I’ve only had the pleasure of Joe Brolly’s company on a single occasion. It was upstairs in the Palace in Temple Bar after Kildare beat Monaghan in a 2010 gun fight and those frequenting were restless. Brolly chose to take centre-stage in the middle of the room but in the shadows all around, Ulstermen were salivating like orcs, dredging up comments he’d made about them over the years to hone and sharpen their claws against. Then they attacked. The problem was, five minutes after thundering in to settle scores, they were on their way with a smile and a friendly slap on the back. Like so many, they’d badly misjudged his articulation, story-telling, humour and his brilliant way with people.
But Brolly’s great strengths are also his weaknesses. His ability with words and likeable character means he’s rarely challenged and, over time, it’s as if he’s become a self-appointed oracle on how football should be played. As with all opinions, agree or disagree, but you should at least prod and probe. Yet with Brolly, so many now worship at his altar that they mimic views without questioning, just as they’ve done all week since he got bored at a game last Saturday. When Eamon Dunphy complains, soccer isn’t thrown into revolution; when George Hook is unhappy, rugby doesn’t evolve; but because the Pied Piper of Dungiven has a bad night, there’s a campaign to reinvent our sport.
What was once the problem for newspaper columnists has become the issue analysts’ face in the TV age, as they feel the need to complain constantly, inventing crusades to grow their names. Nobody has done this better than Brolly, in the process becoming the most important media figure in football. But here’s the issue – careless controversy can create influence but when that influence arrives, there’s a duty of care. Dublin-Derry was just the latest example of this being absent from his words and actions.
Exhibit A: By the second Sunday Game of the 2010 championship, Brolly was in full swing, taking football to trial after average games between lower-league teams were played out in the early rounds. Colm O’Rourke and Pat Spillane rowed in and their tone was set for much of that summer. That what followed was probably the best football championship ever was never properly addressed or celebrated though as it went against what he’d committed himself to good and early. In fact this was the best example of how the sport is always analysed but rarely just a game on its own merits.
Exhibit B: By 2013, after Cavan defeated Derry, Brolly noted: “It restored my faith in Gaelic football, even though Cavan put the heavy blanket defence on… Cavan’s system is very smart – very hard-edged, very motivated.” Yet a year ago with Cavan undefeated in the league, he used the fact they were conceding just eight points a game to beat them with and penned: “The one real anomaly in the league is The Black Death (ie Cavan). They have continued to play the most horrible, defensive football the game has ever seen, oblivious to the trend towards attack-based, non-fouling football.”
Exhibit C: Last weekend, he decided on his latest U-turn and clearly the trend of 12 months ago no longer registers. That Derry played the way they had to in order to contain a far superior team was lost on the home fans that booed, but it was lost on Brolly too. “After the match, my son, who’s eight, said ‘that was a pile of sh*te Daddy, wasn’t it?” he told RTÉ. “The reality is now that the game is becoming increasingly about negativity… The reality is that it’s muck. There is an obligation owed to the game and to the Gaels of Ireland. I think, increasingly, people are starting to see that. Mickey Harte said ‘we’re not in the business of entertainment’. Well then f**k off and play behind closed doors if you’re not in the business of entertainment. Have you ever heard such a perverse thing?”
It was a spiel as arrogant as inaccurate for Brolly couldn’t see entertainment is subjective, instead suggesting what he likes, the Gaels of Ireland should like. Of course we’re not suggesting that the Dublin-Derry clash was good, but we would never use a single game to suggest the entire sport is bad. Indeed last weekend, elsewhere in the same division, Cork-Mayo was a nail-biter, Monaghan created history and Donegal threw down a marker. Brolly wasn’t at any of those yet his words transcended them. So much so that he’d played the tune that the weak are now marching to.
Joe Kernan was asked about the problem in football instead of the honour of being named Ireland international rules manager. Larry Tompkins said soon more people will watch cricket because the basic skills are gone. Meanwhile on Newstalk, Jarlath Burns was on about the state of the game while he chairs a committee with the power to change it. Terrifyingly, he used a preposterous anecdote about Jimmy McGuinness only telling his team to play 14 in defence five minutes before the 2011 All Ireland semi-final as proof anyone can play blanket cover, there’s not even a need to train to enact it and therefore it is completely devoid of skill. The one positive is that these people aren’t doctors, otherwise patients would be told they’ve days to live after discovering a boil on their arse.
Yet nowhere amongst this engineered debate has anyone asked why exactly the football is muck, what skills are gone from the game or what’s wrong with a blanket defence. As the lunatics try and run the asylum, no one has even asked what the definition of negative football is or why organisation, teamwork, work-rate, fitness, discipline and counter-attacking are actually bad.
If there is a negative, it can only be judged against a positive, and those moaning like to talk of their own playing days as some sort of golden generation. So perhaps the skill referred to by past greats is kicking the ball as far away from your own goal where it reaches a zone belonging to two players who do battle, with the winner gathering possession and kicking it as hard as he can again. That’s what the wonder years of the ’70s and ’90s actually entailed while in between was the sort of filthy and cynical era that would now make rugby our national sport as parents make sure their kids never play football.
But out of all the people who are unhappy, Brolly is the loudest. And for a barrister, he’s remarkably cavalier with the truth. Presumably the 12 scores in Croke Park started this death-of-football talk but while you can always improve sport, if you want to change it, you study the reality, not act on a populist whim. And the reality is football has never been higher scoring. The average this league is 28.8 points per game. The average across the previous 14 leagues of the qualifier era was 28.2. And of those 15 leagues played since 2001, thus far, this ranks as the fifth highest, with the four highest all coming between 2010 and 2014.
But more telling are the summer statistics for that is the true barometer of scoring football. The only five championships that have averaged more than 30 points per game have been the last five, with 2013 the first time that figure surpassed 32, and last year the first time it surpassed 35. That’s not a number skewed by early games either as breaking last summer into the provinces, qualifiers and the All Ireland series, the latter was highest scoring but there was also balance right through. Therefore if the insinuation is that more teams are playing more backs, then it suggests more intensity and more skilful attackers creating and finishing more. That’s backed up by Rob Carroll of thevideoanalyst.com who worked as the performance analyst with the Irish international team under Paul Earley.
His research from televised games has shown the average shots per game was 62 in 2014, up from 56, 56, and 54 in previous seasons and he suggests the advantage rule had a major affect. Fouls per game in 2014 totalled 37, down from 45, 42 and 41 in previous seasons. The ball-in-play time was 35.25 last season, an increase of a minute and 25 seconds on the previous season. Does any of this sound negative or like a sport in crisis? The ratio of hand-passing to foot-passing did increase from 2:1 in 2011 to 2.6:1 now but just like the above shouldn’t incentivise helping defences more, this shouldn’t incentivise kicking more. Instead, sports can evolve on their own and after a century of the same, football has discovered tactics and needs to be allowed discover itself.
All in all, games develop within the rules, tactics overcome tactics, and football will find its own way.
None of this is to say Gaelic football doesn’t have plenty of other issues to confront, it’s just that the facts prove this isn’t one of them. And none of this is to say everyone can’t have their own point of view, but whatever about being based on facts, it shouldn’t be based against facts. It’s why those weighing in with Brolly should realise that being erroneous isn’t divisive, instead it’s just plain wrong.
Sunday Business Post
5 April, 2015