Monday 23 April 2018

Joe Brolly: Codology to taxidermy... never a dull moment with Gerry Donnelly

Joe Brolly

I arrived into the hall on Saturday for the Foreglen's gala night and bumped into Gerry Donnelly.

"Are you going to Celtic Park tomorrow?" I said.

"Ah ha son."

"We're going very badly Gerry," I said.

Gerry screwed up his face in an expression of pain, paused for a good while, and said: "Joe, we have a backroom team of 15 people . . . the only thing we don't have is a gynaecologist."

When Gerry was the Derry PRO in the 1990s and early 2000s, his mischievous brain quickly found antidotes to the dullness of the job. He started by making up pen pics for the programmes. Geoffrey McGonigle became "an entrepreneur". Which reminds me of George W Bush's immortal conversation with then British Prime Minister Tony Blair about the decline of the French economy. "The problem with the French," said Bush, "is that they don't have a word for entrepreneur."

It got to the stage that before every match, the boys would eagerly open the programmes to see what we were. Fergal McCusker was a "ladies' fashion consultant". Sean Marty Lockhart a "zoologist". Big Ronan Rocks from the Loup was listed as a "metallurgist". Gerry told me that a few days after this appeared in a National League programme, Roxy (as we call him) rang him.

Roxy: Gerry, what's that you've put me in the programme as?

Gerry: A metallurgist, son.

Roxy: What's that?

Senior panel.
Senior panel.

Gerry: It's an expert in metallurgy.

Roxy: Yes, but what is that?

Gerry: It's the technique of crafting alloys.

Roxy: Would my mother be happy with me having that job?

Gerry: She'd be over the moon, son.

Roxy: That's great Gerry, thanks.

Wee Johnny Niblock from the Rossa club in Magherafelt was brought into the squad around that time. Hyperactive and quick, he was a most enthusiastic trainer and a very pleasant lad. For the Ulster quarter-final in 2001, his occupation was listed in the programme as "taxidermist". We won the game and about a week later, Gerry got a phone call from Mrs Niblock to say that people had been calling at the house asking if Johnny could stuff their pet labradors and rabbits. One man had arrived with a pheasant he had shot. "Could you change it for the next day Gerry, it's an awful nuisance?" "No problem Mrs Niblock."

A few weeks later, in the second half of the Ulster semi-final against Tyrone, Gerry was sitting next to the Radio Ulster commentary box, with Michael Daly and Adrian McGuckin on air, when he heard Daly telling his audience, "And with 24 minutes to go, Derry are about to introduce Johnny Niblock, 22-year-old air-traffic controller from Magherafelt."

Some time around that era, Gerry got a phone call from one of the GAA journalists, who said a group of them had been chatting and they were "marvelling at the range of occupations and interests of the Derry team". Gerry told her that we were indeed a fascinating group of lads, and brought her bang up to date by telling her that Owen McCloskey had taken time out from the game to join the French Foreign Legion, and that Brian McGilligan was starting a bridal wear business.

During that time, Gerry's introductions over the speaker system at Derry games also became the stuff of legend. After one young lady had strangled the anthem before a league game, he commented under his breath that it was "borderline treason". On another occasion, after the bishop had made a speech at one of our reunion dinners, Gerry - who was MC - said, "Thank you, Your Excellency, that was . . . long."

Noel McFeely, Foreglen's driving force spent the night racing up and down from the stage and amongst the huge crowd, fretting over every detail. Noel is a force of nature, a hurricane. A bit like Foreglen teams. Noel told me that when he was on the Derry County Board, he was appointed to the Disciplinary Committee and of the eight meetings held that year, he had to step aside at seven of them.

Gerry reminded him of one of those meetings where a Foreglen player had been sent off. Noel started laughing and told the story himself. One of their good minors was sent off in a junior reserve game where both teams could only manage 11-a-side. The Foreglen ones were frantic with worry because their minors were due to play the county championship semi-final a fortnight later, so went to the referee's changing room afterwards. Having assured them he wouldn't report the lad, presumably out of immediate concerns for his personal safety, the referee duly did just that. The club subsequently received the disciplinary notice with the player's name. When the case was called, Noel arrived in with the player's 53-year-old father, who had the same name as his son. The committee asked who this was. Noel told them it was the offender. They started laughing. Noel kept a very straight face and angrily chastised the committee for their rudeness. The father admitted his offence.

Sadly, in the time-honoured fashion, the committee was unmoved, and the young lad was suspended on a vote of 5-1. The dissenting vote was Gerry's.

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