Sunday 15 September 2019

Joe Brolly: 'The biggest obstacle to Mayo winning an All-Ireland is Mayo'

Mayo manager James Horan. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Mayo manager James Horan. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

I'm starting to worry about Oisín McConville. At half-time in the Donegal game last Sunday - if game isn't putting it a bit strongly - he said on the BBC that you had to admire the way Fermanagh were nullifying Donegal. He might have added, "and nullifying all forms of human excitement, positive emotion and everything else that makes life worth living." Oisín best be careful, or he will be run out of Crossmaglen.

Rory Gallagher's point is that he is doing his best with the panel available, but if that is the culture that is established, you are doomed.

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The message is 'we are not good enough to play football'. With this credo, skilled footballers become superfluous and marginalised. Obedience to a micro-managed system takes the place of football and self-expression. In the end, the game is reduced to a farce and the team may get a temporary bounce but soon becomes the subject of scorn and humiliation. Think Carlow, Fermanagh, Tyrone (before this season), Galway, Derry . . .

Fermanagh kept the score down last weekend (which is the point of the exercise), losing by six this time instead of 16, while the rest of us were losing the will to live. The atmosphere at the game was something akin to what one experiences on the moon, with the only sound being Rory Gallagher bellowing "DON'T FOUL" when Donegal approached their 45 (this was in stark contrast to the systematic fouling of Donegal players in the middle third to prevent them attacking before the Fermbots were in their defensive zones) and "GET BACK." If they were any further back they'd have been in the car park.

Let us take Crossmaglen. It is a small village surrounded by a host of strong clubs. Their philosophy is (and Oisín was at a day-long seminar in the club I was at several years ago when this was debated) that they would never succumb to this type of strategy since it was contrary to the basic ethos of the game. As Tony McEntee put it that day: "We want young players to be excited about the prospect of playing football for Crossmaglen, and that means a culture of playing proper football. We have a duty to future generations."

The process of destroying football is well underway now in Fermanagh. If Rory is there for much longer it will take many years to reverse. Look what has happened in Derry. Look also at Galway, where they have forwards who can match the Dubs but spend most of their time labouring in defence, pointing and shuffling around, keeping the score down.

Fermanagh is a small, intensely proud GAA county and what they are in danger of doing is losing their self-respect. I remember an Ulster club quarter-final against Newtownbutler in 1997. They had a small pick and were coming up against a very powerful Dungiven team. They got wired into us, and to me in particular. I had my ears warmed more than once and my man was sent off. We won, but we knew we were in a battle. They left nothing behind. Nor did St Michael's Enniskillen, thrilling winners of this year's Hogan Cup. Nor Enniskillen Gaels, who stormed to victory in the prestigious Ulster minor club championship in 2017. Where were the flair players for Fermanagh on Sunday? Planning to travel to the US for the summer? At the pictures? Where?

The previous night, Mayo publicly self-destructed again. A lot of Mayo folk turned on me last week for my analysis on these pages and on The Sunday Game but what did I say? That the 'keeper made a terrible mistake? That he ought not to be there, with David Clarke sitting on the bench? That they panicked, lost their composure and had to be content again with failure? That there is a culture of hero worship and individualism around the squad that means they will never win an All-Ireland? The day after, Enda Varley, who used to be in the squad, tweeted: 'Yes, Mayo deserved criticism but there has to be a balance to it. To single out individuals for personal attacks is cowardly from Joe Brolly. Learn how to analyse a game!'

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This, along with a lot of sentimental guff about this team being heroes and only not winning an All-Ireland because Dublin are such a great team, etc. The reason Pat Holmes and Noel Connelly were deposed by a players' coup after they had narrowly lost the epic 2015 All-Ireland semi-final replay to the Dubs, was that they had tried to change this culture of entitlement. Holmes tells a story about dropping one player for a Connacht final and getting the response, "What the fuck do you think you're doing? Do you know who I am? I always play when I'm fit." Imagine Ciaran Kilkenny saying that to Jim Gavin.

All that Holmes and Connelly were doing was precisely what Pat Gilroy did when he took over the spectacularly self-absorbed colossal heroic losers that the Dublin footballers were. As Ciaran Whelan said last Sunday night, this Mayo team is very similar to that Dublin team. Typical of Ciaran, even though he was part of that team, he had the balls to make that confession. It took Gilroy two years, but in that time they became a modest, respectful collective, where the individual was irrelevant and social responsibility was at the core of everything they did. The difference was that the Dublin board under John Costello backed him to the hilt, whereas in Mayo, a weak board dumped two of their most loyal servants without blinking.

James Horan, a long-term team mate of Connelly and Holmes, said afterwards that their reign as joint managers had put the players in "a place that was dark and they needed to clear the way." He went on to commend the players for the "hugely courageous step" they had taken in deposing them. Imagine Gilroy or Jim Gavin saying that about two of their old team-mates? This didn't even raise an eyebrow in Mayo. This is because there is a culture of hero worship.

Cillian O'Connor said in an interview with The Irish Times they would now have "a better chance of winning the All-Ireland". How did that pan out Cillian? Last year, Stephen Rochford was thrown out after the players informed the board that he was no longer wanted. It was Rochford's fault that they hadn't won an All-Ireland. Another hugely courageous step by this group of Mayo legends that protects their culture of excuses and blame shifting.

When Gilroy took over the Dubs, out went the celebrations and the big star behaviour. In came a serious football team with a serious winning culture. By 2011 they were All-Ireland champions. This culture is what Jim Gavin, one of Gilroy's old team-mates, inherited in 2013. We have seen the critical importance of this culture. Without it, Sam Maguires would not be possible.

While Dublin were quietly training for Louth, showing them absolute respect and performing on the day at the highest level (with 14 men for most of the game) the Mayo team was paraded around New York for five days, where over half a million dollars was raised at just one dinner for their fund. Imagine the Dubs doing that?

Mayo supporters can give out all they want and describe their team as heroes and legends and all the rest. The bottom line is that unless they shed this culture of entitlement, they will always be heroic losers. Mayo are in a dark place. Do they need to clear the way James?

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