Monday 17 June 2019

Joe Brolly: Like a good referee, a good goalie should be invisible

Cillian O'Connor of Mayo has his shot saved by Derry goalkeeper Ben McKinless
Cillian O'Connor of Mayo has his shot saved by Derry goalkeeper Ben McKinless
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

I went to Roscommon on Friday night to a fundraiser for the Boyle club. It was held in the parish hall, which looked like the Ballroom of Romance. It still has the old projector hatch and projector from when they used to show Jaws and Star Wars to an enthralled audience five years after they came out. I have never charged for GAA stuff and always say "a few pints of stout is perfect".

When I arrived into the hall, there was bad news. Very bad news. No stout. Sensing the danger, the club chairman brought a chap over and introduced him to me. I thought he wasn't going to give me the hand back. "John here will be keeping you supplied with the best Guinness in the town, Joe. From Dodd's bar." And so he did.

The pints were those perfect ones you only get now and again, where the head looks almost like dense whipped cream and the resting stout looks nearly solid. The poor fellow spent the night going to and from Dodd's ferrying these delicacies, as the crack unfolded in the packed hall. It was the best pint I ever had.

When the last question was answered, we wandered round to Dodd's itself, which was packed. A beautiful traditional music session was in mid flow when we arrived. A concertina, a box, a piano key accordion, a guitar and a flute. They asked me to sing so I launched into Salt, a North Derry song about "a smashing young fellow" who hires himself to a skinflint farmer in the Sperrin mountains.

Soon after he arrives at the remote farm, the livestock and the dogs start to die. The farmer skins them and salts them, makes shoes from the hides and soup from the rest. Then one night the farmer's ancient mother dies and as the son hunkers over her carcass the next morning, he orders the terrified young fellow to go fetch the salt . . .

An elderly man in the bar shook my hand warmly. He went on to tell me about a man from Boyle called John Joe Nerney, who won an All-Ireland senior medal with Roscommon in 1944. John Joe went on to play for the Boyle senior club team until he was 64, and was man of the match in his last ever game, scoring 0-4 in a dominant performance. After that, he took up marathon running and ran two or three marathons a year until he was in his 70s. Roscommon could be doing with John Joe today.

Next morning, I was in Claremorris for the renaming of the club pitches in honour of Alan Feeley. Alan was the revered club senior captain. He died in the middle of a training session, after a blood vessel burst in his brain. His grieving parents donated his organs, saving five lives.

The day was a celebration of his young life, the sort of occasion that affirms your faith in the GAA. Alan's father Willie was an inter-county referee in his day and recalled refereeing a Derry game once when I was playing. He said I scored a goal and in hindsight he should have blown me for too many steps. As he talked about his beloved son, the tears rolled down his face.

The chairman had press-ganged me into taking charge of a ladies' game and duly handed me a referee's outfit. In my first and last venture in the black jersey, I am happy to record that I blew the whistle four times. The throw-ins, half-time and the end. The game was superb, an example of how football can be played minus the cynical fouling and the massed defences.

Then it was the crossbar challenge, watched by a large crowd. What fun! Afterwards, Alan's mother told me that the young man who got her son's lungs had gone on to win gold at the World Transplant Games. Recently, they got a package in the post. They opened it, to find the gold medal and a note from the boy thanking them for his life. Save a life, save the world.

Mayo fans in Ennis at the weekend
Mayo fans in Ennis at the weekend
‘Derry’s young ‘keeper Ben McKinless was brilliant and awful, but for me, it is the brilliance that is important’. Photo: Sportsfile

Filled with poignancy, I drove the short spin from Claremorris to McHale Park for the Derry/Mayo game. I drank a pint in the clubhouse in honour of Alan and then headed into the stand for the game. It was an amazing affair. Derry ought to have won it in ordinary time. In fact, our two great goal chances in the first half would have killed it dead.

So many things happened it is hard to remember them all. Derry's young 'keeper Ben McKinless was brilliant and awful, but for me, it is the brilliance that is important. He is a big character but for such a young 'keeper, his swaggering on-field persona is very, very difficult to carry off.

A good recent example is Tyrone's Niall Morgan, the natural heir to Stephen Cluxton. When Morgan was too young and still did not understand fully the enormity of playing at this level, he went overboard. I remember watching his inevitable self-destruct that famous day against Donegal in the championship a few years ago when he engaged with the crowd and then couldn't cope with the consequences. He learned from that, played modestly, focused on learning his trade - and look at him now, vying with the greatest goalie that ever lived to be the country's number one.

The new Derry manager must take Ben aside, just once, and tell him that being a 'keeper is a lonely, unforgiving business requiring absolute concentration. In order to play without distraction, you must not create distractions for yourself. Tell him he has the potential to be a great goalie, which he has, and that the key is to be modest.

Neil Lennon told me a story a few years ago at a do in Lurgan. He was going through a bad patch at Celtic and arrived one morning for training with his hair bleached. A disgusted Martin O'Neill summoned him to the office. "What have you done with your hair, son?" "I just thought I'd try something different gaffer." "Something different?" said O'Neill, "Then score a f***ing goal."

Like a good referee, a good goalie should be invisible, doing his job quietly and without fuss. It is already the most pressurised role in the game, without heaping more pressure on yourself. Ben will, I have no doubt, learn from this. He is young after all, and folly is the prerogative of youth. A hair cut and a change of habit is all that's needed.

Leaving McHale Park on Saturday evening it was impossible to feel disappointed. I was sure we had won it on two or three occasions. The goal that rescued the game for Mayo was brilliant, and for a threadbare Derry squad, we performed with pride and honour, dying with our boots on. In the end, nothing more can be asked of the lads.

My abiding memory of the game will be the incredible Mayo support. If it were Kerry or Dublin playing like that against a Derry team at such a low ebb, the knives would've been out. The Mayo people, meanwhile, coaxed and cajoled and urged their team on at all times in a fantastic spirit. The friendliness of Mayo folk, and their respect for the game and the opposition is something very special.

I was in such good form afterwards I went for pints in Guirys of Foxford, Breathnachs, and Hughes in Ballina. And throughout the evening, I kept Willie Joe Padden's advice in mind and remembered to savour the creamy bit at the bottom of every pint.

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