Thursday 8 December 2016

Joe Brolly: Hennelly's 'classy statement' was just a PR exercise that sums up Mayo's celebrity losers

Joe Brolly

Published 09/10/2016 | 18:00

Rob Hennelly on the Sport Stage during day two of the 2015 Web Summit
Rob Hennelly on the Sport Stage during day two of the 2015 Web Summit

When Floyd Patterson defended his heavyweight world title, he came with a false moustache and wig in his bag, so that he could slip out the back entrance unnoticed afterwards. Stephen Cluxton would understand that.

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Goalkeepers have to have enormous psychological strength. It is the most important position on the field. Everyone else can allow their concentration to wander now and again. Wing-backs and wing-forwards can take a wee rest and leave the tackling to someone else and if a wing-back scores a point, or gets 25 touches, he is in the running for MVP.

The 'keeper does not have this luxury. He must be eternally safe, which means he must have no doubts or distractions. It requires a certain type of person.

When I played for Derry, Damien McCusker was our 'keeper. For over a decade, he was a given. I can't remember his name ever being mentioned in team talks. I can't ever remember him speaking in team meetings. Not that he was shy. The opposite. He was a serious, thoughtful, self-sufficient person.

He didn't need a pat on the back or praise. In fact, he wouldn't have thanked you for it. So we never praised him. When we were doing the hugging and the 'well done' stuff after games, we steered clear of Damien.

You would have felt embarrassed somehow to congratulate him. He never did interviews. He had no interest in publicity. I truly loved his younger brother Fergal and still do. Rooster, we call him. Rooster was the opposite, a man glowing with mischief and fun and capable of doing anything. Often, when he was telling anecdotes, the changing room rocked with laughter.

Everyone loved him. Once, he got drunk in a disco in Roscommon the night before we opened a pitch. The boys carried his stool out into the middle of the dance floor and after a few moments, he fell off. When he appeared at breakfast the next morning with a black eye, Eamonn Coleman, a teetotaller, took one look at him and dropped him.

On the way home after the match on the bus, Coleman roared with laughter as Rooster described his antics the night before. No one could stay cross at him. Damien, meanwhile, was a silent, calm presence. He rarely spoke, unless something had to be said, and then it was short and to the point.

He was the best 'keeper in the country for years, but never won an accolade. This was because he went largely unnoticed. He did his job and his defence in front of him were able to relax. He was also one of the most sought-after 'keepers in the Irish League. He played part-time for Distillery, and although he was courted by all the big clubs, he turned them down. Derry was his priority.

Self-sufficiency is the key ingredient for the 'keeper. He is part of the team, but he is alone, remote. In Dave Berry's hugely enjoyable documentary on Dublin's 2005 championship, Dublin win the Leinster final against Laois, something that wasn't a given in those days.

The team is going mental on the field. Cluxton walks towards the podium, then turns and leaves the field and goes into the empty Dublin dressing room. He tells the narrator: "This is not really for me. I'm out to play football and that's really all it is. It's nothing else." So he showers in an empty dressing room as his team-mates bounce around the pitch throwing water over each other, fist-pumping and singing, "Fourteen on, fourteen off, Jimmy on the sideline having a gawk". Marty Morrissey appears in the dressing room, he asked Cluxton why he isn't out basking in the atmosphere. "Nah," he says, "it's not for me."

In the 2003 qualifier against reigning champions Armagh at Croke Park, Dublin were flying by half-time and looking good. Shortly after the restart Dublin were 0-8 to 0-4 up, when Cluxton cleared a ball safely, then unaccountably kicked out at Stevie McDonnell, booting him in plain view of the referee. He was sent off and Dublin immediately collapsed.

Armagh reeled off the next three points into the Hill, with McDonnell running riot. It was one of the rare occasions Stevie didn't score a goal. I mentioned it to him once and he said, "Goals are for big games, that was only a qualifier."

Dublin managed only three more points in the game, with Armagh winning 0-15 to 0-11. I said on the TV afterwards that Cluxton should be ashamed of himself and his conduct was a disgrace and he'd thrown the game away. Which he had.

About eight or nine years later, I bumped into him at an event in Dublin where he was with his team-mates. I went to shake his hand and he said, "Before you do that, I want to tell you that for years I thought of breaking your jaw. I will never forgive you for what you said." That's a goalie. No bullshit.

A few years later he was kicking the epic winning free to beat Kerry and win his first All-Ireland. Tomás ó Sé gave him the match ball afterwards and he promptly gave it away. He sat in the changing room waiting for his team-mates to come in from the pitch. Next morning he was back at school, teaching as usual.

When they won again in 2013, they wore 'Opt for Life' for the Goal game and afterwards I sat beside Stephen in Parnell Park while they had their post-match meal. He chatted a little, but mostly just sat there enjoying the craic from his team-mates. Philly McMahon flexing his guns and giving me the eye. The room filled with banter.

David Clarke is a goalkeeper. He barely speaks off the field. Has no interest in the media. Reserved, composed, self-assured, the limelight is not for him. When he came on last Saturday in the middle of a shit storm, he immediately restored order. He had a 100pc success rate with his kick-outs and made two decisive, confident interventions, catching one ball and punching the other 30 yards to safety.

Like all real goalkeepers, there is a circle of calm around him. The only thing that exists is the ball and the game. Alone, remote, and entirely self-sufficient.

That is why the decision to drop him for Rob Hennelly is all the more astonishing. Hennelly seems a good lad, but was no sooner out of the shower than he was embracing his experience, as though it were some noble tragedy. The sort of guff you might expect to hear on daytime TV from one of the guests who has just been chatting about his love of Egyptian cotton pyjamas as he tastes the celebrity chef's black pudding and macaroon sandwich. Or from a motivational guru at the pendulum summit:

"I'll never be able to fully describe what was going through my head at this moment. What I was expecting to be one of my best days turned out to be the opposite, and it breaks my heart that I didn't come through for my team and county."

It got worse.

"It is not a good place to be, but I know I have to come back from it, I still believe I have something to offer this team and my county, so now is not the time to relent. I have to say that the support I've received has been incredible and the messages from friends, family, former team-mates, players from other counties, and of course the Mayo supporters, has helped me immensely."

Rob's concluding remarks can only be read to the backdrop of thrilling orchestral music, say the Titanic theme:

"I don't know where I'll be in a year's time, but I do know that I'm not going to give up. I love Mayo and this team too much to do that. Maigh Eo abú."

Jesus wept.

The tabloids love those 'puppy rescued from a tree' stories: 'Heartbroken Rob breaks silence' (the shortest vow of silence in history?) 'Mayo 'keeper posts classy statement.' 'Hennelly determined to bounce back from Croke Park anguish' .

It was like a celebrity break-up, save for the fact he didn't say he was consciously uncoupling from Mayo. Rob could incorporate this experience into his motivational talks for the GPA and the Web Summit. His strap-line on his Twitter account reads: 'Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.'

I said before the final there were some celebrity losers in this Mayo group. I meant by that that some of them are not serious footballers, fully absorbed in the battle. While that remains the case, the warriors on the team will carry them to finals, but will continue to be beaten by the handicap on the biggest day.

When a 'keeper's meltdown is turned into a heart-warming PR exercise, it is not hard to see why Mayo didn't win the All-Ireland.

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