Thursday 19 April 2018

Joe Brolly: Plenty of twaddle and no real action as GAA continue to trample on clubs and their players

The SDLP's slogan in last week's Stormont election was, 'A better tomorrow'. The Alliance? 'Forward faster'. The DUP? 'Better sooner'. It is the sort of guff our president shouldn't be pedalling.
The SDLP's slogan in last week's Stormont election was, 'A better tomorrow'. The Alliance? 'Forward faster'. The DUP? 'Better sooner'. It is the sort of guff our president shouldn't be pedalling.

Joe Brolly

Driving past Cathal ó hOisín's election posters in Dungiven the other day brought me back to my childhood on Station Road and a lost era when clubs were king. The posters reveal Cathal in all his glory, down to his Terry Thomas gold tooth, glinting like a Walt Disney villain. In the days before Cathal became the cement of the peace process, he used to frequent my grandmother Hannah's house, which was just around the corner from his own. Hannah's was the unofficial headquarters of Dungiven Gaelic football and during lazy summers, the small living room was packed with footballers shooting the breeze and not exactly killing themselves. And always there, unfurled on the sofa with his legs outstretched, was Cathal.

One day, I went in with my father (we lived in the house opposite). Liam McElhinney, my uncle Eunan and Cathal were lying in the living room taking their ease. Cathal's shoe laces were untied. "Flat out boys?" said my da. "Haven't time to bless myself Francie," said Cathal. I think it was that same summer that Frankie Farren hung Hannah's wallpaper the wrong way up. When he brought her in to proudly unveil his work, she said, "Bloody hell Frankie! Did you not notice the roses were upside down?"

Come summer time, that wee council house was championship HQ. The side garden was the scene of many epic moments. My cousin Gary lived with my granny and on sunny mornings he would put his big HiFi speakers up on the window sill of his bedroom and blast out rock music, waking the street up with 'Rocking All Over The World'. One afternoon in the early '80s, Nottingham Forest's Martin O'Neill turned up in the garden for an impromptu five-a-side, showing off his impeccable volleying technique. Like everyone else, the European Cup winner was a mate of Eunan's.

Eunan was a brilliant free taker and finisher, he just wasn't terribly pushed about training. I remember watching the senior team doing press-ups at St Canice's Park before a senior championship semi-final and when Andy Murphy had his back turned, Eunan immediately stopped, then resumed when Andy turned.

It was all such fun. The boys had a jar after matches. The training was all football, mostly games. The pitch was always full of us younger boys, playing games we organised ourselves. The senior lads would often be at the pitch in twos and threes, catching and kicking and having craic. I would stand behind the goals and kick the balls back out to Liam Murphy (county full-back), Plunkett Murphy (county midfielder), Liam McElhinney (county half-forward), Colm McGuigan (county full-forward) etc, etc. County players never missed a club match or session in those days. It wouldn't have occurred to them or to anybody else. And when it came to championship, the town was at fever pitch.

All that has more or less gone, replaced by endless organised training and excessive control of players' personal lives, waiting for games to be played and playing without our best players. Like everywhere else, playing senior football has become a job of work. Underage football has become so organised and regimented that impromptu kickabouts have disappeared. Drop in at St Canice's Park on a summer day now and it is empty.

Aoghán ó Fearghail's solution to these huge, fundamental problems facing the GAA is Lá na gClubanna, due to take place today across the country. Announcing it, Aoghán said it was "a day when clubs will take centre stage and afford them the opportunity to celebrate their existence and impact in their community and reconnect with their locality." I don't know what that means and I don't think Aoghán does either. It is a bit like David Cameron saying he cares about the poor and disabled and will fight for their rights.

Not two months ago, Aoghán presided over a GAA Congress that contemptuously trampled on clubs and their players. In spite of overwhelming grassroots support, they couldn't even put the All-Ireland finals back a fortnight or curb replays. Derek Kavanagh, the ex-Cork captain who has been pushing this motion for three years, said "the decision stinks" and was "a kick in the teeth for club players." Bernard Brogan said it was "a stone age decision." Ninety nine per cent of the GAA population agrees.

These very modest measures were to be the start of an urgent process of overhauling an uber capitalist system that has been treating the clubs as an afterthought for over a decade, leaving club footballers and members twiddling their thumbs until the paid county manager decides matches can be played. Instead, we have fine, meaningless words. So, the clubs "take centre stage" today. We can "celebrate our existence" and "reconnect with our locality." Twaddle. It reminds me of a fellow in Trinity who stood for Welfare Officer when I was a student there. His poster was a photo of him with raised eyebrows and an expression of mock concern. The slogan was 'I CARE, I CARE A LOT'. We laughed our asses off at that, which was the candidate's point.

The SDLP's slogan in last week's Stormont election was, 'A better tomorrow'. The Alliance? 'Forward faster'. The DUP? 'Better sooner'. It is the sort of guff our president shouldn't be pedalling.

As I write this, I'm just back from under 16 training, where we had 35 lads. In the next pitch, our under 14 girls were playing a league match against St Gall's. There were seven or eight coaches in total and maybe 30 parents. All around the perimeter of the pitches, there are bulldozers and diggers lying idle. We are in the process of making another full-size pitch and building a state of the art clubhouse. Fundraisers in the last six months have included a brilliant Strictly Come Dancing, which raised over £200,000, a dinner dance and many others. Stop insulting our intelligence Aoghán. Really. Stop it.

On Monday evening I went back to the golden days for the second time in a week, courtesy of a radio documentary on RTE1 about the Offaly team of 1982 who shocked the great Kerry team and prevented the mystical five in a row. Michael O'Hehir's commentary still makes the hair stand on the back of my neck. With a minute to go and Offaly two points behind, they launched one final desperate attack. "And here they come. This is it. Liam O'Connor the full-back. A high, lobbing, dropping ball. (Seamus Darby catches it on the square) A SHOT! A GOAL! A GOAL! A GOAL for Offaly. A GOAL! A GOAL! OH WHAT A GOAL!"

Kerry, unbelievably, were beaten. The Bomber said: "I'd never lost a championship match before. I'd won four All-Irelands in a row since my debut in '78. The thought never occurred to me we might lose."

Sean Lowry, one of the Offaly players, said he never liked to break his normal Saturday night routine so when he got home after the final team meeting he toyed with the idea of going to the pub next door for a few pints but the place was packed, so he rang the brother in law who lived at the other end of the town and asked if he had anything to drink. "I have brandy," said the brother in law, "but nothing to put in it." "Leave that to me," said Lowry. "We had a couple of brandies, I went down home and slept like a baby until the morning." Then, the team went up to Dublin on the train, had a walk round the city and headed over to Croke Park.

Afterwards, the players travelled to Naas to the hotel where the reception was to be held only to find that the place was thronged by Offaly folk and they had, in one of the players' words, "drank the place dry." "There was no draft beer left at all. There we were stone cold sober after winning the All-Ireland against the greatest team of all time. Not a drink. And the people had drank the hotel out of bottles of all the decent beer as well. There was only bottles of Harp left." Those Offaly boys had impeccable taste.

Some years after that, when I was about 18, Dungiven won the county title and we ended up meeting Kingscourt Stars in the Ulster semi-final. The game was at Kingscourt and we went down in a bus, a serious novelty. When we arrived, we stopped at a bar in the town and most of the lads had a few whiskies. I never did that, but it wasn't something that was surprising or a cause for concern.

With the county game so detached and professional, and senior club football so deathly serious, one of the most pleasing developments at club level has been the growth of reserve football. I was chatting to one of the Bredagh boys at court last week. He had quit senior football because of the demands, but when Bredagh formed a reserve team to play in the East Down league he went back. He loves it. Says it is the most fun he has had in years. And they have better numbers than the senior squad.

In St Canice's we have a flourishing reserve team, a world away from the po-faced depression of the senior scene. Again, the squad is big. And the noticeable thing about them is that unlike the blanket defensive, counter-attacking boredom that passes for senior football, they play really entertaining football. As a result, they won the reserve league and championship last year. They invited me to present their medals at a function in the club a few months ago and it was a terrific night. It brought me back to the most fun time of my football life, playing right half-forward for the Dungiven thirds in 1986. We blitzed all comers that year, playing adventurous, open football. In the county final, I scored a goal from 30 yards, dipping it over the keeper's head and crashing the net. Nowadays, the manager would take me off for not holding possession to run the clock down. There was a photo of that team doing the rounds on social media recently and every one of us had a smile on our face.

It is not good enough for the GAA president to say he cares, he cares a lot. Action Aoghán. Not bullshit. High time you smelled the (upside down) roses.

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