Wednesday 23 October 2019

Joe Brolly: 'Bewildered and beaten? You've just been Corofined'

‘Corofining results in Gaelic footballing perfection and it cannot — all things being equal — be beaten’. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
‘Corofining results in Gaelic footballing perfection and it cannot — all things being equal — be beaten’. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

Twenty years ago or more, I bought the complete Oxford English Dictionary, which runs to 20 volumes. It is a history of the English language. It is also a guarantee against etymological, grammatical and English usage errors, such as one might see in the contributions of Pat Spillane or Martin McHugh.

Every year, the editors review thousands of applications for new words. Each year, a few hundred of those make it through. Sometimes, very rarely, the inventor gets a credit in the online version, which is constantly upgraded.

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This week, for the third time in five years, I have sent them the word 'corofin', with detailed explanations and documentary evidence to support the application. Each entry in the OED gives the word, then examples of how the word has been used over time, from its first known usage to its most recent:

Corofin - to play the Irish field game of Gaelic football in a way that mesmerises the opposition, enthrals spectators, and generally makes life worth living.

"To corofin or not to corofin, that is the question"

W Shakespeare (March 17, 1602)

"We were corofined out there. I have absolutely no idea how they did it. I need to sit down."

Christopher McKaigue, Slaughtneil captain (Irish Independent, March 17, 2015)

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"We thought we were ready to bring another title back to Nemo, even though we had never experienced corofining. I have no idea what happened out there. I am going to the pub."

Aidan O'Reilly, Nemo Rangers captain (RTÉ, March 17, 2018)

"Who am I? Are these my feet? Who are you? Why am I in Croke Park? I think I've been corofined. I need a doctor."

John Payne, Dr Crokes captain (as reported by St John's ambulance staff, March 17, 2019)

At the half-time whistle on Sunday, the Crokes' lads bore mystified expressions, as though they had been playing against invisible men. They had done nothing wrong, yet were seven points behind and counting. This was Corofin's third final since 2015, the third in a row where they have reduced outstanding opponents to statues.

In that first half they had four goal chances and scored two of them. These boys could conjure a goal in a crowded phone box. Yet there is nothing miraculous about what they do. It begins with skills and an awareness of time and space. It begins with 48 underage coaches, all 'playing to the same pattern'. When, for example, you are doing drills at every session based on scoring goals in congested defensive areas, it starts to become second nature.

A rule of thumb in the club is that the kids need to be two-footed by the age of 14. Kicking with both feet is sewn into the training. It cannot and is not avoided or glossed over. The reason most kids don't kick with their weaker foot is because they are self-conscious. But when everybody is doing it, and being encouraged and applauded for doing it, there is nothing to be self-conscious about.

The real secret of Gaelic football is an awareness of time and space. It is often said that the great players (Peter Canavan, Maurice Fitz, Diarmuid Connolly etc) have more time than the rest of us. This is of course nonsense. No human can defy the laws of physics. What all of these players have in common is that they are two-footed. Therefore, when they get the ball, they automatically scan left and right ahead of them, before deciding what to do next. This causes the defender to stand off slightly, as he doesn't want to commit to one foot or the other and be made look foolish. This same situation can be created by simply looking left and right when you get possession, using the dummy (the invisible colleague over the shoulder of the defender, as favoured by Owen Mulligan) and changing direction.

With Corofin, we see the peak of Gaelic football. Their underage nursery ensures that they keep big numbers. Who doesn't want to play football when it is played like this?

Because they work relentlessly on kicking (a colossal 38 per cent of their passes on Sunday were kick-passes) and this is a deep-seated part of their culture, they are confident to kick long and accurately. When their 'keeper or outfielders on Sunday kicked long into tiny pockets of space to set up scores, most coaches would have shaken their heads and said 'far too risky.' Corofin players do it because it is second nature and they are encouraged to take risks. They are, if you like, 15 quarterbacks.

Their movement is a thing of beauty. Again, this comes from an awareness of time and space, with each player switched on at all times, monitoring everything that is going on around them. For their second goal, Michael Farragher goes surging through the middle and veers to his right, deliberately taking the Crokes defender away from the centre. His team-mate, running from behind him, sees that he has done that, changes his run, veers to his left inside Farragher, takes a reverse handpass and is now running free through the middle. Already the inside forwards are watching each other, making dummy runs, moving sideways and backwards, and getting into position. The Corofin player on the right-hand post is being marked so he switches with Gary Sice, who is unmarked, taking his man away from the post. A handpass to Burke on the left of the goal, then one to the unmarked Sice at the right-hand post and the game is over.

All five Corofin players inside the 21 at that point made a contribution to the goal. The effect of their movement and constant vigilance was that there was nothing Crokes could do about it. Because each man knows there will be at least one and probably more team-mates running, stopping, moving sideways or backwards to support him, he will often flick the ball on or volley it rather than catch it, which could waste valuable time in the hunt for goals. A by-product of all of this is that they only solo when it is absolutely essential.

A key feature of their play is this concentration on goal-scoring, settling for a point only if a goal cannot be scored. This means they attack into the heart of the box, making dummy runs, moving left and right, switching position, always being there to support a colleague. This constant rotation, looping runs, shielding each other, dummy runs etc, is more reminiscent of Larry Bird and the Boston Celtics than anything we have seen before in Gaelic football.

Mind you, these boys are pioneers. When my club Dungiven played them in the All-Ireland club semi-final in 1998, they double-marked me. Neither I nor anyone else I knew had ever heard of this ploy before. I had been scoring very freely throughout the Derry and Ulster campaigns, and our system revolved around early ball to me along the right wing, with our right half-forward Paul Murphy dropping back into the middle third. Suddenly, I had the unique experience of having a second defender five metres in front of me, shadowing my every move, which flummoxed us. In the event, I was held to four points and we lost a grim battle 0-11 to 0-9. Corofin went on to waltz the final, as we sat in the clubhouse supping pints and sighing.

Adding insult to injury, I found out afterwards that the Corofin coach who came up with the double-marking plan was Paul McGettigan, a Donegal man originally of St Eunan's Letterkenny. Not the last time a Donegal coach has screwed up a good game of Gaelic football!

A statistic: in the first half last Sunday, Corofin had 15 shots. The farthest out of those was 23 metres. Their first goal was a classic example of this support play and timing. Most of all, their concentration and keenly-honed awareness. Michael Lundy is blocked down when he shoots from the 21 with his right foot. Wing-back Kieran Molloy has come up to support him and doesn't run past him, instead anticipating that he may be blocked down. Molloy waits on his shoulder. When the ball bounces back up to Lundy, he handpasses it to Molloy who volleys it to the far post where he has spotted Jason Leonard lurking, who is again holding himself back anticipating a possible pass. Leonard moves forward, then the pause, the dummy, the step inside and the low finish.

Watch their pre-match drills. All of this is in it. All of it is a pleasure to watch and therefore a pleasure to play. There are many other aspects to their play that make them what they are, but the culture is what allows them to perfect each of these. When the 'keeper signals to his left, the forwards drop into a central column leaving the wings free. The midfielders run cross-field along the '45 to the left, the 'keeper launches the ball over the top, the midfielders are already turning and running upfield. This kick-out almost yielded an early goal when Dáithí Burke won it and soloed 50 metres before shooting and having the ball parried over by the 'keeper for a point. The defenders playing in front, the wing-backs attacking relentlessly, hugging the touchline to start with then breaking inside on a direct path to goal to draw defenders and offload to the supporting player.

None of this is a miracle. Coaches can do this, or they can decide not to play football, and teach their players how to play in the third row of the blanket defence, how not to take risks, how to solo and how to handpass backwards. Corofin have given us all a roadmap.

Corofining results in Gaelic footballing perfection and it cannot - all things being equal - be beaten.

To corofin, or not to corofin, that is the question . . .

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