Last Sunday night, the Kilcoo coach Declan Morgan texted me to say, “Will take some team to beat ‘Cross’. We have an unbelievable bunch of players who are real GAA people. We thought we would beat them but they are just too well organised, too smart and too skilled. It is hard to see past them.”
I texted back, “Is there anyone who can beat them?”
One of the great pleasures is standing in Oliver Plunkett Park in the freezing cold watching Crossmaglen training.Joe Brolly
The answer was to the point, “Not if they play football against them.”
I gave a lecture in Trinity a few weeks ago. Afterwards, Karol Mannion, the great St. Brigid’s, Roscommon midfielder came up to talk with me. The subject of the lecture was ethics in sport and we were chatting about that fine line between playing the game the right way and doing whatever it takes to win.
He said it made him think about the infamous (or famous depending how you look at it) day when they faced Cross’ in the 2013 All-Ireland club semi-final. Cross were going for three in a row All-Ireland titles and looked unbeatable. Their previous two All-Ireland campaigns had showcased – in my opinion – the greatest football ever played. For neutrals, it was a joy. I’d see the same faces at every game, from all over the country, savouring football at its very, very best. They had given an outstanding St. Brigid’s team a hiding the last two times they had met. Both had been great games of football until Cross pulled away with that awesome long kicking, goal scoring game.
So, Kevin McStay and his men swallowed hard and decided the only thing for it was to abandon their principles, temporarily. So, from the start, they systematically dragged down and tripped the Cross men every time they took possession. It was before the black card, so there was nothing the referee could do. It worked. In the final, St. Brigid’s went back to football and played superbly, winning an electrifying game.
Karol strongly advocates fair, honest football. I asked him how he felt about that semi-final.
“Not great, but we won. It was the only way.”
One of the great pleasures is standing in Oliver Plunkett Park in the freezing cold watching Crossmaglen training. I texted Oisin McConville the other day to ask if I could take a run down to training soon and he said, “No bother Joe. Wear your thermals.”
For the craic, I texted back, “Will it be mostly football?”
His response was, “Short sided games to start with, followed by short fist passing drills, then a half hour tackling grid.”
A moment later, “Course it will be football. Warm up. 15 v 15 full game. Then shooting practice. Sin é.”
They always start with a long kicking drill, the balls fizzing around like exocet missiles. I brought my son Rory once and he started laughing.
“I’ve never seen such brilliant kick passing daddy.”
Pin-point 70m passes were drilled onto men’s chests. The man taking possession barely had the ball in his hands before he was driving it to the next man. As the session developed they ranged through their entire repertoire, all at 100 mph, all in near silence. Seamus McGeown, their renowned running and fitness coach, put them through their paces. Then they were back kicking again, starting with a beautifully worked drill that mirrors their style of play. To see it at close quarters was stunning.
“Come and stand out here in the middle of the field, Joe” said Tony McEntee, “You’ll get a better idea of the speed the ball is moved at.”
The accuracy, the pace, the movement. It looked simple, but it was ingenious.
After the session, as the freezing mist descended, one man was still out there, swerving improbable kicks over the bar with both feet. Jamie Clarke. I dandered over to him with Rory.
“Do something special for us, Jamie” I said, “Send us home smiling.”
He smiled in that shy way of his and said an interesting thing.
“You know, Joe, I was thinking that some day, I’d like to score an overhead kick like Ibrahimovic.”
“You know what Jamie” I replied, “I believe you could.”
And with that, he whipped the ball over his shoulder without looking, straight over the black spot.
“Nineties football, Joe” Damien Cassidy said to me once. “They’re playing football from the nineties.”
Well, 90s football with a bit of extra oomph. Three or four months after Tony McEntee took over at St. Brigid’s in Dublin, I bumped into him at a game somewhere. St. Brigid’s were and are one of Dublin’s big four.
“How are you getting on with them?” I asked.
“Joe, I’ve spent the first three months teaching them how to kick a ball properly.”
When Floyd Mayweather fought Ricky Hatton some years ago, many astute observers felt that Hatton would be his nemesis. That he would be too aggressive, too in his face. That he would weary him by toiling under his chin, pulling and dragging and blocking and bludgeoning him with body punches.
Each morning, Mayweather’s uncle and trainer positioned himself outside the front door of their gym in Las Vegas, so he could be there as Hatton and his entourage passed them on their way to training. The moment he spotted them he would start shouting, “You’re tough kid I’ll give you that. But skills pays the bills. Skills pays the bills kid. Don’t forget it.”
And so, he would keep it up until Hatton was out of sight. He was right. On the night, Mayweather was just too skilful, eventually laying his man out with the most delicate knock out punch in the history of boxing.
“I call it the anchor punch,” said a beaming Mayweather afterwards. “I invented it myself.”
On Sunday week, Cross’ will take us back to the future once again. From the whistle, they will kick long and early, fizzing those balls over their opponents’ heads and beyond the reach of their sweepers. Clontibret cannot beat them in a fair contest. And the disciplinary rules are still grossly insufficient to prevent them from winning an unfair one. Let us hope, in spite of the system, that skills will pay the bills.