Mickey Harte, the great and glorious leader of the Independent People’s Republic of Tyrone, said on BBC TV last week that football “has not become overly defensive” and that his Tyrone team had been “unfairly tarnished” for their negative tactics and defensive strategy.
“I have absolutely no issue with the game. I find it . . . intriguing. These critics are narrow-minded. For example the Ulster final last year was as good a game as I have been involved in.” Interviewer Mark Sidebottom, who is an underage club coach and an all-round dyed-in-the-wool GAA man, wasn’t buying this parallel reality. “I was at that game, Mickey, and it was incredibly dull. At times it was drudgery — both teams retreating into their defence as soon as they lost the ball, and inviting the other on. You surely have to accept it is not easy on the eye? Almost like ring a ring a rosy: one side gets the ball, the other automatically retreats. It was pretty turgid?”
Mickey snapped back at him: “This is all down to certain pundits and I think you’ve become contaminated by them as well.”
Sidebottom ploughed on: “Compare your approach to the recent league final, where both teams went toe to toe, fully committed to the game. Why, when Tyrone have such quality, do you need to play this way? Why such a defensive game?”
Mickey, uncomfortable now, said that he couldn’t understand why there had been universal praise for the league final, and that many of those eulogising it were “doing so with something of a jaundiced eye”. “Some people,” he said, “are stuck in a time warp. Life has moved on. People are not driving Ford Anglia cars anymore.” Which was a bit harsh on Ford Anglias, given that they went forward as well as back.
I was at a chat show on Friday night in Dublin, where all the proceeds went to Cystic Fibrosis Ireland. The panel included Ciaran Whelan, Michael Lyster, Eddie Brennan, Tomás Mulcahy and Michael Duignan. The key debate of the night came from a question asked by a member of the audience: “Why have hurling and football taken such different paths in the last decade? Why has football lost its way so badly?” The reason for this is simple. Hurling folk feel they have a duty to the game. They want to preserve its spirit for future generations. They understand that for it to be a shared journey, the game must be fulfilling for players and supporters. Unlike football, where in the last 10 years the win at all costs attitude has destroyed any sense of a wider responsibility to the game.
It is easy to illustrate this point. Derek McGrath’s blanket defensive experiment with Waterford was absolutely savaged by hurling folk. The TV pundits universally condemned it as an abomination. The hurling world expressed its disgust. I was at the Munster championship meeting of Clare and Waterford last year and had never seen such a poor spectacle. Dull, formulaic and predictable. The spectators groaned and complained bitterly about what they were witnessing. I left at half-time.
When, under the weight of the opprobrium of the hurling world, McGrath abandoned the Tyrone system and went man to man against Kilkenny in the semi-final, he was redeemed. The game was a triumph. A marvellous, breathless spectacle. Waterford lost, but what matter? The game was back in rude health.
Ten years ago, the spirit of both games was the same. But two paths diverged. Football managers, led by influential men like Harte, told us their only duty was to victory. “We are not in the business of entertainment,” said Harte. As though they were Premier League coaches. Cynicism, negativity and overwhelming defence became the norm. Footballers lie down clutching their face or stomach, roll on the ground, angrily ask the ref to give cards to an opponent, kick the ball off the keeper’s tee (Barry John Keane, 2014 All-Ireland final) and all the rest. These are just tactics now.
In hurling, any of this behaviour will make the player a pariah. Imagine one of Cody’s players pretending he was injured to get a man sent off? So, as hurling has retained its essential spirit, because its guardians understand that they have a wider responsibility to the game, in football we have disappeared down the black hole of win at all costs. The game is largely dross, cynicism and feigning have become acceptable, and the managers and new wave of pundits fall over themselves to excuse it.
With the essential spirit of the game so compromised (save for a few honourable exceptions), championship games are a pale shadow of their former selves. When I went to Derry-Tyrone matches as a child, and later played in them, it was war. The venue was always packed. The excitement was off the charts. The hair stood on the head. The games were always unpredictable. I lost as many games against them as I won. No one left early. The commitment to that hour was complete.
Ginger John Mullan from Dungiven was at one of those games once. A “big Tyrone gulpin” as he puts it was standing at the front of the terrace roaring from the throw-in. Ginger stuck it for a while, but eventually it was unbearable. He pushed his way through the throng, and boxed the big man in the ear as hard as he could, then melted back into the crowd as the Tyrone man swore bloody murder.
When we played Tyrone the atmosphere was almost unbearable. I remember before we left the dressing room in 1991 to play them in Celtic Park, Eamonn Coleman telling Tony Scullion that Mattie McGleenan had said he was finished. This was no doubt made up, but Eamonn delivered it with conviction, his face wrinkled in disgust. Tony stood up and put his fist through the door. We rumbled out onto the pitch like paratroopers going into the Bogside.
The last time we beat Tyrone was in 2006. They were All-Ireland champions and we got them in the first round at Omagh. It was, as always, war. Enda Muldoon poached a delightful goal, picking his way through the packed square like a stork creeping up on a fish, before side-footing it daintily to the net. We broke them with a ferocious effort, leaving them on their hands and knees at the final whistle.
I ran into Tony Scullion, and the two of us went drinking in the town in our Derry jerseys. When we landed into Sally’s, a mecca for Tyrone supporters, Eddie Duffy, who played for St Enda’s Omagh for years, shook our hands warmly and we drank together.
Eddie — who looks like the white equivalent of Mr T — boasts the unique distinction of having being sent off in two senior championships, in two different countries, on the same day. In the morning, he played for Tir Chonnail Gaels in London and got himself sent off late in the second half so that he could get the flight home to play, that evening, in the Tyrone semi-final between St Enda’s and Ardboe. He duly made it and the game had no sooner started when he was sent off for pole-axing Eamonn Forbes, a player with whom Eddie had a long and eventful history. Eddie told me once that he broke Eamonn’s nose in three places — Dungannon, Pomeroy and Omagh. Anyway, Eddie was a fearsome big man. As myself and Scullion got rowdier, pumping the fist at Tyrone men across the bar and the like, a big bouncer came over and asked us to tone it down. At which point Eddie pole-axed him with a right hand, leaving him asleep on the bar floor. Everything stopped. The bouncers edged towards us. Eddie drew himself up to his full height, clenched his fists, and shouted “Anybody else anything they want to say about Joe Brolly?” As it turns out, they didn’t.
Five minutes later, we were sneaked out the emergency exit by a solicitor friend from Omagh, who had a car waiting to take us home.
Cork v Tipperary last weekend reminds us how far we have fallen. For football lovers, those days are a dim and distant memory. Like the Ford Anglia.