Joe Brolly - Slaughtneil's man-to-man commitment lifts the heart
I was chatting with two old fellows from the Moy after the final whistle in the Ulster intermediate club final last Sunday.
"You'll be heading for PBs?" I said. (PBs is the unofficial Moy club bar.) "No point now Joe. By the time we get there we'll only be standing out on the footpath." The fellow beside him said, "After the county final, Seán Cavanagh couldn't even get in for a few pints. He had to go down the street.
"Anyway," he added, "we're staying on to see some real football."
There were a few Cavan men behind us. "Will you be any use to these Slaughtneil men?" I said as the teams came out. "I doubt it Joe," said one. "You know what townies are like."
He was right. Mind you, it's hard to think of anyone who could stand up to them at the minute, whether from the town or the country. No rests. No shortcuts. Just absolute commitment to the contest. They play man to man, without exception. As the game developed, spectators around us were pointing out how open they looked at the back, often just one v one, or two v two in acres of space. This was normal when I was playing, not an occasion for fear or panic. Slaughtneil and their coach understand this and commit to the man-to-man battle without hesitation. They broke Cavan's heart.
The Cavan goalkeeper is a very good footballer with an accurate kick-out. The Gaels ran in various directions when he set the ball on the tee and he looked left and right, long and short, vainly trying to find a free man. The starting point for Slaughtneil is a ferocious full court press, hunting down the kick-out, then converting the turnover into a score. Whether he kicked long or short, Slaughtneil men got a hand in, or won it outright, or tackled fiercely. With five minutes to go, the Gaels' goalkeeper managed to find a free man for the first time all day. This was because the Slaughtneil player Ronan Bradley was exhausted and simply couldn't get close enough to him to get the hand in. He was immediately taken off. We are all familiar with the cliché: "Leave it all on the field." With Slaughtneil, it is not a cliché.
The foundation of their play is total commitment by every man and the total trust in each other that brings. Brendan Rogers, who got absolutely destroyed by Paddy McBrearty in the semi-final, ran the legs off the full-forward Kieran O'Connor in the first quarter. From his first possession, he went on a 100-metre solo run, going at maximum tilt. O'Connor pursued him for 60 metres then fell further and further behind as Rogers streaked away. It ended with a Slaughtneil score and one could almost see a thought bubble appearing over the Gaels' players saying, " Who the f*** are these boys?" At half-time, O'Connor was so exhausted, they moved him off Brendan, who was making Forrest Gump look like a quitter.
The big Slaughtneil midfielder Paudie Cassidy made several improbable lung-bursting solo runs in the first half, covering around 80-100 metres each time, taking off out of his defensive area, driving past the first opponent, then the second. These were hard, hard yards. I thought to myself he's bound to tear a hamstring. Yet at the end of each run, in spite of the fact he must have been a pillar of lactic acid, he always made sure to deliver the assist or take the score. During one of those runs, his man simply gave up and went onto his knees on the ground. By that stage, prayer was as good an option as any. It was reminiscent of the scene in Father Ted where Eamonn Morrissey asks "Is there anything to be said for saying another Mass?"
Chrissy McKaigue was doing the same thing, making scarcely feasible hard sprints up-field time and again. Often, a handpass sideways would have been the easy option, but these boys do not take easy options. By half-time, the Gaels were mentally gone. The shock and awe of Slaughtneil's work rate, commitment and alertness to the possibilities of the game had done for them. They were just four points behind but that was a mere detail. At half-time the only question was how bad would it get for them. Very bad, as it turned out.
From the throw-in at the second half, Chrissy went on another, totally committed 100-metre-plus run. It looked rehearsed, as the Slaughtneil forwards broke left and right to the wings as he burst through, then steadied himself, and kicked a point from 25 yards that put them five up. Soon after, Forrest took off yet again, and after around 50 metres his man stopped chasing. He got weary eating his dust. The crowd roared, Forrest kept going, the Slaughtneil forwards made dummy runs, weaved and let Shane McGuigan come off the shoulder to take the handpass and finish to the net. That goal should be shown to all young forwards. Shane timed his run perfectly, went in on goal, gave a hint of a dummy to the left, then passed it in at the near post leaving the goalie stranded. Shane is 6' 2", burly, a great ball-winner, highly skilled, and a sure, if unorthodox finisher. If he is not good enough to play senior football for Derry then I wasn't.
A word on Patsy. I ran into him up at Celtic Park a few years at a Derry match. I said to him: "I must get a selfie with you Patsy." He said, "Ah Joe, selfies are for young boys."
With about six minutes to go, a stray pass was given out of the Slaughtneil defence and the Gaels had a counter-attacking opportunity. Patsy, out around the middle, turned and sprinted back into his square, with Paudie sprinting beside him, fighting each other to get there first.
If the Slaughtneil goalkeeper - who is brilliant - couldn't hit the kick-out short, he simply steered it on top of Patsy, who is a fabulous catcher. Once, in the 65th minute, he went up and didn't fetch it.
It reminded me of Seamus Heaney's great line, "Surprised in his empty arms, like some fabulous high catcher coming down without the ball." He mightn't win a skills competition in the other facets of the game, but as a catcher he is a thing of beauty. And as a man? We were shaking our heads at his courage, at his absolute disregard for his own safety. At one stage, he ran full on into the Cavan midfielder, hitting him with his whole body, including his face. The Gaels' man went down. Patsy held his face for a second, then shook himself and got back at it. Who runs into an opponent with their face?
Slaughtneil are a better team than they were last year. Their attacking play is superior now. Their ability to control a game is of the highest order. At one point in the middle of the second half, the Gaels put a run together, kicking four points in a row and getting their support excited. From the kick-out, taken short, you could see the Slaughtneil boys retreating to play keep-ball. Back, forth, back to the 'keeper, back to Chrissy, probing briefly upfield, then passing it back. For three full minutes they kept it, then finished with a probing run and point. The comeback was over. Maybe it had never begun.
It was hard not to feel great pride in them. The Derryness of them. As I was leaving the park, I reflected that Derry have won four of the last five Ulster senior club football titles, four out of the last six McRory Cups, two out of the last three Ulster minor championships, and four out of the last five Ulster minor club championships.
Yet we have a Tyrone director of football, a Donegal minor manager and a Tyrone under 20 manager. And our seniors are in Division 3.
Gaels' manager Jason Reilly said afterwards, "That's the way football should be played."
The two old fellows from the Moy shook hands with me. In the way that must confuse foreigners, I congratulated them, and they congratulated me. "It's a pity Derry and Tyrone didn't play like that," said one. "That would do your heart good," said the other.
Not even PBs could compete with a Slaughtneil match.
Sunday Indo Sport