By Michael Lewis
On an emotional Friday afternoon at St. Brendan’s Parish in Dublin, Ireland Des McAleenan was remembered and eulogized by a religious leader and a close friend as his family and friends paid their final respects to the gregarious late goalkeeper coach.
McAleenan, the goalkeeper coach of the MetroStars/Red Bulls for a record nine seasons and who held similar positions with the U.S. Under-20 national team and the Colombia national side passed away Feb. 26. He was 53.
Limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the service was attended by about 20 people, although it was available via live streaming.
Father John Harrington and long-time friend Gary Cooper talked about the demons of mental health that tormented McAleenan in his later years.
Father Harrington noted that McAleenan loved music and dining out on special occasions and was someone who “related very well with people, loved traveling and also enjoyed the different nationalities.”
“Sadly, alongside that he suffered to recurrent bouts of dark depression, and it must have been at times really unbearable,” he said, adding that he read an interview about McAleenan on the internet about the late coach’s problems. “It just sounded absolutely terrible for him. Sadly, his tragic and untimely death occurred at the age of only 53. It was heartbreaking, and devastating to his family and particularly, but also to his many, many friends. The many glowing tributes to him on the internet, in the last few days, are testimony of the respect and esteem in which he was held.
“He had reached the very pinnacle of his of his career, and he was really, really respected, and it was terrible that he had to suffer this darkness from time to time. We know that the memories that he has left us with will help to ease the terrible blow of his loss. That will certainly be greatly missed. May he rest in peace.”
But for the most part, the 45-minute service, which also was streamed online, was a somber and proper remembrance and a celebration of a man who was quick with the wit, coached goalkeepers with a passion that was second to none and about someone who enjoyed life to its fullest.
“He was full of life,” Father Harrington said.
Indeed, he was, and then some.
Cooper said that he recently had joked with McAleenan that he would have loved to have had the coach do his eulogy.
“I don’t know whether you guys can remember the eulogy done for Mr. McAleenan [Des’ father],” he said. “It was great If you hadn’t seen it, it was Des at full pump, full of energy. It was just … was great.”
Cooper, who grew up with McAleenan and knew his friend for five decades, was the only person who spoke at the funeral about the late keeper. He mentioned many highlights of McAleenan’s life, on and off the soccer pitch and reading some tributes from friends and colleagues.
He read a response from Colombian national head coach Carlos Queiroz, who once directed the MetroStars.
“The best of football is over for me, leaving with you today,” Cooper read Queiroz’s sentiments.
Then he read the comments of former Red Bulls goalkeeper Jon Conway.
“The biggest thing about Des was his passion for the game,” Cooper said. “He made coming to work everyday fun and exciting. He was passionate about making his goalkeeper better.
“He was just so professional, to take notes. Post sessions, he’d analyze them before the next session. He was just the ultimate, the ultimate professional.”
Cooper then read the words of Jordan Sage Rettig of Boston, Mass. that McAleenan “gave me so much music through the years,” including “the life lessons and appreciation for the world around us both perfect and painful went far beyond the pitch. But I wouldn’t have found my way … without him.”
Cooper remembered meeting McAleenan when the latter was three-years-old. Des was all energy all the time.
“He was that kindhearted simple soul,” he said. “I first met Des over 50 years ago. We were next door neighbors. He was like that annoying little brother. It had been three years and a difference between us and I had my friends. Des would appear out of the blue from nowhere. He never stood still. He was jumping fences. He was running, He was just full of energy, amazing little kid. Sharp with the tongue as well and well able to handle the older guys. We used to love bringing him out because when you brought him out you knew it was going to be absolute mayhem. It was just it was unbelievable.”
While the soccer world knew about McAleenan’s passion for the beautiful game, he grew up also competing in judo and Gaelic football. In fact, he was a member of the St. David’s Gaelic team that captured the Under-15 national title. When he was 14, McAleenan made a choice to pursue one sport at which he excelled. He eventually journeyed to the United States in 1988 and attended and played for Central Connecticut State University for four years. That helped kick off a long career as a goalkeeper coach.
“Football was Des’ life,” Cooper said. “It was just on a daily basis. He just really loved that. He enjoyed the characters, the people, the travel absolutely everything. He made some great friends of high standing in the football world.”
He then rattled off the names of former Red Bulls standouts Tab Ramos, Juan Pablo Angel and Tony Meola.
McAleenan was perhaps a C or D student in English in school, Cooper said, but you wouldn’t have known it with his mastery of the spoken language.
“His use of the English language was amazing, absolutely amazing,” he added. “When he spoke, he was just brilliant. He was fluent. It just came off the tongue. He was quick witted. If we’re having a bit of banter with him there was no way you were going to win because he just outwitted you all the time.”
Cooper said that McAleenan also had a huge desire to be fluent in Spanish, which I call it was absolutely amazing.”
“I heard conversations between himself and some Spanish speaking guys on the phone last summer and like it was absolutely amazing,” he added. “But he didn’t think he was up to up to the standards that he wanted to achieve. The ultimate professional.”
Cooper added that McAleenan “had an immense love of nature,” he he loved walking. When his friend visited Belfast, Northern Ireland last year, he went to Derry, climbing mountains and a keen interest in the history of cities.
After the service, McAleenan’s body was cremated.
McAleenan, the youngest of four siblings, is survived by his mother Bernie, three sisters, Caroline, Grace and Mandy, nieces, nephews, great nieces and great nephews.
“He’s a great friend,” Cooper said. “I treated him like a brother. I’m going to miss him, really, really miss him.”
So will many other people.