Thursday 27 June 2019

Joe Brolly: 'I stood there for ages, soaking it all in, never prouder to be a GAA man'

A general view of Páirc Tailteann
A general view of Páirc Tailteann
'I looked around as they clapped and saw tears. It was hard not to shed one myself.' Stock photo: Sportsfile
Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly

Dick Clerkin's "with all due respect, an eight-year-old has no business being at an All-Ireland final" argument wouldn't have got much traction at Navan last Sunday.

As part of our magical mystery tour through what has been another faith-restoring club championship season, we jumped in the car on Sunday morning and headed for Páirc Tailteann for the All-Ireland intermediate semi-final between St Enda's of North Belfast and An Spidéal from Galway.

We arrived to find the stand and terraces packed, with hundreds upon hundreds of children in the black and amber of St Enda's having a ball. The officials at Navan estimated that there were 3,000 St Enda's supporters there, even though it felt like more.

Sunday was more about who they are than a mere game of football. They are based on the outskirts of North Belfast, where the city meets the countryside. Their club and grounds are on a remote hill. Within two miles of the club entrance is the motorway, allowing a quick getaway. During the Troubles, they were made to suffer.

In 1973, their clubhouse was burned down and their first ever pitch was desecrated, dug up and strewn with broken glass. That same year they were lucky no-one was killed when a booby trap bomb was left beside the pitch in a thermos flask. Their changing room was bombed in 1974. In that same year there were eight arson attacks on the club. In 1978, members of the Ulster Defence Regiment (UDR) cut down the Gaelic posts at the pitch. In 1983, the clubhouse was burned down again. In 1986, the new clubhouse was burned to the ground and grenades were thrown over a new security fence erected in the aftermath of repeated attacks.

When we were winning the All-Ireland in 1993, their club president Seán Fox was being beaten and assassinated by a loyalist hit squad, tied to a chair before being shot. He used to teach basic Irish to club members in the clubhouse during the '80s, writing the words on a dusty door using a cloth dipped in a pint. He only had one eye, having lost the other in a bomb in the Glen Inn in the '70s. His party piece was singing Boolavogue when he was full, belting out "God Grant you glory/Brave Father Murphy/And open heaven to all your men/For the cause that called you may call tomorrow/In another fight for the Green again."

In that same year, the clubhouse was burned to the ground twice, and twice rebuilt. In 1997, Gerry Devlin, the senior team manager, was intercepted at the gates of the club as he was leaving, and shot to death. The list of atrocities goes on and on.

That dusty door and cloth dipped in stout is no longer required. In 2004, the club built a Naoiscoil in their grounds and opened the doors to their first intake. In 2007, they followed this up with a Bunscoil, again in the club grounds. As of Sunday past, they have 30 kids in the Naoiscoil and 200 kids aged 4-11 in the Bunscoil.

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Seán would have been very proud last Sunday. This young St Enda's team plays with adventure, risk and courage, moulded in the image of their manager, the inimitable Frankie Fitzsimmons.

From the throw-in, An Spidéal went into their habitual negative formation, their right corner-forward jogging back to take up a permanent position sweeping in front of St Enda's dangerous full-forward. Up until Sunday, this had worked very well for them, spoiling the spectacle for the crowd and ensuring low-scoring games of attrition.

St Enda's responded to the sweeper by pushing up on him as much as possible, tackling hard all over the field and running the ball at speed with runners coming off the shoulder. All well and good. But what transformed the game was their three intercept goals. The first in particular was crucial, since it left them four points up, and gave them an enormous injection of confidence and energy. The second goal, which came after another interception, left An Spidéal in an impossible position. Frankie Fitz was right in front of where we were sitting and he kept roaring "Forward" and "Push up" and "Go for it" throughout that first half. When the manager empowers the players to play football, to take risks and express themselves, it is a beautiful thing. In the end, it is the only real reason for watching the game.

The high point of a hugely enjoyable first half was a quite incredible goal from Joe Maskey, St Enda's 6' 5" midfielder. An Spidéal's 'keeper went on a solo run, did a one-two and fumbled the ball. Big Joe reached for it, turned and drove a 55-metre kick towards the goals. It was in the air for what seemed an eternity. We stood on the concrete benches straining to see. When it hit the net, the St Enda's crowd went wild and I found myself jumping and laughing with them.

The goal summed up the spirit of adventure I have been talking about. Had a Tyrone or Fermanagh or Galway or Donegal or Derry midfielder won that turnover in a championship match, he would never have gone for goal, because a) if he had missed, he would have had the arse eaten off him for wasting possession, and b) all sense of adventure has been bred out of them. It is the sort of thing Big Frank McGuigan or Anthony Tohill would have tried. Those days are long gone at county level.

By half-time, the mood was joyous. Notwithstanding St Enda's big lead, they heartily booed the ref off. You can take the man out of North Belfast . . .

Half-time is always a major risk period for me, as the club ticket sellers always make a beeline. I was duly surrounded by the St Enda's ladies, and asked if I would buy a brick for the new clubrooms. I said, "No problem girls" and reached for a €20 from my pocket, one of them handed me a leaflet, said 'Thanks for that Joe, that's very generous. Can we have a photo with you holding the leaflet?" "Of course," I said. Photo taken, they thanked me again and off they went. I opened the leaflet to take a look and found I had been stung for £250.

An Spidéal continued to play negatively throughout the second half, holding their faces when they went down, diving, sweeping and committing a series of cynical fouls. This is inevitable when the main pillar in a team's strategy is to prevent the opposition playing. The St Enda's ones enjoyed it all hugely. They are very witty. When James McAuley, their number 6, went down under a heavy head-high challenge and was lying on the ground, his mother Elaine went to the wire and began shouting - to the great amusement of everyone - "who was it son? Which one of them did that to you?"

I have advocated for the black card to be abandoned and a new set of rules brought in which tackle the real problems. The centrepiece of the package is that where an attacking player is deprived of 'a clear goalscoring opportunity' by a cynical foul (trip, pull down, drag-back, push in the back) it should be a red card (like soccer) and a penalty kick. This, after all, is the moment that the crowds have come to see. It is the culmination of a lot of hard work and skill. Yet, the defending player will simply pull the man down, give away a free, receive a 10-minute sin bin, and be congratulated by his manager for 'taking one for the team'.

Twice in the second half, St Enda's suffered this way for their adventure and willingness to go for it. First, their left corner-forward did what we all coach and encourage: One-on-one against his man, he picked a shoulder, drove at him, was turned back, then took the other shoulder and got past. Racing towards goal in a great position, he was pulled down from behind before he reached the penalty area. The crowd was enraged. As was the forward. The defender shrugged his shoulders as if to say 'big deal'. Took his black card, walked off to pats in the back from his team-mates, and St Enda's got a 14-metre free.

Shortly after this, Eoin Nagle, their outstanding, work-hungry, inventive left corner-forward, was one-on-one on the other wing, took his man on, turned him inside out, went past him and was heading for goal when he was also Seán Cavanagh'd, before he reached the penalty area needless to say. Another black card. Another 14-metre free. Another bloody travesty.

With five minutes to go, 36-year-old Philly Curran came on for St Enda's and received a huge ovation. He has the most number of senior appearances for the club. But that is not why he received such a thunderous welcome. In 2001, he played midfield for the club minors alongside Gerard Lawlor. In 2002, they were both promoted to the senior team, again at midfield. On Sunday, July 21, 2002, St Enda's seniors were due to play Sarsfields at home. Afterwards, Gerard, Philly and their team-mates had a few pints watching The Sunday Game. Gerard said goodbye and headed for home. They never saw him alive again. He was murdered by loyalists shortly after leaving the club. That cheer was as much for the dead boy as for Philly. As much a guttural roar of defiance as one of celebration. That 18-year-old kid was the last ever Catholic shot dead by loyalists. What a fucking shame. I looked around as they clapped and saw tears. It was hard not to shed one myself.

At the final whistle, hundreds of those pesky kids who shouldn't be allowed at football matches unless they work for AIB or are Sky ambassadors, poured onto the pitch. I stood there for ages, soaking it all in, never prouder to be a GAA man.

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