Saturday 20 January 2018

Joe Brolly: It's now a question of what we truly stand for

Joe Brolly
Joe Brolly
Slaughtneil supporters, from left, James Kearney, age 12, Eoin Mulholland, age 13, and Darragh Mulholland, age 14, during the national anthem prior to the AIB Ulster GAA Football Senior Club Championship First Round match between Kilcoo and Slaughtneil at Páirc Esler in Down. Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

Walking into an under 10 match last Sunday morning with my youngest boy, he said, "I can't wait to dummy somebody today." After his first dummy (a more or less perfect rendition of the half-Mulligan), he popped the ball over the bar, walked back to his position, turned to look at me and winked. Life doesn't get any better.

Martin McCarney was refereeing the game. His son James is a great wee player and spends his life at matches, kicking ball on the field at half-time and chatting away to everybody. Martin referees very fairly, except when it comes to his own lads, who cannot buy a free. At one stage, James was through on goal only to be shoved in the back, causing him to fall over. The boys on both teams stopped for a second, waiting for the whistle, but it never came. Instead, Martin waved play on. "Character-building," he said to me afterwards.

This was Martin's seventh day in a row on club duties, including marking out the Harlequins pitch on Thursday in preparation for the under 16 finals, a committee meeting on Wednesday, driving a car-load to an underage girls game, stewarding the car-park on Friday night at Harlequins for the under 16 finals, helping to arrange the celebrations for the intermediate champions on Saturday night, and so on. You've probably never heard of him. But he is the most important man in our club, which just about makes him the most important man in our community.

Funny, he has never asked for anything from the GAA. In truth, it wouldn't even occur to him. In the same way that it wouldn't occur to a lot of us to take a minute to think about what the Martin McCarneys of this world have done to create this vital organisation.

Take that dummy of my young boy's, for example. It was great fun watching it and the point that followed (he did it three times during the game and got a point each time), and the crowd got a kick from it. My son turned up, played the game, came home happy, chattering away about his hour of fun. But before he arrived at the pitch, six sets of goalposts had been assembled and carried out onto the field.

The work that went into securing those grounds at Cherryvale was incredible. The lobbying, the meetings, the finances. Work that went on for years. Work done by men and women nobody will ever hear of. Then, there is the upkeep and the organisation and the endless administration. Then the coaching, starting at under 8 and running twice and three times a week forever. Our own secretary Phil Convery must be exhausted by his workload but I never heard him complain. There are tens of thousands of Martin McCarneys all over the country. Without them, there would be no GAA.

On Friday night, our under 16s played the championship final against St Paul's, under floodlights at Harlequins, which we share with the local rugby club. I have the privilege, along with Gareth Bradley and John McKenna, of coaching the team. The work they do is unseen but constant. Like every team in the club, we are self-funding, because the club is spending so much money on the infrastructural work at our base at Musgrave. When we arrived at Harlequins, we were guided to a parking space by an army of volunteers in high-viz jackets with the St Brigid's logo on them and optforlife on the back. One of those volunteers was Greg Blaney, who coaches underages teams, makes intelligent contributions at committee meetings, and whose only concern is that the St Brigid's family flourishes.

For me, there have been two truly great centre half forwards: Greg, and Brian McGuigan. Greg drove that Down team of the 1990s. He was a bastion, with a chest like a silverback. We played them once in a tempestuous championship game in the Athletic Grounds. At one stage, Greg won a breaking ball from midfield, was pushed to the ground and won his free. The referee was blindsided and wee Johnny McGurk, a fabulous player and great friend, took the opportunity to boot him as hard as he could. Greg roared. A loud roar. Then, he stood up, shook himself, handed the ball to Ross Carr and went back to his spot. Wee Johnny looked at me and shook his head as if to say, what do you have to do? I sent Johnny a draft of this piece during the week, and he texted back: "Joe, this is slander, it is true I have kicked virtually every forward in Ireland, but those are private matters." As an aside, he also kicked Cavan's Ronan Carolan once in a game at the Athletic Grounds. At half-time, Michael Cranny said to him as he was walking off, "Jesus Johnny, you could at least try to disguise it." Cranny was the linesman.

Anyway, there was Greg Blaney, in the pouring rain last Friday night, at a match he had no family connection with, guiding traffic and generally helping out. The game itself turned out to be a classic. Our lads scored three goals, each one involving the use of one of the four primary dummies (the Mulligan, half-Mulligan, the McFadden and the Bernie Flynn). Level after 60 minutes, in extra time the game took on a life of its own, two groups of boys fighting for something or other that I have never quite figured out, with every fibre of their being. With five minutes to go, I walked over to the wooded area behind the pitch and sat on a tractor tyre, unable to watch any longer. Then, the final whistle. We had won. The families and supporters flooded onto the pitch, ecstatic. I went home afterwards and realised my clothes were drenched through with sweat. Exhausted, just from watching, I climbed into the shower and stood there for half-an-hour. At 11.30 that night, the coaches and some other clubmates met for a few pints. We sat there, sipping stout together, in pure happiness. We've had these kids since they were under 8, with all their ups and downs, on and off the field.

Then, on Saturday afternoon we headed up to Ahoghill for the intermediate final against Dunloy. I had three of the under 16s with me. When I got to the gate, the steward said, "£22, Joe." "I only have £20." "Its £22." "You may take the £20," I said. The other stewards came over and one said, "Did you spend all your money on a table at Gooch's testimonial?" which got a good laugh. They let me off the £2.

What a game it was. Dunloy were better to start with. Then Rory O'Neill, who played with me 11 years ago on the first St Brigid's team to win an intermediate championship, was brought on in the second half and transformed everything. The tin lid on the victory came with an astonishing goal from Ben Leonard, straight from the pages of Hot Shot Hamish. He took a hand-pass off the shoulder 30 metres out and let fly with a blaster that nearly took the net off. We were jumping in the terraces.

Afterwards, we gathered on the field and hugged and soaked it all up for nearly an hour, chatting and embracing and laughing. Then, back to Harlequins for food and drink and fun, Marty McCarney serving big plates of sandwiches.

Over the last few weeks, Gaels all over the country and the globe have been arguing over the rights and wrongs of Colm Cooper's testimonial. It has been a very polarised shouting match, with no definitive answer to the question of whether it is right or wrong. Increasingly, there is a barely-concealed war between the GAA elites and the rest of the GAA. The reason we have been reduced to this bickering amongst ourselves on these crucial issues of principle (the GPA, paid managers and backroom teams, the inexorable rise of naked self-interest, Sky, agents, a testimonial, etc, etc) is down to the failure of the GAA to create a new fit-for-purpose charter for the 21st century. I have lobbied for this for 15 years now and while every person in the hierarchy nods and agrees wholeheartedly that this is urgently required, none have done anything about it.

What do we stand for? What are our modern core principles? What does amateurism mean in the modern era? What commercial transactions are acceptable? The failure to develop a comprehensive modern constitution, has inevitably resulted in a free-for-all, with the association accelerating towards a Premier League soccer model where everyone takes their cut. Anyone who complains is castigated as a begrudger and an antique.

One example illustrates my point. When Colm Cooper's testimonial was announced, our Director General Paraic Duffy had to ask the GAA's lawyers whether he was breaking any rule. Just think about that. Having looked at the rules, their advice was that he was not. Duffy said on the radio recently that having got that advice, he went back to Cooper and told him, "If you want to go ahead with this you cannot be suspended, there cannot be a charge levelled against you. But I said to him 'Are you sure you are doing the right thing here?" Nothing more eloquently sums up the mess we are in.

The vast majority of the GAA community doesn't want to sell it off for a few quid. But unless the GAA acts quickly, that is precisely what will happen. The process is already well under way.

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