Football is a pastime to enjoy, a release from the tedium
Cork suffer from acute solorunitis. The symptoms are highly contagious, but easily spotted.
Sufferer takes possession from hand-pass. Puts head down. Solos hard until he runs into something or someone. Looks up, but not before then. Hand-passes to fellow sufferer, who puts head down, solos hard until he runs into something or someone. Looks up, but not before then. Hand-passes to fellow sufferer. And so on ...
Last Sunday, while Cork were furiously soloing up each other’s arses, being dispossessed and wasting colossal amounts of energy, Meath played with freedom. They kicked long. They were not worried if they lost the ball now and again. They tried things. They enjoyed themselves. In short, they played the game.
Colm O’Rourke treats them like adults. Not robots. In this era, it is a revolutionary act.
My first encounter with Colm was a National League semi-final in Croke Park in 1992. We were well ahead and near the end I tracked back and went to tackle Colm, who was soloing through the middle. He had the ball under his right arm and hit me with a straight left jab to the forehead. As I was getting up he was putting the ball over the bar. Hardy bucks those Leitrim men.
Years later, I gave a talk at his school in Navan. Afterwards, he took me on a tour of the corridors and classrooms, where I marvelled at his easy, grown up relationship with the kids, who clearly adored him. Who wouldn’t respond well to his affectionate, broad-shouldered philosophy on life?
Football is a game. A release from the tedium of everyday life. A test of character and of skills. Most of all, it is a pastime to be enjoyed. A very serious pastime. But a pastime nonetheless. Like all the truly great ones, there is a glow from Colm, as though he knows something the rest of us don’t. And as Ger Scully said to me recently when we were discussing the great events of our times, “He has that quality of devilment that is missing nowadays.”
Michael Murphy was at a big Kildare event with me last week and was bemoaning what has become of the game. He told the big crowd in Lawlors of Naas about the coaches marking out each player’s positioning for them on the field depending on where the ball was. He told us about constantly turning and running back into the defence to find your spot. About being afraid to give possession away. About the constant statistical analysis.
O’Rourke, like Alex Ferguson, doesn’t get bogged down in that. As Ferguson said once when asked why he didn’t use statistics, “Statistics don’t measure character.”
In 2011, Derry qualified for the Ulster semi-final against Armagh. John Brennan, a man cut from the same cloth as O’Rourke, was Derry manager. We beat the great Lavey team of the 1990s in an epic Derry semi-final replay in 1997. It was the end of that extraordinary group. With a few minutes to go, we had the game well won, and after a score I blew kisses to the crowd causing the usual delirium and rage. As I turned to go back to my position, I got poleaxed. When I was on the ground looking up, I saw that it was Lavey’s manager John Brennan.
Years later, Brennan was interviewed by Andy Watters for The Irish News and recalling the incident, said: “At the end of the match I buried him, I hit him in the guts. I like Joe, him and me are friendly. He wrote about it afterwards and said he was deserving of it and so he was. He was deserving of it.” That’s John.
Before that 2011 Ulster semi-final, Brennan decided to bring the Derry team to a hotel in Meath for a weekend away. When they arrived, their opponents were there already. The Armagh boys trooped solemnly in and out of the hotel over the following two days, training, pool, meetings, bed early, training, pool, meetings, sipping isotonic drinks.
Derry, meanwhile, played a friendly on the Saturday and then got a talk from O’Rourke, who Brennan adored. At the end of the talk, after the applause, John stood up and said, “Colm, what do you think the boys should do this evening?” O’Rourke said, “I think you should all go for a right good drink.” Which brought a rousing cheer from the lads. So, they went on the beer.
There happened to be a wedding in the hotel that evening. The Derry lads were boozing in the bar. As the night went on, Kevin McGuckin went through the function room to go to the toilets, and to his horror, saw an extremely drunken teammate on the stage, interrupting the bride’s speech and kissing her tenderly on the cheek. The tables went up. Kevin ran for reinforcements. They fist fought up and down the function room.
The Gardaí were called. When they arrived, the men were bloody and bruised but no one had seen anything.
The following week, Derry went out and destroyed Armagh in the semi-final, scoring three goals in an electrifying performance. I said to O’Rourke, “Look at the bother you caused.” He laughed and said, “Sure didn’t it do them the power of good.”
That’s the thing about O’Rourke. As the Meath boys are now discovering, he does you the power of good.