Sunday 22 September 2019

Joe Brolly: 'I leaned in, tousled his hair and asked: 'Was that better than sex?'

At club level you can still enjoy real football and real dispute settlement

‘Last weekend the live game on TG4 was a superb contest between Castlebar and Corofin’.
‘Last weekend the live game on TG4 was a superb contest between Castlebar and Corofin’.
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

If you want to see football, go watch a club game. I am sick of county football. Or rather, county football is sick.

Take the Meath-Westmeath match out of the 2015 championship and what was there to savour? The 2014 championship was even worse, capped by the most depressing, most cynical final in the history of Gaelic football. Ten years ago, who could have imagined Kerry players kicking the ball off the opposing keeper's tee or feigning injury in the field of dreams?

By contrast, flick to TG4 on a Sunday at this time of year and you will be able to see the game we know and love. Last weekend the live game was a superb contest between Castlebar and Corofin. Both teams went for it, the aim being to put the opponent on the back foot. They took risks, steamed upfield at every opportunity and trusted their backs to mark their own men. They kicked the ball for Christ's sake! They went for things that would send Jimmy McGuinness or Eamonn Fitzmaurice to a darkened room for a week. It was thrilling because it was precisely what sport should be: sport.

Similarly, the Ulster club championship is like being transported back a decade in a time machine. The finalists - Crossmaglen and Scotstown - both play man-to-man football and go for the win without a safety net. Which is why there will be 12,000 spectators at the Athletic Grounds today.

The other thing about club football is that it is not diseased by the underhand practices that are endemic in the county game. So, for example, feigning to get an opponent sent off is virtually unheard of. I was chatting to a Tyrone man from the famed Killyclogher club last week who explained this phenomenon by saying that players will not embarrass their own people. It is interesting that boys who will lie on the ground and clutch their faces without hesitation in Croke Park wouldn't dream of doing it on their home ground. With the club, there is a pride and self-respect that is being drained from county football by the robotic, win at all costs approach. It is no coincidence that the best football played in Croke Park every year is the club final. Think St Vincent's v Castlebar, or Corofin v Slaughtneil.

Another illustration of this honesty is the fact that at club level, boys will throw a punch when one is called for. I was at a chat night last weekend to raise funds for Colm O'Rourke's club and one of the questions was about the difference between the game then and now, with particular regard to the cynicism that permeates the county game. Feigning, diving and the like were unheard of when we played and someone asked whether the "good, honest violence" of those days, when a man who misbehaved was liable to get a slap, wasn't a lot better than the dishonest culture that pervades the county game now. He was right.

I remember a hot and heavy league play-off against Meath in Celtic Park. With a few minutes to go, we were a point down. A high ball came in, Darren Fay missed it and I was through on goal. As the big keeper advanced, I lobbed him. I recalled he had been interviewed by RTE after beating Dublin in a championship match and said, "that was better than sex." So, as he sat on his arse in Celtic Park, I leaned in, tousled his hair and asked: 'Was that better than sex?' Then I wheeled away, blowing kisses to the delighted home crowd. At which point, Colm Coyle booted me in the thigh, bringing an abrupt end to the celebration. As I was limping off (I needed 11 stitches) Derry manager Brian Mullins shook his head and said, 'You deserved that you little bollocks.' He was right. And I had no complaints.

Once, during Mullins' tenure, we played a challenge against Antrim in Owenbeg, our training base. I was being marked by a fellow called Andy McGowan from the St John's club whose nickname was 'The Crab'. The nickname was earned by his method of defending, which was to hold you in a vice off the ball. He tortured me for ten minutes, thumping and holding. Eventually, after a Derry point, he released me, at which point I hit him in the nose as hard as I could. The punch connected beautifully and he went to the ground in a daze. Oney O'Neill, from my home club Dungiven, was the referee. He ran in, bent down to McGowan and delivered the immortal line, "You deserved that you dirty bastard."

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At the same venue last weekend, Glenullen played The Foreglen in a do or die Derry ACFL Division One play-off. The videos taken by spectators of the mass brawl have gone viral. We shake our heads gravely and say it's a disgrace, but like the pacifist secretly thrilled by the bullfight, we love nothing more than a good old-fashioned dust-up. Listen to the reaction of the spectators on the footage, whooping with thrilled laughter as new fights break out and grown men chase each other around the field. Then there is the deadpan announcement from the PA system, reminiscent of the fairground scene in Father Ted. "Would all patrons not playing for either team please leave the field in an orderly fashion."

That night, Mary K Burke, the much loved photographer from Dungiven, had the temerity to tweet (from @MKBurke1) "social media leaves the GAA hierarchy in a precarious position - videos now circulated in seconds - no hiding places any more". To which Glenullen's Paddy Bradley responded (@PaddyB14), "Keep your nosey head out of it" Paddy best be careful.

A few years ago, Dungiven minors played St Enda's Omagh in the semi-final of the Ulster club championship. I was standing at the fence chatting to Mary K, who was inside the wire, camera at the ready. The ball went over the line for an Omagh sideline and as one of their players ran to get it, he deliberately shouldered her, knocking her to the ground and covering her in muck. As he retrieved the ball and turned, Kelvin White, one of our smallest men but a tight boxer, poleaxed him with an uppercut. Afterwards in the St Paul's clubhouse, when he went to buy a drink, the barman said, "Son, your money is no good here."

These days, if you tousle a man's hair in a county game he is liable to go into a temporary coma until he sees whether the referee has bought it or not. In club football, however, the abiding principles are pride in place, self-respect and courage. In short, nobility. Last year, when Omagh beat Crossmaglen in a cliffhanger, at the final whistle an Omagh supporter ran onto the field and jumped into the face of one of the Crossmaglen players, dancing with glee. You know what happened next. Five minutes later, when we walked past the St John's ambulance, the Omagh lad was sitting in the back being revived with smelling salts. Proper order.

When Darren Hughes tousled Tiernan McCann's hair in Croke Park in August, Tiernan should have busted him. Had he been playing for his beloved Killyclogher that's precisely what he would have done. Instead, he instinctively followed the county players' code, lay down and got the Monaghan man sent off. Darren is Scotstown's full-forward today. Should he decide to interfere with the Crossmaglen full-back's hair, a red card will be the least of his worries.

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