Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly: The Joy of Football

FUN FACTOR...The fans knew they'd get a good game

FUN FACTOR…The fans knew they’d get a good game

IN 1972, author Alex Comfort published The Joy of Sex. It was banned and went on to become a huge triumph, stimulating a real debate about sex and reminding us that it is nothing to be ashamed of.
A pocket edition was swiftly published, so even the most inexperienced novice could consult the illustrations at short notice if they struck lucky on a weekend. It was a watershed moment, bringing sex out from the shadows and into the mainstream. It taught us that sex is something to be savoured and enjoyed. That it is an essential constituent of a healthy work/play balance.

I wrote last week that if you want to see football, you’ll have to go watch a club game. I am sick of county football. Or rather, county football is sick.

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I was in Navan for a chat show a few weeks ago and one of the lads, now retired but still close to the team, told me the Meath senior footballers are already training together five days a week, not including their personal training requirements. Meanwhile, I spoke to one of the DCU players recently and he told me their Allstar countrywide GPA select are training twice a day Monday to Friday 7.30am and 7.30pm. Add to that their trips home for county training and challenge matches and there really is no time for life.

It is a countrywide problem. The boys submit to whatever is required of them, play micro-managed, formulaic defensive football and become bored out of their wits. It used to be that Gaelic football was a release from everyday pressures. Now, it has become the everyday pressure. No wonder the GAA president Sean McCague suggested in 2001 that if county football kept going the way it was, we might have to consider its abolition.

At the time, people thought it was an extremist notion, but the idea is becoming increasingly attractive. At club level, boys have lives. They can work. They can court. They can speak. They can socialise. And they have the freedom to play football.

After the Donegal game this year, I chastised one of Derry’s better players for not taking a shot on when he came from the defence and received a pass putting him in a great position 30 metres from goal. “Joe, I’m under strict orders not to shoot.” Imagine a Ballinderry manager saying that to one of his players?

The result of all of this overtraining, professionalisation and elitism? Gaelic football has been turned to dross. Take the Meath Westmeath match out of the 2015 championship and what was there to savour? The 2014 championship was even worse, capped by the most depressing, most cynical final in the history of Gaelic football.

Ten years ago, who could have imagined Kerry players kicking the ball off the opposing keeper’s tee or feigning injury in the field of dreams?

Yet, if you flick to TG4 on a Sunday at this time of year, you will still be able to see the game we know and love. A fortnight ago, we had a superb contest between Castlebar and Corofin. Both teams went for it, the aim being to put the opponent on the back foot. They took risks, steamed upfield at every opportunity and trusted their backs to mark their own men.

They kicked the ball for Christ sake! It was thrilling because it was precisely what sport should be: sport. The same with Slaughtneil’s semi-final against Scotstown, where Darren Hughes – without being swamped by the 1-13-1 formation – scored 1-3 from play and the spectators were treated to a riveting game of football.

So, on Sunday at the Athletic Grounds, 9,000 people turned up in the freezing cold, with rain sleeting down on us, for one reason: to watch real football. After ten minutes it was already a classic. Man to man marking, long kicking, hard hitting and a sense of adventure. In short, gaelic football. Crossmaglen live or die by their man marking ethos.

In the 2012 drawn All-Ireland final, the Garrycastle full forward was very sore on Paul Kernan, scoring freely from play and generally dominating the smaller man. At no stage did Tony McEntee drop a sweeper back or switch him. It is not the Cross way. Before the replay, the TG4 anchor asked Tony what measures they had taken to deal with the full forward threat. Tony said “ Paul’s a big boy.” They won the replay and Paul did very well. In Cross, from a young age they are taught that your responsibility is to mark your man. This has two effects: Their forward division isn’t being robbed and the defender is entirely comfortable with the responsibility.

At county level, sweepers mean that defenders have forgotten how to mark. Psychologically, if a man beats them for a goal or a few points, they are automatically looking for help. Sean Marty Lockart never looked for help when he was marking Peter Canavan, arguably the greatest forward the game has seen. That is because he knew the only help was self-help. It is worth pointing out that Peter rarely scored against him.
On Sunday, James Morgan was alone and isolated on Darren Hughes. It is a sight that would make Mickey Harte or Malachy O’Rourke ill. After 15 minutes, a long ball was kicked in, somehow bounced past Morgan and Hughes, now unmarked, slipped it to the net. Morgan shrugged his shoulders and got on with it.

The game became epic. Cross could have lost it. But for the fact that Rory Beggan’s confidence collapsed, they would have. At one stage, he came up to take a crucial free. Then, kicked it short across field to a team-mate 60 yards from goal. This abdication of responsibility was for me, the key moment in the game. It was a signal of weakness.

Tony McKernan would never have gone short. Crossmaglen gained the upperhand and Beggan was gone. When he had the chance to win the game with the last kick via what was for him a very easy free, he missed it.
The other thing about club football is that it is not diseased by the underhand practices that are endemic in the county game. So, for example, feigning to get an opponent sent off is virtually unheard of. I was chatting to a Tyrone man from the famed Killyclogher club during the week who explained this phenomenon by saying that players will not embarrass their own people.

It is interesting that boys who will lie on the ground and clutch their faces without hesitation in Croke Park wouldn’t dream of doing it on their home ground. With the club, there is a pride and self-respect that is being drained from county football by the robotic, win at all costs approach.

Another illustration of this honesty is the fact that at club level, boys will throw a punch when one is called for. I was at a chat night last weekend to raise funds for Colm O’Rourke’s club and one of the questions was about the difference between the game then and now, with particular regard to the cynicism that permeates the county game. Feigning, diving and the like were unheard of when we played and someone asked whether the “good, honest violence” of those days, when a man who misbehaved was liable to get a slap, wasn’t a lot better than the dishonest culture that pervades the county game now.

He was right. So, on Sunday, Danny O’Callaghan got involved in a tussle with his man and struck him in the face in front of the officials. He got his red card. Later, Kieran Hughes struck James Morgan. Again, he got his red card. No one was play acting or running to the ref asking him to give a card.

When the full time whistle went, the neutrals in the crowd were delighted that we were to be treated to another twenty minutes. Scotstown looked the more likely, until Kieran Hughes’ ridiculous behaviour left them a man down. Then, Cross blitzed them, their full court press bringing them the interception for the killer goal. When it was over, we all cheered. The result was irrelevant. It was a victory for the game, and showed us just how thrilling real football is.

I have begun writing The Joy of Football, complete with illustrations of things like kicking, man to man marking, dummies and footballers with their heads up. I believe it will become a huge triumph, stimulating a real debate about football and reminding us that real football is nothing to be ashamed of.

A pocket edition will be swiftly published, so even the most inexperienced novice can consult it at short notice if they strike lucky on a weekend and get selected for the team. It promises to be a watershed moment, bringing football out from the shadows and into the mainstream. The message is that football is something to be savoured and enjoyed, and an essential constituent of a healthy work/play balance.
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