Friday 24 November 2017

Joe Brolly: How the old newspaper cuttings can whoop players into an almost crazed state

Tyrone under 21s celebrate their victory against Roscommon in the All-Ireland semi-final last weekend
Tyrone under 21s celebrate their victory against Roscommon in the All-Ireland semi-final last weekend

Joe Brolly

Two years ago, I was umpiring an under 10 ladies football game at Musgrave. My daughter, Meabh, plays full-back for St Brigid's. She is a confident, experienced footballer and a good tackler.

Which was why my ears pricked up when she said to her marker before throw-in, "Go easy on me, it's my first football match. I only started playing Gaelic this week". She turned, winked at me and put her finger on her lips. When the first ball came, she was two yards in front, won it on her chest and sprayed a 25-metre foot pass to a team-mate. I was gobsmacked.

When Tyrone under 21s comprehensively outplayed Roscommon in the All-Ireland semi-final last weekend, it was Fergal Logan's turn for a bit of psychological warfare. He chose the golden oldie of GAA mind games. Brandishing a newspaper article from a "Dublin paper" (up here that translates as 'Free State rag') in the press conference, he lambasted the author and his newspaper. For any budding manager, the trick here is to behave as though you have lost. "Maybe they'll know who our star men are now," he said, waving the article furiously in the air. You could still see the pin holes in the corners where it had been affixed to the changing room door.

"You can also tell Paddy Power," he fumed, "that we were grateful for odds of 9/4."

The finale was pure Alex Ferguson. "People who are kicking Tyrone football, keep kicking because I will tell you the more you kick, the more we will be kicking back." The Tyrone supporters, who were still gathering, roared like Zulus going into battle.

The siege mentality trick has stood the test of time. I remember playing for Tommy McKeever's all-conquering Dungiven minor team. We were the big dogs in North Derry and when we went into the all-county championship games, Tommy, Kieran's father, gave the same team talk every time. "Boys, the referee is a South Derry b*****d. The linesmen are South Derry b******s. The umpires are South Derry b******s. They'll give us f**k all. We're going to have to do this all by ourselves."

At which point water bottles would be hurled in all directions, causing us to duck. The thing is, it worked. We always took the field believing we were about to be the victims of some gigantic conspiracy. That sense of hurt and outrage carried us through two championships. After every game, we gathered in the changing room, fists raised, roaring defiantly at our imaginary oppressors.

I texted Logan after the game to congratulate him on his team's superb performance and on his own after-match cameo. "Congratulations. Great performance. And I loved the rant. Up Tyrone! Well done!"

That night, I told him a story about an Ulster Championship game we had both played in, in 1992 in Celtic Park. We had beaten Tyrone in the league final the previous Sunday and seven days later, Celtic Park was a cauldron for our championship first round. It was knockout football then and the atmosphere was insane. (A man from Dungannon told me that before throw-in, a Tyrone supporter in front of him on the terrace was so overcome with emotion, that he got down on the ground and did press-ups.)

When we were settled in the changing room, Eamonn Coleman produced a newspaper cutting. Coleman said it was an interview by young Tyrone forward Mattie McGleenan, who had been marked by the great Tony Scullion the previous Sunday and was set to face him again. Coleman waved it about in a fury, eyes bulging, face reddened. "He says you're done Scullion. He says you're all reputation. He says it was the easiest hour he ever had at senior level." At this, he stuck it in Tony's face and then pinned it to the changing room door. Tony, normally mild-mannered, punched a hole in the door. By then, Coleman had whooped him and most of the others into an almost crazed state. McGleenan and Tyrone were duly destroyed in a one-sided annihilation. No one had so much as glanced at the article. After the game, I did. It said none of the things Coleman said it did. The only references by McGleenan to Scullion were entirely respectful.

Scullion really was mild-mannered. He told me a great story once about Monaghan icon Nudie Hughes. Nudie was in the twilight of his career by then, carrying the trademarked pot belly. Tony, 23 or so, had been in the Derry team for around a year, and had just been selected for the International Rules.

"Jaysus young Scullion," said Nudie before the throw-in. "You're in terrific shape."

"Thank you Nudie," said Tony politely. "Congratulations on the International Rules," said Nudie, shaking Tony's hand. "It's no surprise to football people. Jaysus you're flying." As Tony began to answer, Nudie suddenly darted away, took a pass and popped the ball over the bar. "That's the last one I'll get today," he said.

He ended up with 0-4. Scullion said Nudie praised him up and down the whole time. Johnny McGurk says that afterwards in the changing room, Tony said, "Boys that Nudie Hughes is an awful nice fella."

Another of my old team-mates, Eamonn Burns, described an even more subtle approach. He had been flown to America for the weekend to play a championship match for Galway. None of the other county players supposed to travel with him had turned up. Their opponents, on the other hand, fielded seven county stars, from Kerry and Dublin. The manager of Eamonn's team gathered them into a huddle before the game: "Lads, we've been badly let down by some so-called stars. That's water under the bridge now. Go out and take your beating and we'll go for a good drink afterwards." They went on to win the game. An exemplar of reverse psychology.

That same year, myself and Fergal McCusker went out to play for Tyrone in the New York semi-final. In the changing room beforehand, the mood was relaxed and jovial. Two crates of chilled beer had been brought in and left on the floor. Suddenly, Paddy Carney from Kerry, who looked like a WWE wrestler, bulging biceps and permed blond hair, picked me out. "Do ye think this is a f**king joke Derry man?"

"No Paddy."

"It's not a f**king joke ,is it?"

"No Paddy."

He lifted me against the wall by the throat, smashing his false teeth on the floor. He then bellowed something that has never passed a Kerryman's lips before or since: "Letsh f**k**g do it for Cheeeroin." Driven by fear, I played a blinder.

A warning. Psychological ploys do not guarantee success. On Tuesday night past, my daughter Meabh, now an under 12, was playing against St John's. Before the throw-in, she shook hands with her marker and said " Go easy on me, it's my first football match. I only started playing Gaelic this week."

"Listen," said the other girl, "you said exactly the same thing to me last time we played. Now piss off."

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