Saturday 23 March 2019

Joe Brolly: Hypnosis, imaginary balloons and Valentine's Day cards to Mayo players - John Morrison was a truly original mind

John Morrison — ‘There wasn’t a boring bone in his body’
John Morrison — ‘There wasn’t a boring bone in his body’
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

When Paul McErlean's father died three years ago, it was a classic football wake. Paul had played for Queen's (where he won a Sigerson after scoring an improbable winner from the sideline against my Trinity team in the semi-final, a point that fell into the category 'Acts of God'), Antrim and Ulster.

The wake house was full of Antrim footballers from the same era as me. As soon as decency permitted, we retreated to a back room in the house and the fun began. Aidan Donnelly said to Paul after a few minutes, "Will I go and get the carry out now Mackers?" Paul said "The nearest offie is on the Lisburn Road." "I've got it in the boot of the car" said Aidan, "I didn't want to bring it in until the coast was clear."

The beer was cracked open, and the night began with stories of the extraordinary, the one, the only, John Morrison. John had managed Antrim when the boys were playing and within five minutes my sides were shaking with laughter. On his first night with Antrim, before they left the Casement Park changing room to train, he asked them to lie down full length on the concrete floor, then switched off the lights, leaving them in pitch darkness. His deep, unearthly voice floated out of the void, "We are leaving our negative thoughts in this room. We are getting rid of them now and forever. Once we leave this room, we are new men, starting afresh. We are the future of Antrim football."

When he had finished, he couldn't find the light switch. The boys started tittering and the good effect was lost in the hilarity. Typical of John, who never took himself seriously, he laughed along with them.

On another occasion, when he was managing Antrim, he brought in a hypnotist to transform the players' losing mindset. A month or so before the Ulster championship first round against Cavan in 1996, the hypnotist took a session with the squad where he carried out a collective hypnosis, the purpose of which was to rid the players of any inferiority complex, and as John described it, put them on "automatic pilot" during the game.

As they sat in the changing room in Casement Park before taking the field for the big match, John - in his dramatic way - suddenly placed a boom box in the centre of the room, asked the boys to sit, and pressed play. It was a recorded message from the hypnotist, a dialled in refresher session if you like. As the boys sat there, togged out, ready to go, the familiar voice of the hypnotist emerged from the speaker, exhorting them to hold an imaginary balloon in their hands and allow it to inflate, then deflate.

The players sat there in silence, holding their balloons on their laps as the soothing voice intoned, "You will be calm on the pitch. You have visualised performing at your best today and this will happen. On the pitch you will be focused and composed." The boys arms' rose and then fell as the air went in and out of the imaginary balloons. Finally, the countdown. "10 . . . you are feeling totally relaxed, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, you are ready to perform at your best, 2, all you are aware of is your breathing, 1 . . . You are completely calm now. Your emotions are fully under control. You are fully focused. You are ready for Cavan." At which point the changing room exploded. Led by their captain, the squad jumped to their feet, shouldering each other, punching the door and roaring. Ten minutes after throw-in, Cavan were 1-4 to 0-0 ahead and the game was already over.

Sitting in that wake house 20 years on, helpless with laughter, the great affection they had for John was obvious, even if they were incredulous at some of his eccentric ideas.

I was chatting with Ross Carr and DJ Kane about John last week, and we were recalling his time as assistant coach with Armagh. He used to wear black DM boots, with orange Armagh socks pulled up above them over his trousers - and this must be a first and last in the GAA - a bright orange beret cocked jauntily on the side of his head.

Like that night in McErlean's, these stories could go on forever.

We have lost a truly original mind. John was a man who if asked, would travel to Dungiven to take an under 12 session and leave afterwards having inspired them to think about the game in a whole new way. A man who sent the Mayo players Valentine's Day cards when he was Mickey Moran's assistant coach in 2006, signing each one differently, including, 'All my love, SAMantha' (to David Brady) and 'Miss May O'Winsam' (to Pat Casey).

There wasn't a boring bone in his body. Once, Gaelic Life newspaper entered a team in the inter-firm sevens tournament. John, who wrote a weekly column for the paper, had been appointed team coach. He warmed the lads up before the first game by making them crawl in and out from the 21-yard line on their elbows and knees. The writer Declan Bogue, who was the editor of Gaelic Life, was on the team. As a budding coach himself, Bogue was intrigued by this particular exercise and that night he asked John what the precise purpose of it was. John winked at him and said, "I just wanted to see if you would do it."

There will be laughter in heaven this week. And it will be fascinating, in due course, to see how God reacts to hypnosis . . .

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