Monday 24 October 2016

Joe Brolly: 'The Joy of Sex' has inspired me to write a book on all that is good about Gaelic Football

Joe Brolly

Published 06/12/2015 | 15:40

The Joy of Football
The Joy of Football

In 1972, author Alex Comfort published The Joy of Sex: The Gourmet Guide to Lovemaking. It was banned and went on to become a huge triumph, stimulating a real debate about sex and reminding us that it is nothing to be ashamed of.

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A pocket edition was swiftly published, so even the most inexperienced novice could consult the illustrations at short notice if he or she struck lucky on a weekend. It was a watershed moment, bringing sex out from the shadows and into the mainstream. It taught us that sex is not something to be afraid of. Instead, it is something to be savoured, enjoyed and openly discussed.

The Joy of Sex is now widely regarded as a formative part of the sexual revolution. It has taught us that sex is an essential component of a healthy work/play balance.

I wrote last week that if you want to see football, you'll have to go watch a club game. I was in Navan for a chatshow a few weeks ago and one of the lads, now retired but still close to the team, told me the Meath senior footballers are already training together five days a week, not including their personal training itinerary.

One of Tyrone's young stars, their under 21 captain, is in hospital after sustaining a serious ankle injury last week after a series of heavy sessions on consecutive nights. On Tuesday, I spoke to one of the DCU players and he told me they are training twice a day, Monday to Friday, 7.30am and 7.30pm. Add to that their trips home for county training and challenge matches and there really is no time for life.

The boredom is compounded by the robotic nature of the football.

It is a countrywide problem. The boys submit to whatever is required of them, play micro-managed, formulaic, defensive football and become bored out of their wits. It used to be that Gaelic football was a release from everyday pressures. Now, it has become the everyday pressure. No wonder the then GAA president Seán McCague suggested in 2001 that if county football kept going the way it was, we might have to consider its abolition.

At the time, people thought it was an extremist notion, but the idea is becoming increasingly attractive. At club level, boys have lives. They can work. They can court. They can speak. They can socialise. And they have the freedom to play football. After the Donegal game this year, I chastised one of Derry's better players for not taking the shot when he came from the defence and received a pass putting him in a great position 30 metres from goal. "Joe, I'm under strict orders not to shoot."

Imagine a Ballinderry manager saying that to one of his players?

The cruel irony is that the result of all of this overtraining, professionalisation and elitism is that Gaelic football has turned to dross. As Tadhg Kennelly wrote in The Irish Times last week, the obsession with strength and conditioning coupled with defensive systems of play, has eroded skills. The young Down superstar Caolan Mooney, who won a Hogan Cup and then played in the AFL with Collingwood for two seasons before returning home, made the point recently that Down training was tougher than the pro game, and that's before club and university commitments are factored in.

It is a depressing situation.

Yet, if you flick to TG4 on a Sunday at this time of year, you will still be able to see the game we know and love. The Ulster club championship has, as usual, been absolutely riveting. Think of Slaughtneil's semi-final against Scotstown, where Darren Hughes - without being swamped by the 1-13-1 formation - scored 1-3 from play and the spectators were treated to a brilliant game of football.

So, last Sunday at the Athletic Grounds, 9,000 people turned up in the freezing cold, with rain sleeting down on us, for one reason: to watch real football. After ten minutes it was already a classic. Man-to-man marking, long kicking, hard hitting and a sense of adventure. In short, Gaelic football.

Crossmaglen live or die by their man-marking ethos, as do Scotstown. In the 2012 drawn All-Ireland final, the Garrycastle full-forward was very sore on Paul Kernan, scoring freely from play and generally dominating the smaller man. At no stage did Tony McEntee drop a sweeper back or switch him. It is not the Cross way. Before the replay, the TG4 anchor asked Tony what measures they had taken to deal with the full-forward threat. Tony said: "Paul's a big boy." He was saying that players must sink or swim alone. Cross won the replay. Paul swam.

In Cross, like Ballinderry or Corofin, from a young age they are taught that your responsibility is to mark your man. This has two effects: their forward division isn't being robbed and the defender is entirely comfortable with the responsibility.

At county level, sweepers mean that defenders have forgotten how to mark. Psychologically, if a man beats them for a goal or a few points, they are automatically looking for help. Sean Marty Lockhart never looked for help when he was marking Peter Canavan, arguably the greatest forward the game has seen. That is because he knew the only help was self-help. It is worth pointing out that Peter rarely scored against him.

The same went for Kieran McKeever, Lockhart's predecessor in the number two shirt. As Wee Pete himself commented: "I breathed a sigh of relief when McKeever retired, only to discover that something even worse had replaced him."

Last Sunday, Crossmaglen's James Morgan was alone and isolated on Darren Hughes. It is a sight that would make Mickey Harte or Malachy O'Rourke ill. After 15 minutes, a long ball was kicked in, somehow bounced past Morgan and Hughes, now unmarked, slipped it to the net. Morgan shrugged his shoulders and got on with it. The game became epic. Cross could have lost it. But for the fact that Rory Beggan's confidence collapsed, they would have.

At one stage, he came up to take a crucial free. He lost his nerve and kicked it short across field to a team-mate 60 yards from goal. This abdication of responsibility was, for me, the key moment in the game. It was a signal of weakness. Crossmaglen gained the upper hand and Beggan was gone. When he had the chance to win the game with the last kick via what was for him an easy free, he missed it.

The game was alive. Danny O'Callaghan lost his temper during an off-the-ball tussle and struck his man in front of the officials. He got his red card. Later, Kieran Hughes struck James Morgan. Again, he got his red card. No one was play-acting or running to the ref asking him to give a card. It was real and utterly absorbing.

When the full-time whistle went, the neutrals in the crowd were delighted that we were to be treated to another 20 minutes. Scotstown looked the more likely, until Kieran Hughes' ridiculous behaviour left them a man down. Then, Cross blitzed them, their full-court press bringing them the interception for the killer goal. When it was over, we all cheered. The result was irrelevant. It was a victory for the game, reminding us just how thrilling real football is.

I met Darren Hughes on Thursday night at the Monaghan county convention, where I was giving a talk on organ donation. He was still buzzing from the game. He said an interesting thing to me. "It has inspired us all to play as much football as we can together." This echoed a conversation I had once in the Crossmaglen club house. I was asking Oisín McConville (he has six All-Ireland club medals) how it was he was motivated year after year to go on training and winning. He said: "It's not so much the medals kid. It's that we love playing football together. The more we win, the more we get to do that." (Oisín always calls me 'kid'.)

After lengthy negotiations, I have signed a contract to write The Joy of Football: The Gourmet Guide to Real Football, complete with explicit illustrations of things like kicking, man-to-man marking and footballers playing with their heads up. There is an accompanying DVD, so for example as a companion to the section on the art of the dummy, there is a masterclass from Eoin Mulligan, Bernie Flynn and Maurice Fitzgerald.

I hope the book will become a phenomenon, stimulating a real debate about football and reminding players young and old that real football is nothing to be ashamed of.

The idea is to wrench the game from the control-freakery of the modern manager and empower county players to try things like kicking the ball, man-marking, lobbing the keeper and shooting from distance. A pocket edition will be published, so even the most inexperienced county man can consult it at short notice if he strikes lucky on a weekend and gets selected. It promises to be a watershed moment in Irish society, bringing football out from the shadows and back into the mainstream.

I believe real football is something to be savoured and enjoyed, and that it is an essential constituent of a healthy life balance. I hope the book will be remembered in time as the spark for a footballing revolution.

And that in time, the Mulligan dummy will once again be seen on the biggest stage.

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