Tuesday 23 May 2017

Joe Brolly: 'I've never asked you for anything. Score a goal against these b******s and blow kisses'

Joe Brolly

Stephen John Leighton, a 53-year-old man of good character, pleaded guilty at Coleraine Magistrates' Court on Monday to two charges of criminal damage.

The reason for this unusual behaviour? His neighbour in the flat above had been playing Nathan Carter's song 'Wagon Wheel' on a loop. Over and over and over it went.

Headin down south to the land of the pines

I'm thumbin my way into North Caroline (there's no such place, it's well seen Nathan has never been)

Starin up the road and pray to God I see headlights (all C&W songs mention the big guy)

Made it down the coast in 17 hours

Picking me up a bouquet of dogwood flowers (C&W lyricists could write lines for Yoda)

And I'm a hopin' I can see my baby tonight.

I saw a picture of Carter the other day and he was singing while playing the accordion. All I can say is Lord for my sake, teach me to take, one day at a time. The first principle of all country songs is that they must be able to be understood and sung by two-year-olds. For example: 'Me and my girl we loved each other so/ as we watched that old picture show/ I remember the night of that old accident/ that big darned truck just cut her in two/ I stood there all alone/ Watching the river flow by etc etc."

Celestine Fay, God rest him, the well-loved recording engineer with Outlet records in Belfast, told a story once about a C&W artiste who was recording 'The Four Pall Bearers'. The general idea is that it is a very sad song about four pall bearers carrying that little white coffin out of that little white chapel and so on and so forth. After it had been sung through a few times by the singer, a somewhat perplexed Celestine called him over from the studio into the mixing area and said, "What exactly are you singing there? Say the words for me." The singer said, "There were four polar bears, carrying the coffin . . ."

Is it any wonder poor Mr Leighton broke? Who wouldn't?

According to the prosecutor, he flipped, charged upstairs, roaring something along the lines of, " If I hear that f***ing song one more time, I'll break that f***ing stereo." Then, "Open that f***ing door" before smashing two windows. The CIA could have extracted confessions from every innocent man in Guantanamo if only they'd played 'Wagon Wheel' on a loop through the loudspeakers. That lethal cocktail of accordion, false American accent and one-syllable words would have broken the Good Lord himself.

Derry's very own wagon wheel of torture is rolling into Celtic Park today. We used to be equals. In my day, we used to whoop Tyrone's asses more often than not. A championship game between us was a hair-raising event where the spectators' heart rates soared beyond safe limits and they came away hoarse and either jubilant or devastated.

I remember one Ulster semi-final, I think it was possibly 1997, where before I left the house, my brother Proinnsias said to me, his voice filled with emotion. "I've never asked you for anything Joe. I'm asking you now (pause) . . . Score a goal against these b******s today. And blow kisses. Sicken them."

"Anything else?" I asked, laughing.

"Not that I can think of offhand."

I did what he asked. To the letter. Pinged one past that huge man Finbar McConnell to kill the game. I took the pass at an acute angle to the left of the goals, then gave a tiny dummy to the right, by showing the ball with my right hand and arm and looking briefly to the far post. (I like to call it the half-Mulligan. The full Mulligan, named in honour of Tyrone's master dummier, is a double dummy where you show the ball with your outside hand and arm, then as you bring it back towards your side, you pretend to handpass it with your free hand, then bring it back again. It is a rare art, practised only by the great masters. Please do not try it at home.)

After the half dummy, I put that good ole size 5 where it was a beggin' to be put, tousled McConnell's hair as he punched the ground and said, "That's the problem with big men, they can't get down quick enough." Then, remembering my promise, I calmly walked behind the goals blowing kisses slowly and deliberately at the Tyrone hordes, who were purple-faced with rage. They hurled bottles and cans and whatever they had, all bouncing off the netting. It wouldn't be possible to find a more emotional moment on a sports field. As I got back to my spot (I should explain to younger readers that in those days we had things called positions), I shouted over at McConnell, "The next one will be a lob, don't go down too quickly Herman. A lob." He reacted like the woman in Father Ted who compliments him for being a racist, his fury causing him to do a sort of breakdance on the spot. The Derry team was bouncing. Tyrone were broken.

In 1995, they had done the same to us, beating us with a last-minute point. I had a broken arm from the league final and sat in the stand that day feeling sick as they showed more courage than us. They were down to 13 men. We had 14. They beat us because they put it up to us and we lay down. We left devastated. They left jubilant. A few years ago, Chris Lawn, the outstanding former Tyrone full-back, was asked what his greatest ever sporting moment was and he said, "Beating Derry with 13 men". It had always been the way between us. I never for a moment imagined this would change.

The thought didn't enter my head that after we were retired, Derry teams would begin to be routinely beaten by Tyrone. Save for one serious stand against them in Omagh in 2006 when we went to war against a complacent Tyrone (we were 0-6 to 0-0 up at half-time and went on to win easily) we have been easily beaten. The worst is that we have reached the stage now where Tyrone fans are sympathising with us. A few years ago after a game, a Tyrone man said to me, "I have to be honest Joe. I miss the old days when the games were cliffhangers". How do you react to that, only want to go and lie down in a dark place?

In a way, it was inevitable. In the days before Jimmy, Gaelic football was an ad hoc, unpredictable affair, where the best players usually won the day but the vagaries of man-to-man football meant anything could happen. Now, with the appliance of science, big, better resourced counties have an enormous advantage, so long as the coaches know their business. Like pro sports. Tyrone is a huge Catholic, nationalist county, with no hurling, no rugby and little or no soccer. Their centre of excellence in Garvaghey would make Manchester City's Arab owners jealous. They have planned for success since Mark Conway and his group of fellow visionaries first sat down and began plotting Ulster and All-Ireland domination in 1995.

They had a 10-year plan to win Sam. As it turned out, it took them eight. Now, they are a footballing superpower. With very few stars, they almost beat Kerry in last year's semi-final. They are the 2015 under 21 champions with a group of super-fit automatons executing a game plan that is essentially a series of set-plays. Basically, they are a professional Gaelic football county, with huge numbers playing. Their support in the county is unanimous and fanatical. Money is flowing in. For a young Tyrone footballer, playing for the county is the very point of life. Derry, meanwhile, is a tiny GAA county. The main Catholic population is Derry city, which is 99 per cent soccer. There are a handful of Catholic GAA areas in North Derry. Slightly more in rural South Derry. We have about a fifth of Tyrone's financial clout. And we are ten years behind them when it comes to strategy. The result - a bit like what is happening the once-epic rivalry between Dublin and Meath - is crushing supremacy.

Four times they have played us this year. Four times they have beaten us. Mickey Harte said last week - echoing the Tyrone supporter who missed the old days, "In fairness, Derry were competitive in two of those games." Which was nothing more than propaganda. The truth is that in both games Derry - on the face of it - were in a winning position but never looked like actually winning it. Coming down the home straight, Tyrone utterly dominated. The fourth game in the saga was the recent league meeting in Healy Park where the mainly Tyrone crowd sat in near silence, chatting and shooting the breeze, as Tyrone casually annihilated us with their uber-modern, uber-efficient system.

Celtic Park used to be a citadel. The team I played on went through a 10-year spell unbeaten there. It was something deep in us. Something non-negotiable. Anybody who came there got whooped. Those days are long gone. It is now 18 years since our last Ulster title. For a while, I thought our problem was cyclical, that some day we'd have great players again, and we'd have another great adventure. Just like the people of Meath think. But I am starting to see that this is a sentimental illusion.

We are tied to a Wagon Wheel. In Celtic Park today, those wheels will just keep on turnin'.

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