Joe Brolly: Entertainment should always be the winner
On Easter Sunday, I was a judge at the Knockmore club’s ‘Stars In Your Eyes’ as 750 people crammed into the Hotel Ballina for a night of hilarity.
The great 1997 Knockmore team were there, the biggest team I ever saw. I shook hands with them. It was like putting my hand into baseball mitts. Crossmaglen beat them to win their first All-Ireland that year. Knockmore lost it when the ’keeper dropped a harmless high ball to the net. The curse extends to club teams as well.
John McEntee always says they were the best club team he ever played against. I said that on the night and afterwards at the bar, Peter Butler said to me: “I don’t know how McEntee remembers us. I hit him so hard that day he woke up in Crossmaglen.”
Sure enough, Butler knocked the Armagh icon unconscious that day. A different sort of stars in your eyes. Peter has hands like a silverback and should always be approached with extreme caution.
A few weeks earlier I got a late-night phone call from my good friend and clubman Kieran McKeever, the greatest corner-back I ever saw. “Joe,” he said. “Settle a dispute. I’m in a bar here in London with a few boys. What did you call the big ginger lad who busted me the day we played Mayo in the league in Castlebar a few weeks after the final in ’93?”
The big ginger lad was 6’ 4” corner-forward Raymond Dempsey, another member of that Knockmore team. McKeever is
5’8” and 12 stone. Halfway through the first half, Dempsey hit him hard in the face. The blood came scooting out of McKeever’s forehead. In those days, there was no blood sub rule. McKeever clenched his teeth, wiped his hand across his bloody forehead, wiped the blood on his jersey, then got back at it.
Afterwards, we took Kieran over to Mayo General where he got nine stitches. I mentioned it to Ray at the function and he said, “I remember it alright but it was an accident”. Which made everybody laugh. I texted McKeever a pic of Dempsey and myself, the big man towering over me. “He says he is sorry,” I wrote. McKeever texted back: “Tell him I don’t accept. I’ll bust him the next time I see him.”
The other significant GAA event of the weekend was Galway’s performance in the under 21 semi-final against Kerry. Kerry were unbackable favourites at 1/7. From the throw-in, Galway went at them, man to man. In the earlier semi-final, Donegal squandered their great talents, imprisoned in a 13-man defensive system that has bred negativity and a lack of ambition. What a pity.
The problem with this approach is that when you go behind, you can’t win because you have long since lost the ability to play with adventure. It was a sad sight to see them, five points down, still with 13 men behind the ’45 and two sweepers on the ‘D’. Paul Carolan from Cavan tweeted: “Drove to Breffni as a neutral. Youngsters messing on the field at half-time were the only entertainment.”
For most games nowadays, the GAA needs to introduce a tachograph for the scoreboard operator. There are obvious health and safety implications. Strong coffee, regular fresh air breaks from the box and naps are essential if they are to stay awake during the game. With half an hour to go, the game was already over. Donegal pointed and covered and double-teamed inside their own half, then shuffled forward robotically towards the Dublin blanket. They weren’t trying to win the game. Just following instructions. How depressing.
The Galway boys, on the other hand, weren’t going to die wondering. “We wanted to see what they were made of,” said their manager Gerry Fahy afterwards. “We wanted to go for them from the throw-in.” This Kerry under 21 team had been rated unbeatable, made up as they were of three All-Ireland minor-winning teams in a row. Donegal would have had all 14 men inside the ’45 and Kerry would have slowly but surely done for them in a game no one would remember.
This Galway team doesn’t play like their seniors. They went man to man and gave it everything in an enthralling contest where the scoreboard operator hadn’t time for coffee or a snooze.
From the throw-in, they swept forward and a brilliant lightning attack yielded a superb goal after 40 seconds. Boom! Kerry were on the back foot. The Kerry ’keeper set the ball down for the quick kick-out but had no-one to kick it to. The Galway lads were hanging out of their men. He dithered, then kicked long. Galway won it on the break and kicked another score.
Kerry were way out of their comfort zone now and the Galway men were enjoying the ambush. Halfway through the half it was 1-7 to 0-1 and could have been worse. It was at that point that the Galway boys paused for a breath, looked at the scoreboard and started to think about what they were doing.
For the first time, Kerry got a respite. At half-time they were still in the game. It was a classic illustration of the need to drive on. I worried at half-time that Galway weren’t far enough ahead but I needn’t have. From the throw-in, Kerry scored a goal that ought never to have been given. Joe Sheridan Mark II. The big Kerry full-forward won a long ball. He was holding it in his left hand and as he was tackled around the shoulder it flipped up from his hand into the air. At which point, he flicked it to the net with his palm.
It didn’t matter. Galway were going for it whatever the consequences. Kerry’s lethal forwards were left one on one, even against the wind. Galway attacked and tackled ferociously and let the dice fall where they may. In the end, they broke Kerry, killing the game with a superb breakaway goal as Kerry attacked in waves trying to save the game.
At that point it could have gone either way. Galway’s courage and adventure settled it. They weren’t playing to avoid defeat and hope they could snatch the winning scores from a free or a long-range shot. They were playing to win.
The game was exhilarating. Every kick-o
ut was long and became a high-catching battle at midfield. Both teams kicked long and expressed themselves and played man to man. Both teams brought honour on themselves and showed (as did Dublin and Kerry in the league final the previous Sunday) that when it is played like this, Gaelic football is the best field game on earth, win, lose or draw.
For the record, the winner of the Knockmore ‘Stars in Your Eyes’ 2017, was Hughie Langan, the ’97 team captain. He appeared as Tom Jones and, as Butler said, he’s in better shape now than he was then. The crowd went wild for him. They were on their feet, cheering, stamping, clapping. Half the proceeds of the night were going to Hope House in Foxford, and Sisters Attracta and Dolores, the living saints who founded and run this sanctuary for people at their lowest ebb, were in the front row. They told me during the interval that they work there unpaid. Such compassion and love.
Halfway through Langan’s act, I looked across to see them both on their feet, throwing underwear onto the stage. Thankfully, it was not their own.
The GAA. Where would we be without it?