Sunday 17 December 2017

Joe Brolly: Fun is off limits for hamsters on wheel

Maurice Fitzgerald in his Kerry days, Derry's Eoin Bradley (left) and Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic (right)
Maurice Fitzgerald in his Kerry days, Derry's Eoin Bradley (left) and Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic (right)
‘It was no surprise when Eoin Bradley (above), our only maverick, left the squad a few years ago. We used to go along and laugh out loud at his genius’. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

David Preece tells a great story about Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Preece was the Aberdeen goalie when they played a pre-season tournament game against an Ajax team that had the young Swede at centre-forward. The match was barely started when a ball was slid through between the centre-halves and Ibrahimovic was through one-on-one. Preece advanced, and as he readied himself, the ball was casually looped over his head and into the back of the net. One-nil Ajax.

Ten minutes later, a pass was flashed into the big man's feet which he trapped with his right "as though it was made of velcro". Preece thought there wasn't much danger this time, as the centre-half was "up his arse" and Ibrahimovic had his back to goal. Until the ball was suddenly flying past him and nestling in the bottom corner. Preece hadn't moved. Two-nil down after just 10 minutes. There was only one thing for it, if they were going to avoid annihilation. Aberdeen captain Russell Anderson volunteered for the job. It took him a while to get near the big man but in the 20th minute as another pass came into his feet, Anderson drove his boot through him, taking the ball and sending the Swede "a good four foot into the air".

Ibrahimovic got up with a sour expression on his face and although he wasn't injured, he'd had enough. As Preece put it, "He wasn't going to be kicked around by 'inferior players' so he simply pulled his socks up, dusted himself down and walked off the pitch." As he strolled off, he zig-zagged towards any Aberdeen player in the vicinity, pointed his finger at them one by one and said, " You're shit", " You're shit", "You're shit too", "You're shit" "And you", until he was at the sideline. An extraordinary player, he worked religiously on his skills as a boy, often on his own, resulting in a highly distinctive, individual skill-set.

Babe Ruth, believed to be the greatest hitter in the history of baseball, was the same. A yokel and late developer who spent his younger days hitting the ball, walking around with a pitcher's glove on. When he retired, he was asked what was the secret of his great success. He said, "I guess I just liked hitting the ball." Once, when a journalist objected that the salary Ruth was demanding in his negotiations with the team ($80,000) was more than that of then US President Herbert Hoover ($75,000), he said, "I know, but I had a better year than Hoover."

Manchester United's Zlatan Ibrahimovic (right) with teammate Paul Pogba

What comes through always, as it does with Ibrahimovic, is his love for the skills of the game and a desire to try things. When Ruth was asked to describe his philosophy on the game, he put it this way. "I swing as hard as I can, and I try to swing right through the ball. The harder you grip the bat, the more you can swing it through the ball, and the farther the ball will go. I swing big, with everything I've got. I hit big or I miss big. I like to live as big as I can."

It's a huge contrast to the fear that characterises the play of modern county footballers, summed up in an exchange I had with one of the Derry players after we had been narrowly beaten by Donegal in the Ulster semi-final a few years ago. Twice in the second half, he had surged forward from the defence and found himself free in possession about 25 yards out, slightly to the right of the goals in a perfect position. On both occasions, he immediately turned to his right and hand-passed the ball to a Derry man in a poor position nearer the sideline. Afterwards, I said to him, "Why didn't you shoot? It was the winning of the game." "I've been instructed not to shoot."

It was no surprise when Eoin Bradley, our only maverick, left the squad a few years ago. He was bored stiff. We used to go along and laugh out loud at his genius. But as the game became more and more formulaic and being a county player became an all-consuming life, Eoin left to play soccer in the top division of the Irish League. They only trained twice a week and he was guaranteed a match every week and a four month off-season. I was critical of him at the time, but I was wrong. He is a man who needs to express himself. Who plays for the joy of it. Who likes to try things, even if it backfires. Sometimes infuriating. Sometimes breathtaking. A few weeks ago, he scored a hat-trick, and someone posted a brilliant pic of him sitting in the changing-room afterwards laughing with his team-mates. At his feet? His Glenullin GAC kitbag. A few pints afterwards. A bit of a laugh. Soon enough back at work on a Monday morning.

I was in Kerry for an event a few years ago and stars past and present were there. The current players were sipping spring water. The Golden Years lads weren't. "You wouldn't see the county footballers nowadays from one year to the next," said a man called O'Sullivan. "They're locked away."

Eoin Liston in action for Kerry
Bomber Liston in his Kerry days

For hours, the Golden Years crew talked about endlessly practising the skills alone or in groups of two or three and their fears that intuition and flair were being quashed by modern methods and overtraining. The Bomber Liston said, "There's no time left nowadays to go out with a ball and experiment." Sean Walsh (seven All-Irelands) was sitting beside him. The Bomber told a great story about Sean struggling with nerves in the run-up to big games. "Before every big game, I used to pick up Charlie Nelligan. We'd meet Sean down at the pitch. Charlie would kick balls in on top of me and Seanie. I let him win every one. 'Jaysus Sean' I'd say to him, 'Thank God I don't have to mark you on Sunday." Bomber Liston, Kerry's first sports psychologist.

All these great players, through from Micko to Egan and Maurice Fitz and Moynihan, were born in a time of skill and non-conformity. Mavericks were welcome. They had the space to develop their distinctive skills at underage and time during the week to spend a few hours kicking ball. Savouring the game. Now, the 'game' bit has been ruined by the legions of super-confident paid managers, sports psychologists, high performance experts and the like micromanaging players from a very young age. Underage training sessions are formulaic and intense, designed to create super-fit teams and a winning strategy. Absolute obedience is compulsory. It is a system that might bring a trophy but little or no joy.

When my oldest boys were younger, we spent hours kicking the ball about, scoring goals, dummying, and experimenting. Having a ball with the ball. Chatting about the game as we went. Showing off to each other. But then it started, as I knew it would. Your son has been chosen for the Antrim development squad. Soon, it was strength and conditioning, group defending, holding possession, lifestyle, nutrition, psychology. A room in the family home was turned into a fitness suite. By the time my oldest boy was 16 he was - like his more talented team-mates - already living the life of a professional sportsman. I cannot remember the last time we got a bag of balls and spent some time savouring the game.

The freedom, an essential component of the game, disappears as soon as they step onto that treadmill. Their week is mapped out. From then on, they merely follow instructions. The individual is absorbed into the system. The kids are bombarded with bullshit. The mysteries of the game - a bit like the mysteries of life - are reduced to acronyms: FEAR (Forget Everything And Run or Face Everything And Rise); SMART (Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, Time-bound); SUCCESS (Stamina, Understanding, Courage, Clarity, Energy, Strength, Speed); GROW (Goals, Reality, Options, Will-power), mottos ("It won't be easy but it will be worth it") and power-points. It becomes work. And in turn, they treat it like work. Rather than a game, a release from the pressures of life, it becomes a necessary chore on the path to the illusion that is eliteness. They are hamsters on a wheel.

I was never out of the field when I was his age. I nearly always went alone, because I liked to do an imaginary running commentary where I was playing for Derry, scoring the goal in the dying minutes to beat Kerry in Croke Park, or going around Páidí Ó Sé before lobbing Nelligan to the far corner, before tousling his hair and asking, "Is it not time you retired?" As a student in Trinity, I took to going out onto the pitch early in the morning, blindfolding myself and kicking points. First from a few yards in front of the goals. Then 10 metres. Then 20. Then slowly towards the sideline. I loved it all. In the end, I became almost impossible to block down and was rarely caught in possession. More importantly, because I had time to immerse myself in the game, I learned to revere it.

To appreciate its deeper value. Nowadays, I'd be recovering between sessions. Weary. Bored. Tied to a system that leaves no time for the game. Training, ice bath, tactical session, conditioned game, ice bath, physio, S&C session, statistical feedback meeting. Squeeze in school work, school football and sleep and there's no time left. On the plus side, you will have a fantastic physique.

Two years ago, because of the number of players at under 15 and under 16 level in development squads, my club under 16 A group were not really able to train. The players not selected by the county felt inferior to their team-mates. The county men wore the gear that set them apart. In their absence, we had six and seven turning up at club training.

I went to the club hierarchy with other underage coaches and asked them to make a policy that no player would be released to county duty until minor level. This would give the players time to develop at their own pace, learn the skills, place the club at the centre of their football and beyond, prevent overtraining, maximise enjoyment and ensure that for as long as possible, Gaelic football was just one part of a healthy life. We all agreed this was the way to go. But it proved impossible. The parents were against it. The boys were against it. They couldn't understand that all that glitters isn't gold. Just like the Croke Park hierarchy.

I had the great pleasure of spending some time in the company of Bernie Flynn recently. He described how he borrowed the balls from Sean Boylan after every Meath training session and kept them in his boot. He worked as a sales rep and every day, when he was passing a convenient GAA pitch, he would pull in, change into his gear and spend an hour kicking the ball over the bar with either foot. If the nets were up, he would work on goal-scoring as well. One night, he was late to Meath training with the balls and Boylan ate the arse off him. "Sean, would you rather I was early for training, or scoring goals in big Championship matches?" If he was in the Meath panel nowadays, he'd be training at least six days a week, be a student in DCU or a sports psychologist, and the only bag of balls in his boot would be golf.

There's no time anymore to enjoy the game. No room for players to develop a distinctive skill-set. No allowance to express themselves. We see that in the way our young men perform on the field. It is, as Ibrahimovic would say, shit.

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