Joe Brolly

Joe Brolly: The soulless, modern industry that is Gaelic football

IN the 1920s, German philosopher Eugen Herrigel visited Japan to study archery and zen under the renowned Master Awa Kenzô.

What he discovered surprised him. Kenzô taught him that the point of archery was not to hit the target or defeat the opponent. The point was to become so deeply absorbed in the activity itself that the outside world disappeared. Winning or losing was merely a by-product.

The important thing was to revel in the performance of the task. The fascinating thing he discovered was that those who were able to absorb themselves fully in the contest were also the ones most likely to win.


I was talking to a recently retired Mayo footballer and he said that since he left, he has begun to savour and enjoy life. I said that when I was a young man, I was never out of the pitch, spending thousands of hours shooting and dummying and dreaming.

We only had one field then and it was always packed during the summer, cordoned off into 10 or 12 makeshift pitches. Now the pitches are empty unless there is a match or training. His point was that there is no time for that anymore. The county regime is all consuming.

I always loved going to the field on Christmas morning, to kick points and goals and experiment on angles, as it was the one time I had it to myself.

As I kicked and ran and changed direction and buried balls in the net, Michael O’Hehir commentated in my head, the crowd roaring me on. This was not O’Cahan Park. It was Croke Park and I had just scored the winning goal to beat Kerry. Charlie Nelligan was lying face down on the goal-line, prone, like a boxer where the count is pointless. Paidi O’Sé was on his hunkers with his head in his hands. I was in a wonderful world of my own, fully immersed.

No one knew I was there. I didn’t have a fucking computer chip sewn into my jersey. I was doing it for love, so deeply absorbed that the world disappeared. “This young Dungiven man is a ball of fire. He is destroying the great Kerry full-back line. Paidi will need counselling after this.”

I talked about this with the legendary Meath forward Bernie Flynn once (of whom the joke was told Q. Who is the only Louth man to win two All-Ireland medals? A. Bernie Flynn) and he told me that when he was a travelling salesman, he used to keep his gear and a bag of balls in the boot.

When he passed a pitch he togged out and spent a half hour having fun. A half hour of glorious anarchy while his boss thought he was peddling kegs of Tennant’s to the GAA mad publicans of the Midlands. Now, he just drinks it.

But in this soulless modern industry that is Gaelic football, where meals have become medical procedures, sleep a commodity to be monitored, the number of touches and turnovers an obsession, and formulaic game plans trumping imagination, there is no time or place for dreaming.

The GPA calls it a product, and as products go, it is a boring one. Young men who have been taught to say nothing, pundits who better say nothing and managers’ press conferences that make three toed sloths seem exciting. Is it any wonder the boredom of this grind produces boredom? Is it any wonder the players and managers say nothing?

When he was the undisputed world heavyweight champion, with a terrifying record of 24 fights, 24 knockouts, almost all in the first few rounds, George Foreman famously did not speak before fights. Not even to his press agent Bill Caplan.

In George Plimpton’s delightful book ‘Shadow Box’ he records a conversation with Caplan in Zaire in the build up to the Ali Foreman fight. Plimpton had asked Caplan if he could get a few words with Big George.

Caplan said “Hell, he won’t speak to me and he won’t let me speak to him.” “And you’re his press agent?” I remarked in surprise.”How do the two of you communicate?” “I write him notes,” said Caplan. “Apparently he likes to get things in writing.” “How does that work?” I asked. “Well, I write a note and it says on it ‘Be at the Hotel Intercontinental at 9am for press conference’ and when I see him I reach out, a little like a quarterback handing off the ball, and sometimes he takes it and sometimes he doesn’t.

Sometimes he takes it and drops it on the floor without even looking at it.” “That’s the only communication you have?” “We play ping- pong. At the Intercontinental Hotel. He points at the table down by the swimming pool and we go down there and play.”

If you are going to say nothing, then at least say nothing in style. The Associated Press journalist John Vinacour explained that Foreman’s silence was because he was afraid that his life was being taken away from him by the industry.

Once in Zaire, Foreman mentioned in passing that he would love to build kennels for his beloved alsations when he got home to Houston. The word was passed on. The following day, an army of carpenters arrived at Foreman’s home and by that evening, state of the art kennels had been completed. Foreman reflected sadly to Vinacour how his life was escaping him. The journalist wrote that as he did so, this legendary fighter’s hands reached out as if to snatch at imaginary flies.

As we have wallowed in the nostalgia of great games and characters from the past, and suddenly had time on our hands to savour the world around us, we can see clearly how things have changed for the worse. We see how the healthy development of our young men has been compromised, turning them into full-time employees in unpaid employment.

Last week, University lecturer, Tyrone’s 2003 coach (those players still revere him), and current Down manager Paddy Tally said that this break should be the wake-up call for the GAA and that we urgently need to reduce the county season to four months or an abolute maximum of five.

Branding the current system “a rat race”, he said “The GAA has a massive social responsibility. The games must be revamped in the interests of society and in the interests of our athletes and young people. [It is] an opportunity to reaffirm the core beliefs of the organisation at this time.”

He said he had spoken to a lot of players in the course of the break and “the amount of people who have said ‘I don’t want to give this up, I want to be able to hold onto some of this, because this is the first time I have realised the value of time, the value of slowing things down. There is no doubt a lot of our amateur sportspeople are thinking ‘this is nice, emotionally, psychologically, timewise.”

What Paddy is talking about is real wellness. Not the bullshit kind peddled by the GPA and the millionaire gurus.

What he is talking about is living life to the full, on and off the field. Time to work. Time to socialise. Time to dance. Time to drink a little. Time to walk and cycle. Time to go out onto the field and kick ball, savouring the feel of the leather and the gentle whump of the ball as it sails off the perfect technique of a good left foot and over the black spot.

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