Philly McGuinness came into this world in most auspicious circumstances. On 29 February, 1984 he arrived, the third son of Michael and Phil McGuinness. It was four years to the day that his brother John was also born a leap-year baby. The odds of two brothers being born on February 29 are 2,134,521 to one according to mathematicians.
Tragically Philly's life would end in similarly improbable circumstances. An accidental collision during a game on Saturday, 17 April – the likes of which is witnessed every weekend at sporting matches across an array of codes – stole him from his family, friends and teammates. He died two days later, never having regained consciousness.
He was playing for his beloved Mohill club in a senior league match against Melvin Gaels in Annaduff. It should have been a home game for Mohill but their ground, which is to be renamed the Philly McGuinness Memorial Park, is closed for renovation. With two minutes of the first half to play Philly had already covered virtually every blade of grass on the pitch. We, the Melvin Gaels with whom I have played with all my life but am reduced to a selector's role this year due to a knee injury, had placed our fittest defender on Philly in an attempt to curtail his inevitable influence from his wing-forward berth. Our man was already out on his feet tailing the Mohill and Leitrim star.
It was a feeling familiar to most players in Leitrim at some stage or other, gasping for oxygen and respite as they followed Philly's dancing shadow around a pitch; that 'Willo the Wisp' in Mohill's green and white.
In many ways Philly McGuinness embodied the requirements essential for a great Leitrim footballer – honesty of endeavour, selfless team attitude and an indefatigable energy and hunger for victory. But Philly brought flair and a beautiful grace to the game too, marking himself out from a young age with his lion's heart and his mazy runs, with the big ball or small.
As anyone who played with or against Philly knows he always played with his heart on his sleeve, a trait obviously instilled in every McGuinness at a young age. You could identify him as a McGuinness by the way he played. He shared Michael's graceful physique and tireless lungs and legs and John's work-rate and team ethic, but he also brought his own distinctly Philly signature to elements of his play.
For me it was all about his timing. He just had that knack of knowing where to be and when, on arriving before the ball, intuitively, of leaping at the perfect moment to field a kick-out at its apex, of appearing on a teammate's shoulder when he needed assistance the most.
We both played wing-forward for Leitrim and while I often studied his breaking-ball winning abilities with admiration, I knew it was pointless to try and figure out how he managed to excel at this most difficult of skills. It was pure instinct and a skill Philly made his own and I always admired him for it.
It was a topic we discussed once or twice, and wanting to deflect any praise I might offer him for fear it might add weight to his boots, Philly would reply with his trademark catchphrase: "That's just the way I roll, Rego," and he'd laugh that distinctive laugh of his.
It's how I'll always see him in my mind's eye – with his boyish swagger racing into the middle of a cauldron of six-foot-plus midfielders and emerging fleet-footed to tear off up the wing with ball in hand in front of him and his red locks flowing behind.
That just seemed to suit his personality. Philly always played with a spring in his step and a glint in his eyes, ready, willing and able to take on the big boys.
Off the pitch there are so many that knew him better than I and so I feel unqualified to do justice to the man that was Philly McGuinness. All I can say is that to his Leitrim teammates he was our source of fun, a one-line comedy king who could lead by example whether we needed inspiration or amusement.
"A bit of villainy and rascalment," explained Matt Gaffney, who provided the elegant and poignant graveside eulogy, was a turn of phrase that regularly passed the lips of Philly's late father Michael, and from hearing 101 other fond stories about that famous man over the past week it's clear Philly didn't get his love for a bit of devilment off the wind.
I took the opportunity last night to read through the book of condolences on the Leitrim GAA website and the Facebook page which has been opened in Philly's memory and as I read the myriad messages from every corner of the globe, I felt a wonderful sense of pride in knowing the man who stirred such sentiments. Reading them would break your heart and mend it all at once.
Philly's death reverberated around the GAA world because every player and team, every mother and father, knew it could just as easily have been their number 10 who didn't get to play to the final whistle on that fateful Saturday evening.
To the Mohill club and wider community I say thank you from the bottom of my heart on behalf of the Melvin Gaels. The generosity of thought and spirit of solidarity shown to our team and officials spread the weight of a great burden across all our shared shoulders. To Philly's mother Phil, and brothers John and Michael, you remain in our every thought and prayer. While Philly can never be replaced his spirit continues to shine like the sun did over Mohill even through its darkest hour when you laid him to his eternal rest. I hope when the immediate shock recedes and the fullness of the loss of a son and brother as beautiful as Philly comes home, you will find some comfort in the unprecedented out-pouring of love and respect his passing provoked and the wonderful memories he left behind.
And finally to Philly. Even in death you continue to inspire and while we mourn your loss we also celebrate a life lived to the full. I look forward to one day proudly stepping onto the grass of Philly McGuinness Memorial Park, the new theatre of dreams for Mohill's rising young stars, where they can try and emulate one of its favourite sons.
To sign the book of condolences opened in honour of Philly McGuinness go to www.leitrimgaa.ie
Colin Regan is a former Leitrim teammate of Philly McGuinness