Joe Brolly: Clubs an afterthought but still the essence of our game
We were sitting in the changing room before the first round of the Derry championship in 1997 against Glenullen when Geoffrey Varney, a supporter, came through the door not exactly sober, his eyes flashing danger.
"I have wan thing to say boys, that badly needs saying," he said. The room went silent. No one had a clue what was coming next. Geoffrey is a big, strong man and, with a few drinks in him, no one was asking him to stop.
"There's a man here that can win us another championship. He has two already from '87 and '91."
That narrowed the field. I looked around excitedly, thinking 'somebody's for it'. But then... "He's done fuck all for this team for six years now. Last year in the county final he was an embarrassment. Two points from play?" he roared. "Two fucking points?"
I could feel my face getting hot.
"Joe Brolly," he bellowed, striding towards me and leaning right up into my face. "Are you going to fucking lead us this year or do you not give a fuck about your club any more?"
He glowered at me. No one said a word. Then: "Come on to fuck, sir. It's time for you to give something back."
With that, he turned and walked out of the room, leaving me shell-shocked. The GPA, who seem to genuinely believe they invented mental health, would have been horrified. Their celebrity wellness spokesmen would have lined up to criticise Geoffrey for his insensitivity at a time when men's mental health is so fragile. The thing is, Geoffrey was spot on.
I had been coasting since winning the All-Ireland in '93, not absorbing myself in the club. Not respecting the group or the town. I hadn't even realised it until he said what needed to be said.
I despise the motivational, 'positive thought' industry. For me, it is bullshit designed to part fools from their money. You won't find what Geoffrey did in any of the sports psychology manuals or best-selling books like 'The Ten Commandments of the Sporting Greats', 'The Seven Rules for Winners', 'How to Win on the Sports Field and Become a Millionaire in the Process', etc. No. Big Geoffrey Varney did the trick for me and it wasn't just free, but bullshit-free.
We blazed through Derry and Ulster that year, eventually walloping Errigal Ciaran in the final in November. What he managed to do was free me from all the crap that can begin to drag you down when you achieve national fame. Suddenly, I was alive on the pitch again, living every second. Funny, I didn't blow a kiss throughout that entire campaign. The team's chemistry soared. We were all pulling together. It was my greatest footballing experience.
Alongside me, Geoffrey McGonigle was a spectator sport in himself, delighting us and the crowds with his touch and audacity. For such a big chap, he has incredible co-ordination and hand speed. One of his trademarks over the years has been his bewildering hand-to-toe dummy, where the defender or goalie dives towards where he thought the ball was being kicked, only to get a handful of fresh air, and that embarrassing feeling that comes from being had. Meanwhile, the ball is nestling in the onion bag.
I had the pleasure and frustration of playing alongside him for 14 years, and there were many times when you could only marvel at his wizardry. He wasn't quick enough or athletic enough for the county, so only played now and again. But for the club, he was a superstar.
I was at the peak of my powers and scored heavily for the team, but it was Geoffrey who everyone came to see. He was a scoring machine, but first and foremost he was a great entertainer and character. He is the only man I know who could carry on a dialogue with the referee in the middle of a solo run. I remember in particular his suspicion of the perfectly good referee, Chicken McErlean, who Geoffrey truly believed was out to get him.
A good example of this came one evening at our pitch in a league game against Magherafelt. Eamonn Lennox was their full-back. He is a son of Eddie, who played corner-back for Bellaghy when they won the All-Ireland club title in 1971. Safe to say, Eamonn was the most horrible opponent in the county. He particularly enjoyed driving Geoffrey insane, drawling in his ear ("Jesus, Geoffrey, you need to go to WeightWatchers"), pulling, dragging, tripping and generally winding the big man up.
Anyway, that night at the field, early in the game, a high ball came in towards them on the 30. Geoffrey caught it one-handed, with Eamonn wrapped around his upper body like a boa constrictor. "For fuck sake Chick, he's fucking hanging off me," he shouted as he soloed towards goal. "Get your fucking hands off me Lennox, you dirty bastard."
Chick, running alongside, waved play on. "Are you fucking blind, Chick?" he roared, before dummy-soloing Lennox, then feigning to kick with his left, before rounding the 'keeper and dinking it to the empty net with the elegance of a butler bringing afternoon tea. He immediately turned, brushed me aside as I went to worship at his feet, and ran straight to Chick, shouting: "Chick, you bastard, what do I have do to get a free?"
Who says men can't multi-task?
The joy of bringing the Ulster cup into the jam-packed clubhouse that winter's night in November is still vivid. At this time of year, when real football is finally being played in real competitions, it brings home to us the essence of the game. Friends, community, togetherness.
The clubs might be an afterthought to the hierarchy. The county boards might be run like any League of Ireland club, for the benefit only of the county team. We might have to endure being squeezed in at the end of the county season. We might have to - as Burt were forced to last weekend - play their intermediate county final on a Saturday, then the first round of Ulster the next day against Bredagh. (The Bredagh coach told me the Burt men were absolutely out on their feet, losing 2-10 to 0-3.)
We might shake our heads in disgust when we see the hierarchy giving €6.5 million a year to a private, commercially-run company, acting for the benefit of a few county players and whose work seems to consist mainly of helping university graduates to write CVs and raising money in America.
And we might wonder why the GAA is selling TV rights to a pay channel no one watches. But when it comes down to it, sitting in O'Moore Park or Ballybofey or Tuam on a freezing day in October, reminds us why we still love the GAA. Blind refs and all.
Sunday Indo Sport