Tuesday 17 July 2018

Joe Brolly: Seán Quigley is an endangered species - he's a man who enjoys his football

The more the players are drilled, the more prosaic the football

‘On Saturday, in spite of the fact that he was double marked, Quigley continued to try to play the game’
‘On Saturday, in spite of the fact that he was double marked, Quigley continued to try to play the game’

Joe Brolly

Never let the b******s get you down. I think of that when I see Seán Quigley playing football. The pot belly. The shimmy. The sense of devil may care.

After he kicked one of a series of highly ambitious wides last weekend against Westmeath, he turned to his man and smiled broadly. He might even have winked. He is an endangered species. A creature who should be subjected to a conservation order: A man who enjoys his football.

I had coffee at the scrake of dawn in Kaffe-O on the Ormeau Road a few days ago. One of the Crossmaglen senior footballers works there. He said he couldn't understand why teams play blanket defensive football. He was bewildered at them playing two and three sweepers, not kicking the ball and playing not to lose.

He went on to say something fascinating: "We like to win in Cross. But the reason we like to win is that we enjoy playing so much. When we win, it means we get to play more. Another coffee, Joe?"

Away he went, leaving me to ponder how we have come to this.

On Tuesday, in Belfast city centre, I bumped into a few lads from Swatragh. They should have a sign outside the village saying 'Swatragh, home of Anthony Tohill'. They wanted to talk about the four lads who left the Derry senior panel between the Wexford and Galway qualifiers to play in America. "It was a bad show, Joe. Wouldn't have happened in your day," said one. "How could you blame them?" said another. "The football they are playing is so boring. They train all the time."

We discussed the pressures on players and how difficult it is to walk away. In the club house, you will be singled out. People will talk about you. The community spirit of the GAA is a double edged sword.

It is no coincidence that players from great ball-playing clubs like Crossmaglen and Ballinderry routinely choose not to play county football. Their clubs have not succumbed to the dross. So the contrast between the joy and the tedium is stark.

Ballinderry, Ulster club champions in 2013, didn't have a single player on this year's Derry team. When Kieran McGeeney took over in Armagh, there were eight Cross men in his panel. Four weeks later, five of them had walked. With their clubs, they play football. They express themselves. They go for it. It is all about skill and passion. County football, on the other hand, in most counties, is a defeat for the human spirit.

The majority of teams now harness their players into a joyless system, repeating the same tasks over and over. I asked one of the Derry players after the Donegal match why he hadn't shot on two occasions when he took a hand-pass 30 yards out, in a perfect position in line with the right hand post. "I've been told not to shoot, Joe." On both occasions, he hand-passed the ball on to a man outside him close to the sideline, so killing off the scoring opportunity. We lost by two points. His words have gone round and round in my head since then. "I've been told not to shoot."

All that training for so little reward. It is a depressing reflection that, as training and preparation has come to dominate players' lives completely, the worse the football has become. When Tyrone trained twice a week, they won three All-Irelands and played brilliant football. Their 2005 final performance was perhaps the greatest ever in a final. Now, like the others, they train all the time. Players' lives outside of the game are non-existent. And, like Derry or Armagh or Monaghan, they have become unwatchable. Go figure.

Greats from that Tyrone team, particularly Philip Jordan and Enda McGinley, have bemoaned the ultra conservative football that Tyrone, in common with the majority of teams, now play. They could have beaten Donegal in the first round but didn't push on. They have been programmed to play this way. It is like a sort of mass hypnosis. The crowd certainly comes over all sleepy watching it.

My own county are unwatchable. We beat Wexford courtesy of an own goal and frees in a game where nothing happened for 73 long, long minutes. Against Galway, we managed 0-8 and Brian McIver resigned afterwards, blaming the standard of refereeing. You couldn't make it up.

For the football lover, it is a triumph of hope over reality. Think of Westmeath supporters coming to see their team in the Leinster final, or their game against Fermanagh. Arriving to the matches in high spirits, only to be greeted by a dull pattern of 13 men behind the ball labouring soullessly, their good forwards reduced to double teaming opponents. What a waste of time.

After the ball was thrown-in in their game against Fermanagh, both teams retreated into the now obligatory defensive formations and, aside from the odd ripple of applause when a free was scored, nothing much happened. There is more cheer at a wake. By half-time it was 0-5 to 0-5 and the spectators were relieved to get a 15-minute break to chat and drink tea. Fermanagh shuffled forward into Westmeath's 13-man defence, holding possession.

When Westmeath won possession, they shuffled forward until they reached Fermanagh's zone defence, then did the same. It was all entirely robotic and formulaic. Only Tomás Corrigan lifted the gloom when, at the death, he lobbed the keeper to put a smile on our faces and bring us back to better days.

Which brings me to Seán Quigley. He boasted last year after scoring 2-8 against Laois in a qualifier game that he'd eaten a pizza at 2am on the morning of the game. That's the middle finger up to the hordes of nutritionists making a fortune out of county boards. Steamed salmon, poached chicken without salt, plain pasta and that'll be €10,000 please, plus expenses.

On Saturday, in spite of the fact that he was double marked, Quigley continued to try to play the game. No doubt the hordes of statisticians making fortunes from county boards would have been horrified at him trying stuff.

You know the ones I mean: "You had possession 14 times. You kicked the ball no times. You hand-passed it to a man beside you 14 times. You didn't shoot for a score. Congratulations, your game score is a perfect 100 per cent. That'll be €15,000 a year, plus expenses."

We may enjoy Seán while we can. There are only a few of them left. In a year or two, they will all be living in captivity. Handpassing. And helping out in the blanket defence.

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