Monday 20 November 2017

Joe Brolly: Nowadays kids can't even be bribed to watch football

Gearoid McKiernan can cause Tyrone problems if the ball is delivered high and often into the square reliably. Photo: Sportsfile
Gearoid McKiernan can cause Tyrone problems if the ball is delivered high and often into the square reliably. Photo: Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

I breezed into the kitchen on Wednesday and asked, "Who's coming with me to the Derry match on Saturday?", injecting as much excitement into my voice as plausibility would allow. Louth versus Derry? Surely irresistible. Only the kids weren't biting.

"Come on. Who's coming with me? It'll be fun." Silence. "Come on boys. Granny's making one of her famous dinners. We'll get ice cream on the way home." This caused a brief stir from the youngest one. I made one last effort. "We can go on the pitch afterwards and get the players' autographs." "Nah," said Rory. "They're unwatchable. You only want us to go because you have to."

I felt a bit like Jerry Maguire in the famous scene where he gets sacked and begs someone, anyone, to come with him. In the end, he takes Flipper the goldfish with him from the fish tank. Thankfully, there are no goldfish in ours. Still. Out of the mouths of babes . . .

My brother Proinnsias has an interesting word for what has happened to the county game. He says it has been "Americanised". The endless rehearsal. The defensive systems. The new-age language that has sprung up around it, aka bullshit. The lads travelling to matches on the coach, solitary, listening to their headphones, instead of playing cards and having a laugh.

A mate of mine was at a supporters' club function a fortnight ago in one county. County players past and present were there. There was a lavish spread. The few current players who were there brought their own food in tupperware containers and sipped from their own bottles. Jesus Christ on a bicycle.

Brian McGuigan, a footballing wizard, and, for me, the greatest number 11 I have seen, wrote last week that the Tyrone team he won three All-Irelands with used to go for pints after championship games and have a night's fun. He said he asked Big Seán Cavanagh recently if that happened anymore. "Seán says that doesn't happen now. It's back to recovery and into the pool session and away home. Like, there's no spirit at all. Even on the bus, we always would have had great craic but now everyone has their headphones on and there's no talking or communicating at all. The fun has gone out of the game."

The Derry players are super-fit. Go up to the centre of excellence in Owenbeg any day of the week and you'll see them in the state-of-the-art gym, wearing their electronic smart vests, pumping iron, sprinting with weighted harnesses and doing the farmer's walk. For the older reader, the farmer's walk is not a leisurely stroll across fields to see if the prize bull has worked his magic on the cows. It involves carrying a heavy weight in each hand (typically 60kg) up and down a track. When Tom Scullion managed the Derry team in the late '80s, the team laughed at him when he got them to do a lap of the pitch carrying a cement block in each hand. They're not laughing now.

The shame is that my kids used to love going to watch Enda Muldoon and Paddy Bradley and Niall McCusker. Celtic Park was a great place to be. That Derry team won nothing, but played great football and there was a lot to savour. In fact, bringing the kids to see Derry games when they were small was what really gave them their love of football. Now, they can't even be bribed.

In Tyrone, they have no such qualms. Today will see their most formidable group since 2008 take the field to resume their deadly serious challenge for Sam. You can be sure that no Tyrone youngsters will be crying off because they have arranged to 'meet their mates' or are 'cleaning the cat piss odour out of the carpet'. Say what you like about them, but the inhabitants of the Independent People's Republic of Tyrone are an ultra-patriotic lot. It was a masterstroke to model their county along the lines of North Korea. The schoolchildren all wear Tyrone jerseys and praise the Great and Glorious Leader at assembly. They are paranoid about outsiders and react violently to any form of criticism. Media bans and blacklisting of journalists perceived to be in any way critical are the norm. Colm O'Rourke is their Osama Bin Laden. A large satellite dish at Garvaghey has blocked out signals from RTé for almost five years now, avoiding the contamination of innocent Tyrone minds by the propaganda of the Free State infidel. An entire generation of Tyrone children have no idea who Michael Lyster is.

Against Armagh, Cavan were able to make plenty of mistakes. Against The Independent People's Republic today, one or two will be fatal. Cavan's forwards were making runs into dangerous areas the last day. Today, there will be none of that sort of thing. Tyrone's defensive system is the best I have seen. Working the ball through it with handpasses is virtually impossible. Cavan should play two of their giants on the square with Seánie Johnston playing off them, and drive in long, early diagonal balls. This is what will seriously test Tyrone. Their full-back is small. Tyrone's solution to this is for Colm Kavanagh to get back into the square as soon as Tyrone lose possession. This works because most opponents don't maintain a half-forward presence and don't kick quick long ball. In the McKenna Cup against Tyrone, Derry belted in a series of long balls which caused absolute mayhem in there. We ended up scoring four goals and it could have been more. In our recent championship match against them, Tyrone expected Derry to carry out a sustained aerial assault. Instead, we got everyone behind the '45 and handpassed the ball sideways. I am reliably informed that after five minutes Cathal McCarron shouted over to Aidan McCrory, "What the f*** are they playing at?" Coincidentally, a question on the lips of every Derry supporter.

If Cavan's Argue or McKiernan or Givney catch a high ball in that square they will definitely be dragged down. This is an automatic response from the Tyrone rearguard. Derry were awarded two penalties in that McKenna Cup game from exactly this type of situation and scored both. It is the only blind spot in Tyrone's defensive system. With two big men in there, who from Tyrone can cover them?

Unfortunately for Cavan, there was no sign either in the league final or their win over Armagh that this was a tactic under consideration. It is a pity, because any two of that giant trio will cause havoc in the air and Johnston is a born poacher. If Cavan bring the same game plan as before, they will definitely lose.

Tyrone are rehearsed to perfection against a running game and the odd, ad hoc, late, high ball. A systematic aerial bombardment would force them to make it up as they go along.

Italy against Belgium on Tuesday night provided a useful analogy. The skilful, energetic Belgians worked hard, trying to pass and run their way through the Italians. But their doom was inevitable. From the eye in the sky, Italy's perfectly organised defensive system, with a bank of five operating in perfect cohesion behind a bank of four, looked like a synchronised swimming team. Put it in slow-mo and set it to orchestral music and it would make a magical short film. If a Belgian happened to get through the Italian midfield area before the two defensive banks were in position, he was automatically dragged down or tripped. It couldn't be a red because the culprit was never the last defender. And when the yellow was flourished, the Italian manager simply substituted the offender, patting him on the back as he took his place on the bench, beaming from ear to ear at a job well done. A bit of keep ball, a massed defence, cynical fouling in the right area, and the laws of physics take care of the rest. In Rome and Omagh.

A decade ago we would have said ,"Italy are a disgrace. Thank Christ Gaelic football isn't like that."

Now, we admire their efficiency and say, "That's what it takes to win."

Interestingly, it is also what it takes to put many people off the game entirely. We are in grave peril when not even the prospect of Granny Brolly's dinner can do the trick.

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