Joe Brolly: 'Now, nobody cares....We've given away our self-respect and honour'
In Sam Walker's book Captain Class, he recounts the war between France and the All Blacks in Nantes in 1986. Rugby was still an amateur game then, it would be nine years before it became professional. The previous week, New Zealand had destroyed France in the first Test and the French crowd had booed their team off the field. As the home team roared up the tunnel to take the field for the rematch, two of them could be seen head-butting each other while another banged his skull against the concrete wall until blood was pouring from his forehead.
The legendary New Zealand captain Wayne Shelford had been central to the All Blacks' win the previous week, capping a dominant performance by scoring the clinching try. The French were coming for him this week and he knew it.
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Fifteen minutes in, as Shelford lay on the ground after a tackle, he got a boot in the face that shattered three front teeth. He stood up, wiped the blood off his face, spat out the fragments and got on with it. In the 20th minute, Eric Champ punched him in the side of the face and tried to goad him into a fight. Shelford ignored him. Coming up to half-time, the giant French prop Jean-Pierre Garuet-Lempirou (do not be fooled by the double barrelled surname) launched himself full length at Shelford, using his forehead as a battering ram. He knocked the New Zealander out cold.
Shelford used the short half-time break to recover his senses (in those days there were no half-time cheerleaders or pop groups or promotions) and to the considerable shock of Les Bleus, out he came for the second half. Ten minutes into that second half French captain Daniel Dubroca fell to the ground with the ball. As Shelford bent over him and ripped it from him, Dubroca kicked him hard in the balls.
On the TV, Shelford can be seen grimacing in pain, then getting to his feet and pouring water down his shorts, or as he put it afterwards, "I chucked a little down the old knickers to numb the pain". Back he went into the fray and continued to play at full throttle. With two minutes to go, he was elbowed in the face and this time, he was finally finished.
Badly concussed, he was taken from the field despite his protestations. In the changing room afterwards, the players trooped back in and began taking off their gear when suddenly they went into shock. Shelford had peeled off his shorts, to reveal that his scrotum had been torn open by that kick and his right testicle was dangling between his knees, hanging by a vein. A surgeon was summoned and the testicle was reunited with his partner.
Shelford, non-plussed, said, "He packed it all away and everything still works. I didn't realise testicles are so fucking big." His certainly were. He went on to lead the All Blacks through an unprecedented era of world dominance between 1987 and 1991. The carnage made him play harder. He cared. He gave it his heart and soul.
We used to do that in Derry. Brian McGilligan chasing back frantically to lay a big hit on Greg Blaney as he powered through for what looked a certain goal. Anthony Tohill ignoring all signs of human weakness. Enda Gormley playing his best football after two ACL tears which were never repaired and he had been told he would never play again, going on to win two All Stars and an All-Ireland.
In that 1993 final, Gormley was poleaxed early on. His response? He went on to give his greatest performance, kicking two incredible points from play and nailing every single free. Tony Scullion? An animal. Kieran McKeever? The greatest character I have ever played with or saw on a sporting field. For McKeever (or Fever as we called him) there was no such thing as injury. Or Sean Marty Lockhart (below), or Fergal Doherty, or any of them. In those days, Derry Gaelic football was about heart and soul. About who we were. And nothing is more important than that. Derry matches, up until five or six years ago, were a thrilling occasion, win or lose.
Now, nobody cares. Today, it is time for our annual punishment and we must be thankful it only happens once a year. Derry - under our Tyrone Director of Football, our Donegal under 17 manager (our recent under 17 game against Armagh was a zero entertainment travesty of solo running, hand-passing and dropping back in numbers) and our Tyrone under 21 manager (not that long ago he was celebrating on the sideline in plain view of the Derry dugout after his Tyrone minor team had beaten Derry in the championship) - have given away our soul and our self-respect, and have been taken from Division 1 to Division 4 by outsiders in the space of four years.
I was in Croke Park for the Division 4 final and Leitrim were better organised. Playing with their heads up and a decent shape, they kicked 10 first half wides, six of them from very good positions. Meanwhile, Derry did what we began to learn under Tyrone's Paddy Tally (see Galway, Down, etc) and dropped back in numbers, soloed endlessly, hand-passed without purpose and made Leitrim look good.
Having traded our traditions and history of expressive football for bland, automatic, conveyor belt football supervised by outsiders who don't give a damn about us, there is nothing surprising about where we are now. There has been an enormous turnover of players on the senior panel in the last four years, reflecting the fact that the county senior team doesn't matter to us anymore.
Let us compare our situation with Tyrone. Whatever you may think about their seven-year experiment with the massed defensive system, they have always been Tyrone to the core. They understand that this is the most important thing. So, when they travel anywhere in the country, even in the years when they struggled, they fight passionately for the jersey. The Tyrone GAA family is more important than All-Irelands or Ulster championships or anything else. Like Dublin or Kerry or Kilkenny hurlers, their soul is not for sale.
Meanwhile, we have given away our self-respect and our honour. Tyrone battered us when both teams were playing blanket defensive football. What will the all-new, football-playing, self-expressing, long-kicking Tyrone do to us today? One shudders to think. We will go to Healy Park, suffer a humiliation and the board will pretend that everything is going well. Imagine Tyrone bringing in a Derryman to manage their under 17s. Or a Down man for their under 21s. Or an outsider to manage their seniors. Or, what about this: A Derry director of football in Tyrone.
In the past, Tyrone would have been bracing themselves for war when Derry came to town. In 2006, when Tyrone were All-Ireland champions having won two Sams in three years, we went to Healy Park as huge underdogs, went to war against them and broke them, dismantling their electrifying forward division who had destroyed the Kingdom with a brilliant performance in the '05 final and dominating their vaunted defensive system.
At the final whistle, it was 1-8 to 0-5 and the Derry men stood out on the pitch, raising their fists to the Tyrone hordes in the stand. As Fergal Doherty came off the field, he spotted me in the stand, came over and we embraced. Derry to the core. These days, Tyrone men feel sorry for us. They hark back to the good old days when the hair stood on the back of everyone's neck when the ball was thrown in.
The county football game has changed utterly in the past decade. Enhanced amateurism (to use Donal Óg Cusack's description) has taken the sting out of it and made it an altogether duller affair. It has become a semi-professional industry, with children starting onto the county treadmill at 13 years of age. But even in this context, our collapse has been shocking.
We have traded our heart and soul. Without that, Gaelic football is pointless. As you will see today.
Sunday Indo Sport