Joe Brolly

JOE BROLLY: God save the King

IT is being suggested by some southern commentators that in the event of a United Ireland, the new Ireland should immediately join the Commonwealth of nations, where we would bask in the great bounty of living under the shelter of his glorious Majesty and his family.

This is a great boost for all of us in the North at a particularly traumatic time. Last week, it was announced that both King Charles and Princess Catherine have been admitted to hospital, which was the last thing the Watty Grahams needed going into the most important game of their young lives. As the Daily Mail’s front page put it on Thursday, just three days before the final, “The Double Blow of King Charles and our future Queen Catherine’s medical treatment leaves the nation reeling.. it sends a shiver down all our spines.” In the inside pages, Liz Jones in the Mail spoke for all of us when she wrote, “This feels personal…like a young member of my family. I was walking my dogs and saw a young woman stop, stare at her phone, mittens shooting to her mouth. I asked if she was okay. She said, “It’s Kate, she’s in hospital!” Everyone in earshot rummaged in pockets to find phones and stop and stare. The news she has been admitted to hospital, possibly for two whole weeks, sent shivers down my spine. Catherine? She will be so cross with herself that she is making us all so worried.”

If Liz was worried, imagine how Connor Carville and the lads felt. With this thundercloud hanging over them, Malachy O’Rourke met with the team and club officials on Thursday night and after a long and difficult discussion, the club decided not to ask the GAA for a postponement. It was a decision that almost backfired. People wondered why the Wattys panicked for long stretches of the game. Wonder no more.

It was an extraordinary game, uncannily reminiscent of the 2022 final. Like Sunday, Kilcoo were sure to win that day. It was, after all, their destiny, a crusade they had given everything for. It was their time. And like Glen, they panicked, played very poorly by their standards, and were rescued by a miraculous goal at the death.

On Sunday, the miraculous goal came from Conor Glass. It was, for me, the greatest goal I have seen in Croke Park. It marked the transition of Conor from a very good player who has been iffy enough on the biggest days, to a great player. An unforgettable player. A leader. Think Larry Bird demanding the ball with two seconds left in game seven of the NBA finals, his team two points behind Magic Johnson’s Lakers, and taking the three point shot from the corner with Lakers all over him. As the ball arcs up into the air, the shot clock expires. The world holds its breath. As the Lakers CJ Green said afterwards, “I said to myself, here comes death.” And death it was. The ball swished through the net, the Celtics won. Afterwards, Larry was asked how he was able to win so many games with clutch three pointers. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “When you work as hard as I do, you can’t afford to miss them.”

Conor’s goal was extraordinary. The looping pass swirling in over his shoulder. The take. Then, the solo along the 21, tempting the defenders, before the early, perfect shot to the near post taking the keeper completely by surprise. It reminded me of Maurice Fitzgerald’s great goal against Armagh in the All-Ireland semi-final in 2000. The difference being that when Conor took possession, it was do or die: Take the easy option of a point and the game was lost. If the game was lost, it is unlikely Glen would ever be back. Two gutting losses in consecutive finals? That’s when Mayo syndrome sets in. Mentally, it becomes impossible to keep believing. They would be called losers. They would feel like losers. Life intervenes. Committment wavers.

The day after we won the All-Ireland in 1993, the legendary Kerry full back John O’Keefe, writing in the Irish Times, said, “This Derry team looks set to dominate Gaelic football for a decade.” We were beaten in the first round in 1994. When Conor took possession of that ball, that was the moment. Everything depended on what happened next. Was he an Aidan O’Shea or a Brian Fenton? Turns out he is a Brian Fenton. Turns out he has arrived. In hindsight, his wasted years in Australia meant that he took time to readjust. What a readjustment. His performance, when his team was malfunctioning, was one of the great finals performances. I salute him.

Three critical things decided this game. The first was Conor’s goal. The second was the switching of Ryan Dougan on to Ben O’Carroll. Michael Warnock is not an expert corner back. For me he is a team leader and natural number six. He struggled badly on O’Carroll who is a skilled and fast corner forward. Malachy O’Rourke almost left it too late. Glen had steadied just before half time but the St Brigid’s goal at the start of the second half could have been lethal. It was a rare error by Malachy.

As soon as that goal had gone in, he finally switched Dougan on to O’Carroll and that was the end of O’Carroll. Ryan is a superb defender, easily the best man marker in Derry. Tall, strong, very quick, with long arms and superb balance. Calm, ruthless. He doesn’t play for the county as he is only interested in playing for the Wattys. I was chatting with Dean Rock after the game and he was full of praise for him. He told me that Paul Mannion held Ryan in the highest regard.

With O’Carroll finally shut down, Glen stopped haemorrhaging scores. The third key thing was Michael Warnock’s point to narrow the gap to three points. That was a Johnny McGurk moment. A Henry Downey moment. It was a superb point, but more than that it changed the atmosphere of the game. It was a “For f*** sake lads, we can win this” moment. It showed the way. The team followed.

The Watty Graham’s club was formed in 1948. The Glen elders named it after Walter (Watty) Graham, an elder in the presbyterian church who took part in the 1798 rebellion. He escaped after the United Irishmen were routed by the British (as Heaney put it “shaking scythes at cannon”) but was subsequently betrayed by the Church of Ireland rector in Tamlaght who owed him money. On the 19th of June 1798, poor Watty was hanged from a tree in what are now the club grounds. He was then decapitated, his head paraded around the town by the British soldiers. On Monday night when they arrived back home, the Wattys paraded the same route. This time, not with a head, but with the greatest prize in Irish sport.

Fergal McCusker said to me before the game he told his bank colleagues as he left work on Friday evening, “I’ll see you on Thursday.” I spoke to him over the phone yesterday. He was in Regans. The place was packed. The Dungiven lads had arrived with a guitar and harmonica. “I’ve extended that to Friday” he said.

God save the King.

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