Saturday 3 December 2016

No case for the prosecution

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 31/07/2011 | 05:00

Joe Brolly is entitled to his opinion of the Cork footballers. If he really does think the All-Ireland champions resemble a rugby league team which has "been able to bludgeon and bore their way through every team in the country with their primitive approach," he's right to say so. And if he's convinced that Cork are "a dumb team," why not put that on record too? Sporting analysis is by and large a matter of opinion after all.

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My problem with the little barrister's opinions on Cork, expressed in Gaelic Life magazine, isn't that they're 'disrespectful' or that nobody should talk like this about amateur players who at the end of the day, like, are making huge sacrifices and getting nothing in return. It's that they're just plain wrong.

His persistent representation of Cork as the embodiment of brute force and ignorance flies in the face of the facts. Two years ago, Cork played the most sparkling football in the championship, notably in their Munster final replay win over Kerry, their quarter-final win over Donegal and in the first half of their semi-final defeat of Tyrone before the sending off of Alan O'Connor necessitated a switch to a more pragmatic approach. In the final they were subdued by a more experienced Kerry team.

Last year the Rebels were a mite more cautious yet they played a huge part in a classic Munster semi-final replay with Kerry and their All-Ireland final win over Down was one of the most exciting deciders in years. It beggars belief that someone could write off Cork, a team containing such flair players as Daniel Goulding, Donncha O'Connor, Ciarán Sheehan, Paul Kerrigan and Colm O'Neill, as a boring side.

I suspect Joe Brolly knows this full well. Because the most disappointing thing about his current crusade is that when Tony Davis challenged him on The Sunday Game this night last week, the Dungiven man went all Vicky Pollard and tried to squirm and slide away from his original position.

Prior to that moment, I'd had a lot of respect for Joe Brolly as someone who was always man enough to stand over his opinions no matter how controversial they were. But on Sunday night he resembled nothing more than one of those shyster TDs who take one line when they're speaking in their own constituency and another one when they're on the national stage. Roscommon Hospital Syndrome I think they call it.

There was something acutely embarrassing about Brolly describing Cork as "a great team", an opinion apparently based on the fact that their demolition of Down had revealed new facets to the side which the Derry pundit had never witnessed before. In reality, Cork didn't show anything against Down they haven't produced on several previous occasions, most recently during the National League final against Dublin. But our hero backtracked like a goalie trying to get back down the field after kicking a '45, eschewing the 'bore' 'bludgeon' and 'primitive' line of attack as he revealed that his real problem with Cork was that they don't score enough from numbers five to nine.

It's a pretty esoteric argument, given that numbers five to nine don't tend to be huge contributors to any team's scoring total, and perhaps indicated that its proponent was scraping the barrel at this stage. But we'll do him the courtesy of treating it seriously and examining the facts. On their way to winning last year's All-Ireland, Cork's half-back line and midfield contributed 14 points from play. The previous year's champions, Kerry, the side Brolly insists are the antithesis of their primitive neighbours, saw their half-back line and midfield knock over nine from play in the championship. In this campaign, Cork's half-backs and midfielders have already racked up 1-12 to the Kingdom's 1-9. Kerry might well be a better team than Cork but scoring rates from numbers five to nine have bugger all to do with it.

Can we excuse Brolly's virulent disdain for Cork on the grounds that he's suffering from extreme aesthetic distaste? Perhaps he's one of those purists who get a fit of the vapours when they see anything other than the most flowing style of football. Or perhaps not. Because if there was ever a variety of football which deserved to be characterised as primitive and bludgeoning it was that perpetrated in the Ulster Championship around the middle of the last decade.

And not only did Joe Brolly have no problem with this grim stuff, he was practically an evangelist for its virtues, praising it like Willie McCrea whooping it up for Our Lord in some wayside gospel hall. When Derry beat Tyrone 1-8 to 0-5 in the 2006 championship in what may well have been the worst match of the decade, Brolly went into transports of ecstacy about the 'intensity' of the game. And when, in that year's Ulster final, Armagh beat Donegal 1-9 to 0-9 in a match of almost unbelievable tedium, he insisted that we were actually witnessing a new breakthrough in Gaelic football, a new way of playing. It was like watching some avant-garde lad in a polo neck on The View insisting that two balloons perched on a concrete block beside a bicycle 'raise fundamental questions about the nature of world poverty.' The rest of us just saw two mediocre teams playing badly, something subsequently proved when Kerry beat the tar out of Armagh in the quarter-final.

There was a lot of good football played in Ulster in those years too, stuff good enough to show up Pat Spillane's 'puke football' jibe as a cheap shot based on prejudice. But the same type of cheapness and prejudice is there in Joe Brolly's digs at Cork.

There's a similar unfairness in his insistence that Cork have to be measured solely against Kerry. Because if being as good as Kerry is the yardstick by which teams must be measured then every other county in Ireland is a failure. He's changed his tune about this too.

This time last year Brolly was on The Sunday Game holding Cork up to ridicule by comparison with Kerry and Tyrone, teams he claimed did everything right where the Rebels did everything wrong. It didn't matter that the previous year Cork had easily seen off Tyrone, despite playing with 14 men for over half of the game, they were still inferior to the Ulster champions in Joe's eyes.

We all know what happened subsequently. Cork won the All-Ireland, defeating the Dublin team which had been too good for Tyrone and

the Down team which had been too good for Kerry. This made Joe Brolly look silly. And nobody likes being

made to look silly, which may account for his current monomaniacal focus on the shortcomings of Cork. He's become the GAA equivalent of Inspector Javert hounding Jean Valjean in Les Miserables.

What we're seeing at the moment is a massive exercise in retrospective ass-covering. On Sunday night, Brolly was insisting that Cork's 2010 All-Ireland victory is devalued by Down's subsequent poor form. But the Down team of 2010 which knocked out Kerry and Kildare is not the Down team of 2011. And if Cork don't win the 2011 All-Ireland Championship it won't prove that they weren't the best team in 2010, it will simply prove they aren't the best team in 2011. I wouldn't dream of saying that Derry's, and Brolly's, 1993 All-Ireland final victory is devalued because it was achieved against a Cork team which played most of the game with 14 men, nor because they were beaten by Down the following year.

Brolly's attempt to make little of Davis's point that Cork's championship bid looks like being derailed by injuries also indicated that he has little interest in giving the All-Ireland champions a fair crack of the whip. Because the reality is that the loss of Ciarán Sheehan, Colm O'Neill and Daniel Goulding makes it pretty much impossible for Cork to retain their title. It's like Kerry losing the two O'Sullivans and Colm Cooper from their forward line. And, as the Kingdom found out last year, the loss of key personnel at this time of year can banjax the best of teams.

So the chances are that Joe Brolly will have the opportunity to further bore and bludgeon the television audience about Cork's failings before the season is out. What an absolutely enticing prospect that is.

Joe Brolly is entitled to his opinion of the Cork footballers. But the rest of us are entitled to point out that it's a load of bollocks.

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