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Joe Brolly

JOE BROLLY: Derry 1998-2021

CHAMPIONSHIP is not about containment and playing safe. We must take the shot. Play with courage. Make the block. Nobody ever won anything playing safe.

The Financial Times’ Sports Editor wrote a column this week headlined “Progress but no championship as England fall again” with the subtitle “Quest for major honour ends in familiar disappointment.” He could have been writing about Derry.

The final against Italy, he wrote “featured many plot points of an all too familiar script. Up against good opposition, the team surged early on.” They wasted opportunities, “fell back into deep defending and conceded the crucial score.” Harry Maguire was quoted as saying “We need to take the ball and attack when we are leading the game, rather than soaking up the pressure. We need to be braver and more composed.”

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Donegal are soft and were there for the taking. Mayo humiliated them in Castlebar two years ago when they quit with half an hour to go. Last year, a poor Cavan team ripped into them in the Ulster final and again they fell apart, Cavan attacking with courage and adventure to the final whistle. If Cavan had played safe they would have lost and people who don’t know anything about winning would have said it was “good progress.”

On Sunday, Derry did an England. We attacked Donegal early on and went 0-6 to 0-2 up. But we quickly signalled we are not a serious team. Four goal chances were missed, through ineptitude and nerves.

Shane McGuigan has undoubted potential but there are two things he must focus on over the next 12 months. Firstly, scoring and creating goals inside the D. This means a huge amount of experimentation and work in the confined spaces inside the goal zone, dummying, staying on his feet, scanning the area in front of him to see where the ’keeper and his colleagues are, lateral movement and pausing before either shooting to the net or laying the ball off to a colleague for an easy goal.

Secondly, he must accept responsibility. Larry Bird was once asked how he scored so many winning baskets at the death. He said “When you work as hard as I do, you can’t afford to miss them.”

We botched four excellent goal chances on Sunday (I am excluding the penalty which ought to have been given but was beyond our control), including a panicky left-footed karate kick from Shane when all that was required was steel and composure, Benny Herron palming a perfect pass against the crossbar when the net was empty, and Benny electing to take a safe point when he had a colleague at the far post for the palm to the net.

These signalled to Donegal that we were not serious. It was us, not anything else, that kept them in the game. We spared them. We let them beat us. Nothing is more humiliating than that.

In the second half we continued to play hopeful football. By that, I mean that we hoped that Donegal would not go and win the game. Instead of us going at them, really going at them and putting them away as we ought to have done, we went through the motions. Safe, fear based football, trying to contain them.

As the pressure inevitably mounted on us, we fouled an unfit Michael Murphy when he was running away from the goals and no threat whatsoever. McBrearty pointed the 14-metre free to put Donegal ahead 0-15 to 0-14. Then, a terrific free from Shane temporarily spared us. But defeat was coming for us. Defeat was hanging heavy in the air.

The final three minutes summed us up. McBrearty, having been kept out of the game throughout, had the courage to take on the shot. The great NBA star Charles Barkley said recently “It is not how much you score, it’s when you score them.”

After that, we had one minute and 40 seconds to shoot for the equaliser. We moved the ball forward hesitantly. Brendan Rogers hand-passed to Conor Glass as time ticked well into the red zone. Conor is described as a star player. When he took a look and decided against it, instead hand-passing it back to Brendan, the white flag was hoisted.

Over and back and sideways we went until the final whistle. Derry players complained to the referee. In response, Coldrick rightly shook his head and signalled with his arms that we had wasted the opportunity he had given us by going sideways and backways and refusing to shoot. It was Conor’s responsibility to take the shot. That is why he is there. He must learn to embrace that responsibility. Otherwise he will never be more than a minor with potential. Big Tohill would have taken the shot on without hesitation.

It does not help that the manager roars instructions second by second, minute by minute at the players. “Back Niall. To your left. Further back Shane. Right Gareth. Too far Paudie. Too far. In the middle Paul, the middle, like the coxswain of the boat shouting instructions at the rowers through his megaphone.

This constant screaming engenders caution on the part of the players. They are not trusted. They are pawns on a chess board, being moved about by the manager. They fear that they might make a mistake. They are not going for it. They are not playing the game with freedom, to its limits and beyond. Instead they are rigid and conforming.

The correct state of mind is fearlessness and letting the dice fall where they may. “Go at them,” Eamonn Coleman used to roar in the changing room, “Go out and see what they are made of.” As a result, our minds were free. We could play.

Eddie Brennan was asked once what the secret of his Kilkenny team’s chemistry was. He said “Cody trusted us. We had the licence to go and play. So, when we got on top of a team, we went on a roll. We went after them. No one had to tell us. If we lost, we lost, but we left nothing behind.” This is what is required. Nothing less.

Game-plans and tactics are important and we were solid in these areas. But in the end, the game is about courage.

It is about being fearless in the pursuit of victory, as our minor team are demonstrating. It is about taking responsibility. It is about going beyond the normal boundaries. If this Derry group are serious, they should be hating all the sugary sentiment about progress, which is only dishonest bullshit.

In the dying seconds of the 1998 Ulster final, with Derry a point down and the game on the whistle, Geoffrey McGonigle sent me through on goals with a defender and the ’keeper to beat.

I could have fisted the ball over the bar for a replay. I could have played safe and hoped for the best. But it was my job to stick the ball in the net. It was my responsibility to win the game.

I had done this thousands of time at training and on my own. I made sure I stayed on my feet (it was very slippery underfoot). I watched John Joe Doherty carefully, dummying him to my left as he dived to block thin air. I looked at the ’keeper’s feet and paused briefly to let him sell himself, then carefully passed it to the net. It is the last time we were Ulster champions.

There is no safety net. And as DJ Kane told his Down team before the 1994 All-Ireland final, there is nothing for losers.

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