Monday 16 September 2019

Joe Brolly: 'Life is too short to miss watching Crossmaglen play'

Crossmaglen’s Cian McConville during the Ulster quarter-final against Coalisland. Photo: Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile
Crossmaglen’s Cian McConville during the Ulster quarter-final against Coalisland. Photo: Oliver McVeigh / Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

I was in Berlin for a few days over Halloween and was happy enough until I discovered the Crossmaglen match had been fixed for the Saturday night, not the Sunday.

Sitting in a bar in the old East Berlin filled with cigarette smoke (they can smoke in the bars there and there is no curfew), I said, "Look, can we go home a day early for the Crossmaglen match?" The glamorous brunette took a sip of her beer and said "Yes. Let's do that." Crossmaglen have that effect on people.

The following evening, it was hard to quell a feeling of triumph as I walked through the gates of the Athletic Grounds. The older I get, the more I am on the hunt for authenticity. Things that mean something. Something that gives you a real boost.

Watching the American election coverage last week makes you despair for humanity. It is all so false. It's happening here too. Brexit is an unknown thing based on false information and emotional propaganda. No one knows what will happen if Brexit happens. Yet we have politicians on TV all the time going around talking about how good it will be for us. Those critters from the DUP are a particularly embarrassing example of this.

In football, which we used to always be able to rely on to give us a lift, we are stuck in a rut of hand-passing, zonal defending, cynicism, playing for frees, looking for cards to be shown to opponents, holding possession to run the clock down, passing back and forth with the 'keeper and all the rest, leaving us more depressed afterwards than we were before. We have hurling of course, which is a monument to everything that is good and courageous and true in us.

And we have Crossmaglen. Everyone should see Crossmaglen at least once in the flesh before they die.

When you do, you will understand the phrase "such and such does the heart good". It is why so many neutrals go to watch them at this time of year. At the Armagh county final I was sitting beside two lads from Ballinamore, who follow them every championship. Last Saturday night in the Athletic Grounds, there were people from clubs all over the North sitting around me in the stand.

I bumped into Seamus Heffron at half-time, who gave the glamorous brunette his trademark wink and shimmy. That one used to knock the girls over. As a schoolboy at St Pat's Maghera, when he went through the doors of the Slaughtneil disco, the ladies had to form an orderly queue.

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A skilled footballer, he was also a superb soccer player and a Francophile. Soon after starring in the first St Pat's team to win the McRory Cup in 1977, he was signed to play professional soccer in France. When he came back, he played senior Gaelic football with the Watty Grahams.

A fluent French speaker, his party trick was to berate Derry's referees in fluent French. "Arbitre, arbitre," he would shout at the bemused official, "c'est incroyable" (ref, ref, that's unbelievable). "Va te faire enculer," (a French insult requesting the subject to put his privates somewhere they wouldn't normally be put). "Putain de merde," he would say, spitting on the turf contemptuously and shrugging his shoulders in the ooh la la manner. After one game, the popular referee Oney O'Neill came off the field saying, "That Heffron man isn't right in the head". The beauty of it was that because no one knew what he was saying, he couldn't be sent off.

Heffron has no link to Crossmaglen. He just loves watching them play. The reason so many neutrals follow them is because watching Cross restores our faith in the game. By that I mean the core of Gaelic football, our essential values. The game is in our blood because and only because it reflects those values. The reason it is in such a crisis now is because in the last decade, unlike the hurlers, we have slowly deserted and forgotten those values. This is why we have begun to lose faith.

This does not include Crossmaglen. They have stood against these modern trends. Not for them the 14 men behind the 45, triple defence, blast off transition multiplay so on and so forth bullshit. Game management? In Crossmaglen the concept is scorned. Handpassing the ball about the defence and back to the 'keeper for the last four minutes to preserve a 0-6 to 0-5 victory would be a source of humiliation for them.

As John McEntee (below) once said when I remarked that Crossmaglen players never lie down or look for an opponent to be carded, "Why would we embarrass ourselves like that, Joe?"
Ronan Walsh of Tir Chonaill Gaels, shows his athleticism alongside John McEntee of Crossmaglen Rangers

It is uplifting and exciting to watch them, win, lose or draw. In the manner of a vibrant club hurling team, they give it 100 per cent from first whistle to last, fight for every ball, stand tall in their personal battles (whether they win or lose them), ignore the referee, give no quarter and expect no quarter. They are not a modern cliché, a drab copycat outfit playing pseudo-football. They are original and principled. Which means that in the modern game, they stick out a mile. Their county final against Ballymacnab was riveting, like going back in a time machine.

The game against Coalisland was nowhere near as good, but still there were thrills and spills coming thick and fast, even if, like the Ballymacnab game, the result was somehow inevitable. At half-time Stephen Kernan said, "This is one of those games we'll just get through."

Unlike the county final, where Ballymacnab knew what to expect and the referee was comfortable to let the lads play, this was very different. At the throw-in, I was smiling to myself, thinking of how the Coalisland ones would respond to what Cross were about to unleash. Cross play at 100 miles an hour from the start to the end. They are resolutely man to man (in the county final when young Jack Grugan took their full-back for 1-4 from play in the first half, Cross just left the full-back to fight his own battle). They tackle hard, no shadowing, instead getting physical contact on the ball and man. Each man fights his own battle and doesn't look for excuses. They do not like to solo or handpass, instead kicking 50-metre passes at blistering speed. This doesn't always work, but it sure keeps the opposing full-backs on their toes and the crowd on their feet.

Coalisland, who have never experienced the Crossmaglen effect, were taken aback. Immediately, they were complaining to the referee. Damien O'Hagan on the sideline was roaring for cards to be given and remonstrating with the linesman. The players were lying down and looking for cards to be awarded. One was sent off reportedly for trash talking. Even Pádraig Hampsey was looking for cards to be given, instead of leading his team.

It got to the stage it was very frustrating trying to watch the game because every time a Cross man came in contact with a Coalisland man, the Coalisland support was in uproar, screaming for cards. You would have thought men were being shot. Between the lying down and looking for cards and all the rest of it, they left Crossmaglen to go on and win the game. Nearly all their scores were frees (bar 0-2) and they could and should have lost by around 10 points, with Cross missing three superb goal chances (including one point-blank save by the excellent Peter Donnelly).

The problem Cross have is that the culture of football has become so corroded in the last decade that referees tend to panic when they see an honest-to-God, hard-hitting team that gives it everything they have. So, on Saturday, the referee panicked inside the first quarter, and ended up sending off four players (three of these were totally undeserved) and giving yellow card after yellow card, a situation that wasn't helped by the constant whinging and groaning of the Coalisland ones.

Only when the ref had succumbed to the mob and finally sent off two Cross players did the game have any rhythm. That last quarter, when it was 13-a-side, Coalisland were lucky they didn't get stuffed. Cross, as is their wont, kept playing with ferocious commitment, hunting down every ball like rottweilers.

The last play of the game was instructive. From a break, a low rolling ball came loose. As the Coalisland man came in for it, Aaron Kernan dived in along the ground without any regard for his own safety and won it against the head. The Cross ones didn't even cheer. It is, after all, what they do. They wouldn't think of commending one of their players for that. It would be like congratulating a fireman for turning his water hose on a fire.

Afterwards, we shook hands with the people we had been sitting with from Forkhill and Lurgan and Maghera and Sligo and said we would see them at the semi-final. All other commitments were immediately postponed. As the glamorous brunette can attest, life is too short to miss Crossmaglen games.

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