Friday 23 February 2018

Joe Brolly: Squeezing every last bit of joy out of the game

Derry players Ryan Bell, Gareth McKinless and Niall Holly leave the field at half-time during last Sunday’s defeat to Tyrone. Photo: Oliver McVeigh
Derry players Ryan Bell, Gareth McKinless and Niall Holly leave the field at half-time during last Sunday’s defeat to Tyrone. Photo: Oliver McVeigh
Requiescat in pace

Joe Brolly

It is an open secret that like every other county, county senior football in Derry had been sick for a long time. I described county footballers as "indentured slaves" two years ago and it caused a huge stir. But it was true. Now, very few people think differently.

County football used to be great fun. It used to be sport. It represented the best of what we were. Now, it is an entirely cold, humourless, ruthless, professional enterprise, benefiting only the few. The players are tied to the wheel. The county game takes everything they have, giving more or less nothing in return. They can't talk about the game, save in clichés vetted in advance. "London are a great team and they certainly won't be flying over here to make up the numbers." They can't have a pint unless they travel to northern Scandinavia wearing a wig and false nose and drink vodka in an igloo. They have no private life.

Surgery is now part of their lives. The GPA's newest surgery/injury stats are truly shocking. They have to eat and drink what they're ordered to. I saw a weekly information sheet for one of the big counties last year and was flabbergasted and depressed. The players' week was mapped out to the finest detail. One portion of the document read as follows: 'Tuesday. Get up before 8am. Eat breakfast at home.' Eat breakfast at home? Jesus wept.

The boys are exhaustively fitness and health tested. They cannot develop their lives outside of the game. Their only third level outlet is at a college where they can get a scholarship to do exactly the same thing that they're doing with their counties. Namely walk around in tracksuits, train three times a day, don't socialise and don't say anything. I bumped into Cillian O'Connor at the Crossmaglen-Castlebar club semi-final in February past. Cillian is one of the few who has gone on record to say that things are dysfunctional. I asked him if things were easing up in light of the debate that has been ignited over the last two years. "No Joe. It's getting worse."

The GAA president tells us everything is great. Like Donald Trump telling Chuck Todd of NBC: "This is going to be so great this presidency. Everything is going to be amazing. It's going to be so great, boy, I cannot wait for it. We are going to be the greatest country on earth again, etc, etc . . ." When Donald finally came to a halt, Chuck said, "But Mr Trump. You are almost 12 months into this campaign and you have yet to unveil a single policy." Trump assumed a world weary expression, shook his head sadly but benignly, put his hand on Todd's shoulder and said, "Chuck, Chuck, Chuck. The American people have no interest in policies."

So, as the game has become unhealthy and damaging to our young men, the GAA hierarchy has closed its eyes and adopted a hope for the best policy. They couldn't even bring themselves to put back the All-Ireland finals by a fortnight to relieve the tiniest fraction of the pressure on players, which tells you all you need to know. As the game has become a business, players have become pawns in systems. Every angle has to be covered in minute detail, down to where players stand in the blanket defence. Against Derry last Sunday, it was clear that Tyrone, borrowing from Donegal, have developed a system of calls, like American football or professional rugby. Alongside the footballing myxomatosis unleashed by Jim McGuinness.

In every county, development squads have spread like the plague, turning players into robots from the age of 14. I have seven lads from my under 16 team in these squads and for 15-year-olds, their physiques are frightening. My own son has a body like Bruce Lee and trains daily. When I went to our club hierarchy last year and pleaded with them to withdraw all of our players from the development squads until minor level, they refused. Parents liked it. The boys got county kit. They were county footballers. I am seeing for myself how they are already being separated from their clubs. How their loyalty is being taken by the county. At the age of 14! Core work, weight training, blanket defending, nutrition. For fuck sake, what about letting them be kids? What about letting them play football for the sheer enjoyment without putting everything under the microscope and squeezing every last bit of joy out of it?

This professionalism promotes the individual over the team. I have noticed that it promotes self-obsession. By the time they are 18 football is a job. They step onto the treadmill of Sigerson football, flower arranging at DCU (official partners of the GPA) or looking out the window of a lecture theatre in UUJ. Digs paid, fees paid. But at what price to the lads? They hit 30 and they're no use to anyone anymore. What happens then?

Even the GPA, cheerleaders of this descent into professionalism, are beginning to see the extent of the problem. Last week, they released one of their mostly bumph press statements. But the finale wasn't bumph. "There are growing concerns regarding the future of county football and hurling vis a vis the demands being placed on players. There is now a strong appetite to examine the sustainability of the current county game model from the important perspectives of player welfare and the overall enjoyment of the playing experience (boy are these guys fluent in bullshit). This analysis should consist of various elements including a greater sense of hope or optimism for players in relation to fixture scheduling, the structure and competitiveness of competitions, the increased demands on players' time, the physical and emotional consequences, the impact on life outside the game . . ."

The release goes on to quote Dessie Farrell of the GPA (sponsored by Colgate, Nike, Irish Stairlifts and official partner of Colostomy Bags Ireland, Brylcreem and VW) as saying: "More and more players find themselves under increasing pressure - physical, emotional and financial - due to the exceptional demands being placed on them. (He neglects to mention that he and his colleagues have helped to drive those demands. Just six months ago, the GPA recommended a new championship structure that increased the number of games by 40.) "We need to be conscious of the darker side of modern day sport . . . to ensure that players want to continue to play and enjoy the game." He then spoils it as usual by concluding that it is crucial that "the games realise their true potential in terms of growth and prosperity" (in tandem with our partners at Audi, McDonalds, Bank of Ireland and Portaloo Ireland Ltd).

I have been saying all of the above for years. I have met the hierarchy on many occasions and set it out in stark terms. I have written about it regularly and discussed it on TV and radio. I put a set of proposals to the president and having considered them he said they were "too radical". Better just to say that everything is great and we're all brilliant and the games are great and the players love it.

As any prominent GAA politician will tell you, GAA people have no interest in policies.

Finally, the great Sean Lowry contacted me about a piece I wrote a few weeks ago where I mistakenly said he had a few drinks the night before the 1982 final to settle his nerves, when in fact it was another team-mate. It's better in Sean's own words: "No big deal Joe but a lot of people have contacted me (someone must be reading you). You might mention it on Sunday if possible. You can also say that all Seamus Darby had to play for was 5 minutes and get 1 kick, we had to keep it kicked out for nearly 70 minutes!"

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