Tuesday 16 January 2018

Joe Brolly: Fines against Donegal and Kerry hit the selfless labour of clubs hardest

6 March 2016; Neil McGee, Donegal, tussles with Stephen OBrien, Kerry. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Round 4, Kerry v Donegal. Austin Stack Park, Tralee, Co. Kerry. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
6 March 2016; Neil McGee, Donegal, tussles with Stephen OBrien, Kerry. Allianz Football League, Division 1, Round 4, Kerry v Donegal. Austin Stack Park, Tralee, Co. Kerry. Picture credit: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE
‘And as a sweeper, Colm Cavanagh could guard the gates to hell itself. On Saturday, he was magnificent. Even awesome’ Photo: Matt Browne/Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

I got a text from Seán O'Brien a few day ago. Seán is the coach of the brilliant All Saints Ballymena under 16 team, All-Ireland Féile champions from two years back. "Hi Joe, Seán O'Brien here, would you be interested in a game with our under 16s?" I texted back, "Seán, that's like Hitler asking Belgium if they'd be interested in a wee war."

On Sunday in Tralee, Donegal and Kerry had their own wee war. The throw-in reminded me of a story Newbridge's Gerry Donnelly tells about his father Joey, a famous referee around Mid Ulster in the 1950s and '60s. In those days, the only qualifications for a referee were a whistle, a ball, a tolerance for violence and a strong instinct for self-preservation. In 1964, Joey was invited to referee the final of the Ballymaguigan Carnival between Moneyglass (Tony McCoy's homeplace) and Cargin. It was a notorious fixture and the organisers had tried half a dozen referees without success before Joey agreed to do it. At that time, the midfielders and the forwards on both teams lined up on the half-way line for the throw-in and the referee threw the ball in backwards over his head, to avoid any suggestion of bias.

When Joey got home that night, Gerry asked him, "How did you get on daddy?" "I threw the ball in at half three and by the time I turned there were ten fist fights going on and the ball was rolling over the far sideline. When I left at ten to six they were still at it in the next field."

It is a mercy the practice of 16 men lining up for the throw-in has long since been abandoned, otherwise the game last Sunday might have gone on until ten to six. It was a ferocious encounter, where the hard men thrived. Aidan O'Mahony careered around the park like a riderless horse in the Grand National, hitting everything that moved, then hypnotising the referee with the best innocent expression in the game. Eddie Kinsella is no Joey Donnelly. He gave frees at the merest hint of contact, which allowed Bryan Sheehan to win the game for Kerry with an extraordinary display of free-taking. In the second half, he kicked one of the best frees I have ever seen. Straight into the gale, way out on the right-hand side off his right instep. Maurice would have approved.

Mind you, the highlight of the game was an astonishing goal from Michael Murphy. A 60-yard ball came rocketing in on the wind. Murphy, with two markers in attendance, caught it over his head a foot from the endline, the ball sticking to his hands. Then he stepped out and around defenders and keeper before driving it to the net off his weaker left foot. Pure Hot Shot Hamish. No one else could have scored it. It was just too damn difficult for Star or Aidan O'Shea, the only other contenders.

After the match when Donnchadh Walsh talked to TG4, I thought at first he was talking about the mini sevens at half-time. A career in politics beckons.

The only really disappointing feature of the game was the imposition of €7,500 fines on each county afterwards. Roman Abramovich does not own Donegal. Kerry are not owned by an Arab prince. These fines reinforce the view that corporate GAA is oblivious to the real GAA world. Fines are okay in professional sport. But in amateur games, they are totally unprincipled. The money comes from the clubs. It comes from the selfless labours of the likes of Liam Harry from Dungiven: doorman, selector, umpire, driver, cleaner, who sold £24,000 worth of tickets in our recent club draw.

Not long ago, around bed-time, there was a knock at our door. I opened it. "Joe, I'm selling tickets for Moortown, my daughter told me you lived round here somewhere." I invited him in, and in the shadow of Paisley's church, he had his tea, then left with tickets sold. It is good to know that an O'Neill's ball or two on the Loughshore has my name on it. It is not meant to be spent on fines to Croke Park so they can have a bigger fireworks display before the National League final. This is simple robbery of GAA people.

On the night before the Tralee bother, I got a lift to the Derry game with Des Fahy, my good friend from Tyrone. "I'm not sitting anywhere near you tonight," said Fahy, as we pulled out of his driveway. "You're on your own."

The fun and games started as we went through the gate. As I was standing for selfies with a crowd of St Enda's footballers who were selling tickets, a parent of one of the Tyrone players walked past. "How are you Seán?" I said. "You can fuck off Joe." The boys roared in amusement. Fahy broke into a jog. The last I saw of him was as he rounded the corner, picking up pace. We were up and running. Which is more than could be said for Derry.

Tyrone handled us with the minimum of fuss. On the way down, I said to Fahy we'd lose by six, on the basis that Tyrone were more systematic and had a better defence/attack balance. By the end of the first quarter I was starting to think 15. Stuck forlornly inside a blanket defence, our only successes were last-gasp interceptions deep in our own defensive area and the odd long-range point. We were simply reacting to Tyrone. Hoping for the best isn't much of a plan. It is no plan at all against this Tyrone team, who are beginning to look like All-Ireland material.

Their defence is probably the best I have seen. Goals are more or less impossible. The phalanx young coach Peter Donnelly has created, starting with the qualifiers last season, is soul destroying for the opposition. Superbly positioned, they are no longer leaving the gaps that gifted last year's first round to Donegal. And as a sweeper, Colm Cavanagh could guard the gates to hell itself. On Saturday, he was magnificent. Even awesome. The first thing to note about Colm is that he is a brilliant physical specimen. Or as a Castlederg man behind me put it, "A baste." Secondly, he has superb positional sense. He also has absolute courage and puts his body on the line without hesitation. Finally, his work-rate is enormous. The second Tyrone lost possession, he was sprinting back to the square to lock the gate. Time and again, he cut out through balls, caught anything kicked in high and generally destroyed Derry's morale.

With Derry trapped in their defensive web and doomed, the only question in my mind was whether Tyrone's attacking game is good enough for them to win an All-Ireland. The difference between them and the big four is that up until now, Tyrone have been too conservative going forward. That has been slowly changing since Ballybofey last year, but they still have work to do. When Donegal attack, they go for it full-bloodedly. So, against Tyrone in the first quarter last June, they sensed Tyrone were wobbling and blitzed them. By the 15th minute they were seven points up and the game was over, with Tyrone left to spend all their energy on coming back. What Donegal did that day is what Tyrone need to work towards.

They are 100 per cent committed to defence when they defend. But they are still only at around 60 per cent when they attack. Tyrone, like the Dubs or Kerry, need to fearlessly commit to the attack when required. On Saturday, they showed it in snatches. They scored two goals but it should have been four or five, even six. Had it been Kerry or the Dubs who Derry were playing it would have been that many.

And for me, Tyrone have the potential to beat either on the big day. The defensive work is done. The obsession at training must now be attack, attack, attack. They are down to the fine margins now and it is clear they are going to be a major force in late summer.

At the final whistle, I went upstairs to the clubhouse bar and drank pints with Tyrone men, since there was nobody else there. As my father said after the Galway match the previous week, "That would've been a great game if it hadn't been for Derry."

The 'Miles for Matty' team were there and it was a total privilege to spend time with them all. Matty Drumm was a Killyclogher GAA man who died when he was 22. His organs were donated by his grieving family, and successfully transplanted into seven different people. I left the club in great spirits to search for Fahy, who was lurking in the shadows.

As I have said on many occasions, I love Tyrone. Any previous remarks on the subject have been taken out of context.

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