en­dur­ing im­pact over nine years, bring­ing them to All-Ire­land se­nior ‘B’ glory in 1993. Three years later, they pushed an Of­faly team at the peak of its pow­ers to six points in the Le­in­ster Cham­pi­onship. They had al­ready taken the Faith­ful’s scalp in the league. Seven days after that fa­mous tri­umph, they ac­counted for Wex­ford.

“We had a chal­lenge against Ou­lart-The Bal­lagh last week and Martin Storey, who is their man­ager, said sup­port­ers spat in his face and in Liam Grif­fin’s face com­ing off the field when we beat them. ‘After that,’ he said to me, ‘we went in and had a meet­ing. No dis­re­spect to Meath but we made our minds up that day and went on and won the All-Ire­land’.”

Even in­di­rectly, Davis was work­ing the or­a­cle, it seems.

Just like the other Gaelic codes, the com­mit­ment re­quired to par­tic­i­pate in in­ter-county camo­gie has spi­ralled dur­ing his 10 years. A county board with vi­sion and work ethic has over­seen sig­nif­i­cant de­vel­op­ment, build­ing on the achieve­ments of Davis’s charges.

“There’s an aw­ful lot of work be­ing done within the county at un­der­age now, from the 14s, 15s, 16s and mi­nors. I think we had two 14s and two 16s teams out this year. That’s the great thing about it. That’s what’s go­ing to bring it on.”

Thomas Duig­nan, who was with him when he was in charge of Meath hurlers, is in­volved at de­vel­op­men­tal level and asked him to keep an eye on the un­der 14s one night.

“I went down and looked at the 14s and there was five or six of them there who you could nearly throw into the team straight away only they were so young. They were that good. I couldn’t be­lieve it. If they get a few years, the way they’re be­ing looked after, they’ll be very good.

“And win­ning the leagues and get­ting to Croke Park, th­ese young girls are see­ing there’s a chance there. In Kilkenny, ev­ery­body wants to play se­nior hurl­ing for the county. If you can get that in Meath camo­gie — it’s hard to pro­mote it be­cause the club level wouldn’t be very strong but a strong county team will pro­mote it and get the young­sters in­ter­ested.”

They are ham­strung at times by a lack of fund­ing, how­ever, mean­ing that they can­not af­ford to use the state-of-the-art fa­cil­i­ties at the Meath GAA Dun­ganny cen­tre of ex­cel­lence.

“All we’re try­ing to do is keep camo­gie go­ing. Drum­ree have been very good to us, giv­ing us their pitches, the hall and the all-weather. It has been a very big help to us. It’s hard on the county board but I never ask for ex­penses or any­thing. I just do it for the love of it. We’ve won a lot of things over the years, gone from Divi­sion 4 to Divi­sion 1 in the league, we got the ju­nior ‘A’ and the premier ju­nior but this would be the one you’d re­ally want.”

Play­ing against the best teams in the land in Divi­sion 1 this year was his­toric but, more im­por­tantly, it was ben­e­fi­cial too. And it has whet­ted the ap­petite for play­ing se­nior cham­pi­onship. “We played Gal­way be­low in Gal­way. We were go­ing very well up to half-time and then sure they brought in three All-Stars.”

He chuck­les but make no mis­take, he is not afraid of a steep learn­ing curve. Mov­ing from Divi­sion 4 to 1 and from ju­nior ‘A’ to within an hour of se­nior, it is clear his play­ers aren’t ei­ther. Stand­ing be­tween them and the cov­eted top-tier spot are Cork.

“They have to be favourites be­cause they were there last year and un­lucky not to win. A lot of them are train­ing with the se­niors and they’re very ex­pe­ri­enced. They have ex­pe­ri­ence with the man­ager (Paudie Mur­ray) but it’ll be hard. You never know what’s go­ing to hap­pen. We played them in the group and there was only a point in it but they had trav­elled three hours on a bus.

“The way I look at it if the girls hit form, no prob­lem. If four or five of them don’t, we’ll be in trou­ble. All I want for them is to per­form to their abil­ity, to show peo­ple around the coun­try but re­ally to show the peo­ple of Meath, many of whom will never have seen them be­fore, whether they’re there or watch­ing on tele­vi­sion, just how good they are.

“It prob­a­bly will be an emotional day for me but it’s about the girls. Most of them have been with me so long it would be lovely for them to get one of th­ese medals be­cause there’s noth­ing to say you’d ever get back.”

‘They were all in tears, they stood by me and that’s what sport is about’

John Davis: ‘The way I look at it if the girls hit form, no prob­lem. If four or five of them don’t, we’ll be in trou­ble’

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