A friend’s tribute to Joe

Here is a beautiful tribute to the Captain from a Clonliffe friend on behalf of us all:

“Stop all the clocks. Cut off the telephone. Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone , silence the pianos and with muffled drum. Bring out the coffin , let the mourners come. 

These familiar lines from W.H.Auden summed up our feelings on hearing that our Captain had passed away . Captain Joe , who had become synonymous with the name of Clonliffe over the last twenty years , was no longer with us . And even though we had been expecting this for some time , yet , when it came, the hammer blow finality and stark reality of it left us all devastated. How could this be ? Joe , a force of nature , a dynamo of fun, mischief and energy, was gone from this earth .

We had become so accustomed to seeing Joe in moments of victory , holding aloft the trophies for the National Senior Cross Country and the National Track and Field League that he seemed indestructible. But, in many ways, Joe’s finest hour was the way he coped with his illness over the last year. Never ,not even for a moment, did we hear him rail against the cruel unfairness of it; he wasn’t long retired and, bubbling with energy,  was looking forward to giving many more years of service to the sport and the Club he loved so well. He looked forward confidently to seeing many of his young protégés develop into senior international athletes.

Sadly, it was not to be. Yet , he  just accepted it in a matter of fact way . “ It is what it is “ was his stoic response to his diagnosis. He endured a number of lonely isolation spells in hospital during the months of treatment. But his spirit was never broken . He constantly kept in touch with the coaches , asking for regular updates on their sessions . And when he got an all too brief respite during the Summer and Autumn , he attended every workout on Tuesdays , Thursdays and Saturdays as well as the Club races which were held in July and August. Never a tinge of sentimentality or regret from Joe . Still slaggin’ everybody; still uttering his famous trademark comments: “Don’t settle!”, “ Put away your sword – you’ve killed enough!”  “ Rust never sleeps !” “ Better to be looking at it than looking for it!”

He had no fear of death : just a feeling of having been robbed of the satisfaction of seeing so many of his protégés develop the potential which he had nurtured. Joe came to us in Clonliffe from Civil Service . We never learned the transfer fee. Fogo , Joe’s best frenemy , swore that we got him on a “ free”. Many in the Club eventually reckoned that this was tantamount to Leeds letting Cantona go to United . Joe had been a very respectable Club runner – a 2:30 marathon man . He had also been a boxer ( hence his penchant for throwing a few pugilistic shapes every now and again ). He had also been a very promising footballer, playing regularly with that great Northside nursery , Home Farm. He described himself as “ a nifty winger “ playing in the position then known as “outside left” . Of course Fogo claimed he was more often left outside than outside left.

He soon proved himself to be a phenomenal worker for Clonliffe  , always willing to carry out any task for the Club . Indeed , he never even needed to be asked : if he saw that something required to be done , he just got on and did it. We all know that Joe had a wicked , mischievous sense of humour . When he became Captain he started proclaiming that he would “ make Clonliffe great again “. He knew that this might ruffle a few feathers on the elders of the Club but he could say things like this in a way that you just knew there wasn’t an ounce of malice in it . And no, Joe did not make Clonliffe great,( it’s been great since 1886) , but Joe most certainly made Clonliffe greater . Greater than at any time in the Club’s long , illustrious history . His record of success would make even Sir Alex Ferguson envious . Indeed, on one occasion his son Joe Junior accused him of fancying himself as Sir Alex . This was the sort of banter that was quite common between Joe and his children. To hear Joe and Pamela exchange pleasantries, you’d swear they could kill each other . But this was their way of showing their love for each other , a love that was so palpable behind the slagging. Many of us often wished to be a fly on the wall when the Cooper family sat down to dinner, especially on those occasions (admittedly rare) when Pamela’s girls stole a march on Joe’s boys . The craic went way over 90 !

When a reporter from The Irish Runner asked Joe how he had managed to do such a remarkable coaching job on Efrem Gidey despite the language barrier, Joe simply said “ Well , I reared five kids of my own “.  ‘Nuff said . Joe knew how to get the best out of his young athletes . He knew when to encourage and when to give tough love .  When a lad started making excuses Joe simply uttered another of his famous catch phrases “ Not interested “. And yet ,he most certainly was interested- always interested in the welfare of the athletes he coached . He was a father figure to them all and indeed it  was noted by many people , including AAI officials, that Joe had a very holistic approach to coaching. To put it quite simply : Joe cared. If an athlete of his got injured, he was prepared to drive him or her all over the country in order to get the very best treatment.

In spite of his extraordinary success , Joe remained a humble , down to earth man . Hard to imagine certain high profile managers or coaches prepared to do the mundane tasks that Joe did all the time .I suppose if he ever started developing airs and graces, Gladys ,the love of his life, would bring him back down to earth fairly fast ! Indeed, he revelled in the jobs which required hard, honest manual work. He loved helping Seán Callan’s crew to mark and lay out  cross country courses . He was in his element on those occasions. Working “out the back “ , driving stakes into the ground, while all the while slaggin’ his fellow workers. His verbal jousts with Fogo were legendary. Fogo was his best friend , but to listen to them “ arguing” you would swear they were mortal enemies. Joe, in typically mischievous fashion , started a rumour that Fogo was desperately keen to be admitted to the nefarious group known as THE  GOATS. Fogo swore he wouldn’t want to go anywhere near that bunch of rogues .Joe was adamant : Fogo would give anything to be allowed to join and Joe was equally adamant that if Fogo applied for membership, he would take great pleasure in vetoing his admittance ! Such was the nature of the banter. It did not prevent them from laying out the finest and most picturesque courses in the country.

During the races , Joe would expend as much energy as the athletes as he encouraged, exhorted and cajoled his troops around the course , ensuring that they gave their all for the cause. Joe instigated the practice of having a tent on the sidelines with the Clonliffe flag outside it . The athletes could shelter here before and after the race. It was here too that Joe met his troops after battle, to congratulate some , to commiserate with others , to slag everyone. But if he saw that a young athlete was really upset by what happened in the race , he was quick to put his arm around their shoulder and pick them up with words of encouragement and advice. Invariably he finished with some funny remark that put a smile back on the athlete’s face again. When the competition was over , Joe still did not rest on his laurels. He joined Paddy Marley , John O’Leary , Noel Guiden , Stephen Bateson , Noel Daly , Gerry Carr, et al. to dismantle the course . Only when everything was back in its proper place did Joe relax and head for the Club for a well earned pint. But first he had to get a cup of tea.

Joe loved his tea. He must have drank umpteen cups of the brew in the Bar on Thursday nights with Fogo as they held court and gave lessons in the art of b*******ing to a couple of young disciples who hung on their every word . And there had to be a row over whose turn it was to supply the biscuits. Any excuse ! But Thursday was also the night for more serious matters – financial matters . “Did you do your Lotto” became another one of Joe’s well known phrases. Some people tried to give him the body swerve on this one but there was no escaping. Joe even inveigled people from other clubs ( whisper it : even from The Noisy Neighbours)  to support the lotto. Rumour had it that Joe waylaid the Pope on his way from the airport to buy a ticket . After taking an envelope from him, He’d ask you what numbers you picked and , on hearing your choice , then say “ Naw , no chance “. But the lotto was another one of the many brilliant developments that Joe introduced. It was solely to raise money to send teams to the European Clubs’ cross country and track and field competitions.

He also had the brilliant idea to use the lotto money to subsidise the bringing along of young athletes on these trips . He did this not just so that the young athletes would get a race with a certain internal dimension , but so that they would be inspired and motivated by seeing some of the greatest runners in Europe – or possibly the World -in action . He was always thinking of how to improve, how to innovate , how to maintain success. “ Rust never sleeps” was another one of his favourite phrases. And Joe was constantly on the job . He frequented schools’ races and Community Games to see if he could recruit new talent . Many a youngster met Joe for the first time after such an under age Meet . “ Are you in a club” was the first question Joe asked after congratulating the youngster. And if the answer was negative, Joe wasted no time in recruiting that boy or girl.

He had the vision to set up a proper training and coaching structure for young athletes in the Club . (Although , perhaps ,it’s Gladys who should get the credit for this as she was Juvenile Captain before Joe came to us on that free (?) transfer. ! ) He always gave very sound advice to the young runners . He often told them “ There are no medals for training lads” to ensure they didn’t leave their best running in training but to save it for the races. Another wise piece of advice was “ I don’t care whether or not you’re running well at 14 or 15 : I want to see you running well when you’re 24 or 25 “. He was very conscious that many youngsters shine like meteorites for a brief moment and then just fizzle out . Consequently, he got great satisfaction from seeing some of his protégés, such as Colm Rooney , Dave Flynn, Eoin Pierce and Jayme Rossiter , win National Senior titles. He got a huge thrill of satisfaction from Efrem’s fantastic run in last year’s European Junior Cross . Sadly , it coincided with the start of his ill health and he was unable to be present in Portugal to witnesses Efrem’s great performance.

Joe always claimed that ,as a former athlete, he had “got out at the top”. As Captain he was also poised to get out on top as he had the immense pleasure and satisfaction of seeing both his Junior and Senior cross country teams capture their respective National titles on that brilliant Sunday in Abbotstown, November 24 , 2019. Hard to believe now that it was only a year ago . But many people commented on Joe’s pallor that day . The signs were already ominous. But it didn’t prevent Joe from celebrating his momentous achievement in style . He always loved Cake Race Night or Captain’s Night as it has become known .On those nights , Joe loved to show his slick moves on the dance floor . Advised by his doctors not to travel to Portugal he viewed Efrem’s stunning run on a live stream . We will always remember his emotional reunion with Efrem in Dublin airport when the young hero returned home . As Efrem said afterwards : “ Joe was like a dad to me”. 

Little did we know then that Joe was facing into the toughest battle of his life – a battle which he finally succumbed to last Monday . The cruel pandemic prevented the huge crowds who wanted to pay their respects to Joe from attending the Church service. But Clonliffe members were determined to show their esteem and affection for their Captain. And so , they lined the roadway for a quarter of a mile before and after Morton Stadium as Joe did his final victory lap. No athlete on that famous track has ever received such a spontaneous, warm show of affection and appreciation as  Joe did on his lap of honour.

And how to finish ? Do we look to Auden again as he closes his poem as follows “The stars are not wanted now, put out every one ; Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun; Pour out the ocean and sweep up the wood; For nothing now can come to any good “.  Is that how we’ll finish ?  Somehow, I don’t think so . And I think that if Joe were to read the lines by Auden , famous poet or not , he would not be impressed. Indeed he might even dismiss it with a famous Pádraig Keane comment : “What a load of b*****ology “ . So, instead let us conclude as follows with this reflection:

We can shed tears that he is gone                

Or we can smile because he lived.                

We can close our eyes and pray that he’ll come back ,                                                      

Or we can open our eyes and see what he has left.                                                              

Our hearts can be empty because we can’t see him,                                                            

Or we can be full of the love that we shared.

We can turn our backs on tomorrow and live for yesterday,                                                  

Or we can be happy for tomorrow because of yesterday.                                                        

We can remember him and only think that he has gone ,                                                        

Or we can cherish his memory and let it live on .                                                                   

We can cry and close our eyes , be empty and turn our backs;                                         

Or we can do what he would want:            

Smile , open our eyes , love AND GO ON.”

– by a Friend