IN the week that's in it, a few days before Rice College play St. Ronan's from Lurgan in the Hogan Cup final, it's difficult not to hark back and think of the late Denis Carroll, writes Padraig Burns.
When we were young we didn't go to Rice College; we went to 'the Brothers' and Denis was Mr. Gaelic Football in the school all during our time there.
He picked a young lad from the Quay with bad eyesight to play in goal for a juvenile team on the back of a couple of decent saves in a game played in a mudbath in the middle of winter in the place that is now called St. Patrick's Park. Back then it was the Gaelic pitch or if you were a bona fide GAA man you called it the 'field'. We weren't so it was the former for us.
I digress. Denis kept faith with that 'keeper along the way, never once scolding him for not practising his kick-outs and for relying on George Golden to do all the dead ball kicking in and around the goalmouth. He must have seen something that was worth persevering with, though exactly what would be hard to define.
Denis genuinely was ahead of his time and for most of us he was the first manager we ever had in any sport. We had team meetings and we talked about things like tactics on the Gaelic football pitch. He'd tell every player their responsibilities and by the time you left the meeting you'd be wondering why you weren't playing senior for Mayo.
We'd have done anything he asked of us and we believed and trusted in him implicitly. We believed him when he told us how good we were (I know!) and when he got mad at half-time and told us that he had as many fellows on the bench that were as good as anyone on the pitch and that he was giving everyone five minutes in the second half to improve or be taken off. It was only in later years that we realised that Denis would never have humiliated any player by taking them off just after the restart but at the time it was enough for us to cop on ourselves.
That lovely feeling of belonging to something when we saw our names written in Irish (English names in brackets underneath) on the notice board inside the front door of the school was special and made all the more special when it was Denis doing the writing. I can still recall the pride I felt and how I could not wait to get home to tell everyone that I had been picked on the school juvenile team for a Colleran Cup match (or was it the Flanagan Cup?). The first away game we played for the school was in Crossmolina against Belmullet and something amazing happened after the game. We were fed in a local restaurant. Unreal stuff. And it was all down to Denis.
He had that knack that not every manager has of making everyone feel special (even a 'keeper as limited as the one he picked in first year). Life has taught me that it's not a given that every manager you play under or work alongside has those qualities. I would suggest that any of us that went on to dabble in management during our lives were singularly influenced by Denis Carroll. I know I was, not that that is to suggest that I shared his talent, but I know that his ability to connect with the dressing room left a deep impression.
He encouraged and he cajoled lads to do better. He pressed all the right buttons, recognising which lad reacted well to a good old fashioned rollocking and the lad that required some TLC. I like to think that I learned from that. At least I hope I did.
Over the years, long after our time together in the Brothers became a distant memory, we'd often meet and chat. Always about sport, never about boring life. Denis was brilliant company; bright and witty and so tuned in with everything going on.
He would have been in his element if he was still with us this week in the lead up to an All-Ireland final. He'd be telling the players that they had nothing to fear and that they were the best players ever to wear the school jersey. He probably told some of our team that too but thankfully he never pushed credibility too far by telling the 'keeper with dodgy eyesight that.
He's left us a few years now but for those of a certain generation his presence will be felt in Croke Park on Saturday afternoon. It's such a shame that he's not here to experience such beautiful times but he did his bit. In fact, he did more than his bit and his legacy will be there for all to see next Saturday.
We'll be thinking of you Denis and all those days that we spent talking about every sport under the sun instead of the maths that we were supposed to be studying.
By the way, he was a brilliant teacher too.