Joe Brolly

JOE BROLLY: Jimmy’s Wall

MANY years ago, I wrote: “It is only a matter of time before teams are investing in stealth and cloaking technology and bug sweeping devices. It will also become the norm to maintain 24 hour surveillance on the movements, phones, smart devices and computers of all players.

Behavioural contracts will be the norm. Players will have to sign confidentiality clauses. Alcohol will be a thing of the past, bans enforced by breathalysers installed in the training grounds. Going out with friends will be allowed only at Christmas. Opposition teams will be spied on using drones fitted with video cameras.” It was written as a bit of fun, a satirical piece on a dystopian future. Now, the future has arrived and no one is laughing.

Jimmy McGuinness is back and the man who helped bring in the era of control is resuming where he left off.

When Jimmy met the Donegal squad for the first time in 2011 in a hotel in Downings, they were bemused when each man was presented with a typed behavioural contract. Players’ phones were collected after team talks on the morning of big games. An atmosphere of paranoia surrounded the squad.

In the summer of 2011 I was on holidays with the children and we decided to drop into St Eunan’s, Letterkenny and watch Donegal senior training. We walked in to St Eunan’s grounds and surprised that there was no one else there, sat up at the back of the main stand, watching the most gruelling session I had ever seen. After two hours it was still going, the youngsters were restless and we headed off to get ice cream without ever getting the pics I had promised them with Michael Murphy and Colm McFadden.

A few days later we were in the local shop and our Rory said “Daddy you’re in the paper.” I had been captured by the long lens of a camera man at the session. I had intended to go to the training again that night but when I rang my contact at St Eunan’s he said. “Sorry Joe, they’ve moved it to Ballybofey and they have security on the gate who have been instructed not to let you in.” “Seriously?” “Seriously.”

After that, it was lock-down. In future, the gates would be guarded and no one allowed in. The players received texts at 5pm on training days telling them where training was that night. I imagined them in cars fitted with smoke machines and nail scatterers to be deployed if they suspected they were being followed.

It was less than a fortnight after that when Donegal played Dublin in that notorious semi-final, the one that sowed the seeds of the destruction of Gaelic football as we knew it. The huge crowd in Croke Park that day and the hundreds of thousands watching from home or in bars, were at first open mouthed as Donegal’s entire fifteen retreated inside their 45. Then enraged. Then fearful. Donegal lost 0-6 to 0-8 but Jimmy was thrilled. His experiment had been largely successful. All he needed was to tweak it. A year later they were All-Ireland champions and the country was soon infected with footballing myxomatosis.

At the end of that season, when Kevin Cassidy, an All-Star and team leader, gave some innocuous details about the squad to a journalist, he was dropped. More than that, he was exiled. When Kevin was banned from going on the 2011 Ulster champions team holiday, his team mates shrugged their shoulders. Resistance was futile.

A few years later, I was on a charity cycle with the Glen boys and when we pulled into Downings, we were told Donegal were having a weekend training camp there. We strolled over after our shower to have a look but there was security on the gates and no none was allowed in. I happened to call into the local Spar that night and caught Anthony Thompson and a few of the other regulars filling a bag with sweets, chocolate bars, choc ices. “Does Jimmy know about this?” I asked. “Jesus Joe,” said Thompson. “There’s no women, no drink, no socialising. If we didn’t have chocolate, we’d go mental altogether.”

This week, we discovered that Donegal wanted a high security, anti surveillance fence to be fitted around the perimeter of the Donegal training grounds. The state of the art fence – costing €55,000 – is being fitted while the squad are on a seven-day winter training break in Tenerife. It prevents photographs or videos being made. It is not known whether it is electrified or whether anti-drone missile launchers will soon be operational.

After Jimmy had stepped down from Donegal, he took to doing weekly interviews with Keith Duggan of the Irish Times. In one of these, in the summer of 2016, he said:

“I watched Galway and Roscommon on Sunday afternoon in complete dismay. It was a vision of the game in the near future when it may be in ruins. The match hadn’t even finished when I felt certain that the GAA needs to introduce a rule by which at least three players from both teams must remain in the offensive end of the pitch at all times. Otherwise, we are going to have stalemate after stalemate and the game itself will go nowhere.”

Which was a bit like the creator of the myxomatosis plague lamenting the fact that rabbits are going blind.

After Donegal’s audacious, swashbuckling 2014 semi-final win over the unbeatable Dubs (the day that Jim Gavin learned the laws of physics are immutable), Jimmy told me that he had been plotting that performance from their first training session in January, rehearsing it over and over and over until the actual game was played almost in automatic mode by the group.

What is certain is that Donegal are now planning for Derry. In 2011, at that first meeting with his bemused players (they had lost to Down in the first round of the Ulster Championship six months earlier, then thrashed by Armagh in the first round of the qualifiers by nine points) Jimmy told them that their primary goal was to “break Tyrone.” So, they worked obsessively towards that goal, endlessly studying Tyrone’s manager, players and method of play.

Six months later, they held Tyrone in a vice, beating them by three points and stripping away their aura. The following year, Mickey had another chance.

Again, Donegal ruthlessly defeated them. By 2013, Jimmy had indeed broken them, Donegal cantering to a facile six-point win. The conquered had become the conqueror.

Mickey Harte has never coached a team to beat Jimmy. Jimmy’s primary goal now is to “break” Derry. It will be an obsessive, workaholic pursuit for Donegal, obliterating every thing else in their lives. Drink, socialising, women, men, confectionary, mobile phones.

All of it is gone. There is only Mickey Harte and Derry now. Nothing exists beyond the first round of the Ulster Championship.

If I were Mickey, I’d be putting in a call to Louth…

Receive quality journalism wherever you are, on any device. Keep up to date from the comfort of your own home with a digital subscription.
Any time | Any place | Anywhere


Gaelic Life is published by North West of Ireland Printing & Publishing Company Limited, trading as North-West News Group.
Registered in Northern Ireland, No. R0000576. 10-14 John Street, Omagh, Co. Tyrone, N. Ireland, BT781DW