Wednesday 19 June 2019

Joe Brolly: 'Tyrone could learn a lot from one of Jim McGuinness' commandments'

Tyrone Manager Mickey Harte and Derry Manager Damian McErlain. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Tyrone Manager Mickey Harte and Derry Manager Damian McErlain. Photo: Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

Fr Seán Hegarty, who died last week, managed the Derry senior footballers in 1989/'90. Early on in his tenure, Derry played the remnants of the great Kerry team in a league match at Dean McGlinchey Park in Ballinascreen.

In those days, when the Kerry team, under Micko, arrived in town, it was like the Harlem Globetrotters on tour. Or rather, the Harlem Globetrotters with hangovers. Dungiven's Liam McElhinney was full-forward that day and had a stormer, kicking four points from play.

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To the delight of the huge home crowd, Derry won, and while the Kerry legends were signing autographs on the pitch afterwards, Micko gathered up the stray Derry balls and put them in the Kerry bag. He then did an interview with RTÉ radio, saying that McElhinney was well on his way to becoming one of the great full-forwards ("reminds me of a young Bomber Liston"), before coming into the Derry changing room to say a few words. "It is a credit to you to see how you are keeping the game going up here in spite of the adversity you face on a daily basis, I don't know how you do it lads," and other associated plámás. As soon as he left the room, Fergal McCusker said, "What a load of shite," and everybody burst out laughing, including Fr Seán who was allergic to bullshit.

(Dara Ó Cinnéide told me once that ball-stealing is part and parcel of club football in the Kingdom, and that heated arguments after games are common as a result. He told me he said to an opposing manager after a recent game, "There's tea and sandwiches for the lads when they're showered." He said, "Forget the sandwiches, we'll settle for our balls back.")

Later that season, on the eve of the first round of the Ulster Championship, we were all sitting in the changing room in Celtic Park after training, waiting for the team to be announced. Johnny McGurk, who had only arrived back into the squad the previous week, was named at number five. When Fr Seán named Paddy Barton at number ten, McElhinney (who was in contention for the spot) frowned as if to say, "Bad mistake Father, what were you thinking of?", shook his head, and exhaled disapprovingly, which caused Fr Seán to stop briefly and glower at him. Meanwhile, McCusker was elbowing me and we were trying not to giggle.

On the cleric went, through 11, 12 and 13, before coming to the crucial number 14 position, which was Liam's last hope. "Full-forward . . . Seamus Downey." Cue Liam shaking the head furiously, blowing hard through his mouth and generally conveying the clear impression that this was not going to end well for Derry. As me and McCusker stumbled out of the changing room afterwards, laughing, Liam (who is one of the funniest people you could ever meet) approached us and said indignantly, "Jesus lads, Johnny McGurk straight in at number five, like Duran Duran in the early '80s."

Fr Seán may have been a Christian off the field, but on it his philosophy was somewhat more complicated. He favoured war and made speeches in the changing room that Churchill would have been happy with. Safe to say, he would not have been enamoured by Derry's timid tip-toeing against Tyrone last Sunday. Going out to keep the score down was not part of Seán's make-up.

Tyrone were unmotivated, Derry dropped back in numbers and hoped for the best, the crowd chatted amongst themselves in the manner of the spectators at a cricket match and the only excitement came in the 55th minute when, out of the blue, the excellent Shane McGuigan was put clean through inside a dawdling Tyrone defence and finished beautifully to the net. Sadly, it came too early.

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Like Fermanagh against Monaghan last year, we needed to score it in the 72nd minute. As it was, it stung Tyrone into life and in the final ten minutes they outscored us 1-5 to 0-1.

Tyrone were lacklustre and couldn't get interested until that goal. Derry's tactic was to flood back, limit Tyrone's scoring and beyond that to hope for the best. The statistics from the game illustrate the point. Over the 75 minutes, there wasn't a single block-down by either team.

Tyrone kept Derry in the game by needlessly fouling inside the danger zone. Nine frees they gave away there, resulting in 0-9 for Derry, all in easy positions in front of the posts. The farthest out of these was 27 metres.

Now that the non-disclosure agreements signed by Jimmy McGuinness's squad have run out, I can reveal publicly that Kevin Cassidy told me once that in Jimmy's first year as Donegal manager, he had given them a set of commandments that were not to be broken. One doesn't know whether they were given to the players on tablets of stone after Jimmy had come down from Mount Errigal, but they were treated with the same awe by the group as Moses' disciples must have done.

In any event, one of the cardinal rules, and one that Jimmy was extremely passionate about, was that no scoreable frees be conceded, something that the group perfected on their way to winning the All-Ireland. In one of their early games, however, Cassidy gave away a free in the danger area which was duly popped over. On the following Tuesday night, during the video review, Cassidy was shown the clip first, then called out by Jimmy.

"I'm not afraid of any man Joe, but Jimmy is a scary boy when he gets started and that evening he roared into my face in front of the group, 'Can you explain to the group what the fuck you were at Kevin?' 'It was a mistake Jimmy.' 'A mistake? What the fuck is wrong with you? Are you better than the group? Do you think you can just ignore the coaching? Let's watch it again.' He showed the clip again Joe and what could I say? It was like being cross-examined by a senior counsel. I felt like a shoplifter in the police station being shown footage of me shoplifting. Jimmy's position was that he was perplexed. He just couldn't understand why I would have done it. He finished by saying, 'Do it again and you're out.' I never did it again. You couldn't argue with him. He transformed us from a team that gave up easy frees all the time, to a team that didn't give away any."

If Tyrone have higher ambitions, they will have to stamp down on this. The other highlights from Sunday's game? Tyrone had 28 shots to Derry's 18. Tyrone had 15 scores from play. Derry had only five.

The game was a confidence boost for us. A massacre was predicted and in the context of our recent interactions, a six-point defeat is a result. But the last ten minutes told the real story. It will be a while before we play Kerry in the league. Until then, our one consolation is that our O'Neill's balls are safe.

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