Sport GAA

Wednesday 24 October 2018

Joe Brolly: 'Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play . . . it is war minus the shooting'

Cork got off their knees against Kerry, now they have to take the next step.

Cork’s Barry Coffey is confronted by Meath’s much-admired physical presence in the shape of Liam Hayes, Colm O’Rourke, Colm Coyle and Liam Harnan in 1988.
Cork’s Barry Coffey is confronted by Meath’s much-admired physical presence in the shape of Liam Hayes, Colm O’Rourke, Colm Coyle and Liam Harnan in 1988.

Joe Brolly

The irony of a Crossmaglen man throwing a spanner in the works of the rebel forces will not be lost on students of modern Irish history. The most dangerous referees are those who are drawn to making dramatic decisions. Whether they are wrong or not is of secondary importance. It was an otherwise inexplicable error by Pádraig Hughes last Sunday.

Mark Collins, whose excellence throughout as sweeper-cum-counter-attacker put me in mind of Brian McGuigan or Brian Dooher in their prime, raised his arms to take a ball that was his. James O'Donoghue, fast developing into the Klinsmann of the GAA in the penalty box, reached in his left arm and went to ground, and then had the audacity to raise his arms seeking a penalty. Even James looked stunned when Paudie raced in to administer swift injustice. Collins' tortured expression said it all.

On any objective analysis it could not have been a penalty. Paudie is drawn to decisive gestures. Good referees should be invisible.

It reminded me of Paddy Kielty's yarn about his father, God rest him, who was a club referee in Down. He was walking into the Marshes to referee the senior football championship final when a county official drew alongside him. "There's a huge crowd here today," said Kielty. "And there'll be an even bigger one for the replay," said the official. And what neutral among us could complain about seeing these two go at it again in Killarney next Saturday?

In George Orwell's 1945 pamphlet The Sporting Spirit, he wrote that "serious sport has nothing to do with fair play . . . it is war minus the shooting."

So it has remained. If you want to beat Kilkenny, you must bring war. Likewise Kerry. Skill is only relevant at this level if you can cope at battle speed.

Cork have one of the best groups of footballers in the land. Yet until last Sunday in Killarney they did not go toe to toe with Kerry. When they finally did, they were every bit their equal.

Derry's John Brennan's greatest attribute as a manager was the fact that he was a student of Orwell. When he took over Lavey in the late 1980s they were a highly talented group going nowhere in particular. Up until then, ourselves and Ballinderry used to bully the young Downeys and McGurks into submission. I remember a senior hurling championship game against the same Lavey group where our philosopher/manager Liam Hinphey Senior exhorted us to "look out at those yellow Lavey bastards" and asked us could we live with ourselves if we lay down to them. Brian McGilligan broke his hurl off the door, which I took as a "No".

Shortly thereafter, things changed forever. Johnny McGurk, describing the transformation in an interview some years ago, explained: "What John Brennan taught us in 1988 changed our sporting lives. He taught us unadulterated war." Johnny Dog, as we called him, recalled training sessions where Brennan repeatedly told them to "Bone the bastards" referring to no team in particular and the world in general. Once, he punched his hands together so hard when he was roaring this that his watch shattered. "Fuck it," said Brennan. The rest is history. Lavey became dominant in Derry, then Ulster.

Read more: Pic: A smiling Michael Lyster returns to the RTE studio

Read more: Joe Brolly: 'Wee Paudie wouldn't know a penalty if it bit him in the arse'

Brennan got suspended for an argy bargy at the start of the 1991 season -with John this was an occupational hazard - but by the end of the year, they were All-Ireland club champions. The Star called them 'The Wimbledon Crazy Gang of Gaelic Football'. It was a trashy headline, as they were a team of fine footballers, but there was a kernel of truth, because they boned the bastards. Those Lavey men taught that Derry team how it should be done.

"I want youns to be hateful bastards like those Meath men," was Eamonn Coleman's mantra, "youns are too nice."

Coleman positively salivated over those Meath boys: Harnan, Lyons, O'Rourke, O'Malley and the rest. He understood that it was the only way. Last week, reflecting on their great years from 1987 to 1991, Liam Hayes said: "Kerry showed us in the 1986 semi-final that we were too nice. Physically, they bullied us. We didn't make that mistake twice." The following year, Meath were ready to bone the bastards. The All-Irelands followed. They became the most feared, most brilliant team in the land, doing something that the Kingdom have been doing for a century.

By 1988, I was a student on a highly entertaining Trinity team, much admired by Seán Boylan. He invited us up to play a friendly against his All-Ireland champions in Navan. They put out their first XV and proceeded to knock three shades of shit out of us, at the same time playing a brand of long-range football that seemed impossibly good.

I was a scalded cat at that age, a flat-out speedster. At one stage, I went flying through the middle on a solo-run only to be hit by Martin O'Connell. I thought I had run into a five-bar gate. After a minute I picked myself gingerly off the ground, checking myself in the manner of a US marine in Normandy who was sure he had been shot. Later in the game, I went back into the defence from wing-forward to track an O'Rourke run. I got around between him and the goal and was stepping in to flick the ball away from him when he hit me hard in the face with his open palm, knocking me on the flat of my back, before sweeping over another point. I came off the field that night buzzing. This was the secret of winning an All-Ireland. A mixture of war and football.

By 1991, Derry were bringing it to that great Meath team, taking them down in a bitterly contested National League game in Navan, before repeating the dose in that year's League semi-final in Croke Park. We were ready.

Kerry have patronised and taken the piss out of Cork and its people for far too long. I love Kerry and its football. One of my greatest pleasures is to spend time there in the company of men like the ó Sé's and Dara Ó Cinnéide and the Bomber. As a boy, all I ever wanted was to be Mikey Sheehy. But Gaelic games are tribal and it has been cringeworthy to watch fine Cork footballers lying down to fine Kerry footballers.

Worse still to listen to them rubbing it in by pretending there is a great rivalry in public and laughing at them in private. They weren't laughing in Killarney last Sunday. The only laughter was relief at the award of that penalty.

The most important thing about big-time championship football is to understand deep down that it is war minus the shooting. Kerry have never forgotten it. Cork finally realised it last Sunday. They are off their knees now. It is time to bone the bastards.

Read more: Pic: A smiling Michael Lyster returns to the RTE studio

Read more: Joe Brolly: 'Wee Paudie wouldn't know a penalty if it bit him in the arse'

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