Sunday 15 September 2019

Joe Brolly: 'Bad enough playing that crap, impossible to watch it'

Joe Brolly celebrates his goal for Derry against Mayo in the 1996 National Football League semi-final at Croke Park by blowing a kiss. Some team-mates weren’t fond of this kind of celebration.. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Joe Brolly celebrates his goal for Derry against Mayo in the 1996 National Football League semi-final at Croke Park by blowing a kiss. Some team-mates weren’t fond of this kind of celebration.. Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

The Dungiven 1991 championship-winning team was honoured at the St Canice's dinner dance last Saturday night. Beforehand, everyone gathered in the lower bar in the clubhouse to watch the tape of that fabled game.

The lower bar was rebuilt and renovated during the winter over 20 years ago. Like a scene from a documentary on the Amish community, the tradesmen of the town descended on the place every evening and weekend. The Wart, with his transistor radio hanging from a nail, crooned along with the charts and boasted about his dummy, which in fairness was a thing of beauty.

"Football has fairly changed young Brolly," he used to say. "When I started for Dungiven, the corner-forward was always the first man subbed. Big Andy took me off every other game. As soon as we went two or three behind, I headed for the line."

Then the tune on the radio would break his concentration and he would erupt into 'Karma Chameleon', or 'I Never Promised You a Rose Garden', using the screwdriver as a mic.

Another interesting feature of The Wart's personality was that he would carry on a dialogue using the words (often adapted) from well-known songs. I remember once we were talking about what a magnificent player Tony Scullion was, prompting The Wart to sing, "He's the top, he's the tip, he's no championship" (Ballinascreen were in the doldrums at the time). Or "Are you doing any courting, Wart?" to which he would immediately sing

"Maybe I'm a man

and maybe I'm a lonely man

Who's in the middle of something

That he doesn't really understand."

Or "You heading out tonight Wart?"

"Friday night, I'll be dressed to kill

Down at McReynold's Bar 'n' Grill

The drink will flow and the blood will spill

And if the boys want to fight, you better let 'em."

And so it would go. He also liked rebel songs, and to my dying day I will never see anything funnier than his extraordinary performance of 'Take It Down from the Mast', where he sort of kicks out and swings punches at the imaginary British infidel.

He performed it over at the Watty Grahams' clubhouse one night in Maghera and brought the house down. I think that might have been the night the Glen club hosted a farewell party for Wattys' stalwart Stevie Murtagh.

Stevie was emigrating to America and, overwhelmed by the size of the crowd, the love being bestowed upon him, alcohol and his natural sentimentality, he took to the stage himself and grabbed the mic. The music stopped. He looked down over the gathering and a tear trickled down his face.

"You," he said, after a long pause and a bit of staggering, "You are my people." Big cheer. "You," he continued, "will always be in my heart." At which point he punched his heart a number of times. Prompting a prolonged ovation and chants of "Don't Go, Don't Go."

The good folk of Maghera needn't have worried. He arrived back home a fortnight later and hasn't left since.

"Do we get a refund?" asked Enda Gormley.

On Saturday night, they played the 1991 final on the big screen. It was amazing to see it. The long kicking. The high catching. The man v man contests all over the field. The goals. The excitement of the crowd. The absence of a blanket. The adventure. The current senior squad was there and it was striking for me that they were laughing and poking fun at the fare.

"Jaysus sir, yous boys were givin' the ball away flat out." "How many championships have you boys?" I asked. They went silent. "It was a rhetorical question, lads."

Between 1983 and 1997 we won five, playing skill-based man v man football. When we played a home league game the terrace was packed. I went to see the lads last year against Coleraine, labouring up and down the field in and out of blanket defences, hand-passing sideways and back, and swarming the forward in possession. There were about 20 people at it.

I can't remember the score as, by midway through the second half, I felt as though I had loaded up on diazepam. The interesting thing for me was the mindset of the young boys. It is entirely the opposite of a sporting mindset. Individual expression is not part of it. Nor is adventure. Trying things is not acceptable.

They also talk about football as though it were a chore, instead of what it was for us, a release from the cares of daily life. A glorious hour where we could compete against each other and use our skills, instead of toiling fearfully up and down the park trying not to make a mistake.

After my goal, I jogged towards the stand at Dean McGlinchey Park in delight, blowing kisses, until team captain Kieran McKeever ran to me, took me by the scruff of the neck and pushed me back into position.

That evening the two of us were sitting having a pint, laughing. McKeever never curses. He said "Flipping hell Joe, that kiss-blowing is embarrassing. I wish you'd flimmin' well stop it." Twenty-five years on and Kieran is the revered club chairman.

When the goal was shown on Saturday night and everyone burst out laughing, he smiled and said: "It's a pity the young boys can't enjoy their football the way we did."

With Paul Murphy (from our '97 Ulster club-winning team) as the new manager and McKeever as chairman, the plan is to return to skill-based, kicking football. As Murphy puts it: "Bad enough playing that crap. Impossible to watch it."

For the record, we got two goals in that 1991 final within 60 seconds of each other - they won the game. Big McGilligan got the other one. On BBC Radio Ulster that night, the reporter said: "This game was won in the first half with two goals in a minute. The first, a goal of the sheerest artistry. The second, the sheerest brute force."

Which was which? Answers on a postcard to Lower Bar, St Canice's Clubhouse, Pound Brae, Dungiven. The winner receives a live recording of The Wart on site, circa 1990.

Sadly, his rendition of 'Take It Down from the Mast' cannot be found.

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