Wednesday 22 May 2019

Joe Brolly: 'Miracle men are no fluke, as God will tell you'

Peter Canavan: ‘I never used my left foot until I was 13’ Photo: Sportsfile
Peter Canavan: ‘I never used my left foot until I was 13’ Photo: Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

After analysing the rankings and bouts of 10,000 boxers and martial arts exponents, scientists at Manchester University have concluded that lefties have a significant, consistent advantage.

Think Naseem Hamed, the most flamboyant, destructive world champion of his generation, who pole-axed 31 opponents with a left hand that seemed to come out of thin air. Or the incredible, undefeated Welsh middleweight world champion Joe Calzaghe, who once said, "In my darkest hour, when I thought the hardest fight was lost, it was my left hand I turned to for victory." Or Manny Pacquiao. The list goes on.

Thomas Richardson, evolutionary biologist at Manchester University, who led the study and was a southpaw fighter himself, has concluded that "because southpaws are rare, they often have a surprise advantage." In other words, opponents are used - more than 90 per cent of the time - to dealing with righties. Therefore, as Richardson puts it, "being confronted with a lefty can be extremely disorienting for an opponent".

I was fascinated by the analysis (which is well worth reading for anyone involved in coaching or playing Gaelic football), because I have always felt that as a natural left-footer, defenders found it more difficult to mark me. Always, I felt I had an advantage in getting the ball away without being blocked, an extra split second the righty didn't have.

Of course, being two-footed trumps that. Who could forget Maurice Fitzgerald's breathtaking goal to beat Armagh in the All-Ireland semi-final in 2000? Mike Frank Russell (two-footed also), picks out Johnny Crowley with a most dainty right-footed pass. Maurice, timing it perfectly, holds himself back until Crowley has the ball under control, then makes a diagonal run from the sideline off his shoulder, taking the hand-pass at full speed. Now, he is running cross-field between the 14 and 21, a bounce with the right hand, then a solo with the right foot, luring the defenders in, constantly switching the angle of his run, leaving them grasping thin air, before finishing with his left foot to the bottom left corner, as poor Benny Tierney dives headlong to the right. Bewildering and unstoppable. To paraphrase Animal Farm, 'One leg good. Two legs better.'

God is an all-things-to-all-men type of guy, or gal. There is the anti-abortion, anti-homosexual, money-worshipping God, exemplified by Cardinal Pell, Vatican treasurer and the third most powerful Roman Catholic in the world, who has described homosexuality as "not only repulsive but a greater health hazard than smoking" and once said that "abortion is a worse moral scandal than priests sexually abusing young people". With his convictions last week for sexually abusing choir boys when he was archbishop of Melbourne, Cardinal Pell is in a unique position to judge.

One of my personal favourites is the God who manifests himself on Twitter, with more than five million followers. "People," he tweeted recently, "Can you please stop calling out my name when you orgasm? Have you any idea how distracting this is? I'm trying to work up here."

In the end though, and I suspect there are many other Gaels who feel the same, particularly in the six counties where we are much better judges of football, there is only one true God. When he rings me, the word 'God' comes up on my phone, ie 'incoming call . . . God". I speak, of course, of Peter Canavan. He rang me the other day (I always bow down before answering so as not to invoke his wrath) to discuss the whole lefty/righty thing.

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"Were you a lefty?" I asked him. What he told me surprised and fascinated me.

"Would you believe it, Joe, I never used my left foot until I was 13 years of age, after the 1984 Ulster final. The day Frank McGuigan scored 11 points from play, with both feet and the fist. All the Tyrone ones were cheering and celebrating around me, and all I was thinking was 'look at this man solo dummying with his right foot and kicking it over with his left. Or solo dummying with his left foot and kicking it over with the right'. I went home that evening, got the ball in my hands, and started kicking the ball in the back garden. We had an old turf shed with an open doorway. My nets were the doorway. For the next three years I battered that turf stack with left-foot shots."

"When did you reach the point where you no longer favoured one foot over the other?"

"Very quickly, Joe," he said (he is a deity after all), "within months."

If you trawl YouTube you will find a video of Peter playing in the 1987 All-Ireland vocational schools final against Meath in Croke Park, the curtain-raiser to the Division 1 National League final that year. The young maestro scored the winning goal that day with . . . a beautiful left-footed goal.

When Jim McGuinness and Rory Gallagher sat down to review 2011, one of their key conclusions was that their main strike force (Michael Murphy, Paddy McBrearty and Colm McFadden) was completely one-footed, which had made it easier to stifle them.

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Michael Murphy of Donegal scores a goal. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

To that end, they began to work one-v-one with them on shooting with their weaker foot. McBrearty did not respond well to this and to this day is entirely one-footed. McFadden - a natural lefty like McBrearty - took to it and worked hard on his right, a move that bore fruit. Murphy practised obsessively with his left, spending hours every week on it, with Gallagher assisting him. And although in training he became accomplished with the left foot, he didn't have the confidence to use it in the games. Rory's view was that he simply took to it too late.

No wonder in Corofin that their mantra is to have their footballers kicking competently with both feet by the age of 14, a plan that has been working out rather well, don't you think?

The main reason kids will not kick with their weak foot is that they do not want to be embarrassed in front of the group. A good way to take away that self-consciousness is to a) tie a coloured ribbon around their weak foot before every session, b) give them three points for a weak-footed point and nine points for a weak-footed goal and c) applaud them loudly every time they use the weak foot. Very quickly, this establishes a culture of kicking with the lesser foot, with team-mates encouraging each other to use it.

Back to God (all bow), who told me another fascinating story.

"After I was teaching and taking the team at Holy Trinity, we were playing in the Tyrone vocational schools final against St Joseph's Plumbridge. Their star player was their midfielder, who was completely left-footed. So, we worked before the game with the man who was going to be marking him on shepherding him on to his right foot, the defender taking a step to the right to force him to his own right. It worked brilliantly and he didn't make the impact he needed to. Guess who that player was?"

I couldn't.

"Stephen O'Neill."

"You're joking," I said, incredulous. "I thought he was naturally two-footed."

"I don't think there's any such thing, Joe. After that day against us when he was exposed, Stephen practised religiously on his right foot. By the time he was wearing a senior Tyrone jersey he was kicking points over from the left corner with his right foot and from the right corner with the left and it was impossible for defenders to do anything about it. You have to understand, Joe, that the crucial thing is, like myself, he worked on that weak foot every day until it was perfect."

Think of them: Maurice Fitzgerald. Frank McGuigan. Stephen O'Neill. Shane Walsh. Mikey Sheehy. Colm Cooper. And, of course, Peter Canavan. There is no magic formula. Just concentration and repetitive practice.

This is the word of God.

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