Joe Brolly

JOE BROLLY: Winners and losers

SUNDAY’S final was a fascinating study in winning and losing. I thought back to 1993 and what was in our minds throughout that season.

The best way to describe it is that we were like the human cannonball at the circus. He climbs into the cannon. Gets shot out of it. Hits (hopefully) the safety net. Crowd cheers.

We lined up before the first round in 1993, climbed into the cannon and were fired out of it, landing in Croke Park just after the final whistle on the 3rd Sunday in September (those were the days).

We had no worries that season. There was a powerful sense that we were not going to be beaten. More than that, that we could not be beaten. And if we could not be beaten, there was nothing to worry about.

When we were five down at half time in the semi-final against the favourites Dublin, it just meant it would take us a little longer to beat them. In the final, against two-time champions Cork, they scored a sucker-punch goal at the start of each half. Big deal. We reeled them in and won it. Job done. We had total belief in ourselves. We had a manager who had total belief in us. Eamonn Coleman told me over and over, “Jody, you are the best forward in Ireland” and I was gullible enough to believe him.

I bumped into one of the Shorts last week. Like many Crossmaglen footballers, he walks with a swagger like the baton twirler at the front of an orange band. Why wouldn’t he? After all, he was part of the Crossmaglen dynasty that brought six All-Ireland Club titles to the village.

“Why do Armagh get so anxious in the last ten minutes of big games? Why do they freeze?” I asked him. “Because they didn’t win anything when they were young. The more you play in big games and lose, the more you worry.” “How would you know?” “I don’t Joe, I’m speculating.” After I stopped guffawing, he said, “I never worried about a big game. Going to it on the bus, even togging out in the changing room, all I was thinking was ‘where will we be going tonight to celebrate?’ It never occurred to us that we wouldn’t perform. We just assumed we would win unless something happened out of the blue.”

In 2014, Kieran McGeeney went in with Armagh as Paul Grimley’s assistant. By 2015, he was the manager of the team and has been now for nine years. It took his team eight years to reach an Ulster final (2023). That day, at 24 hours notice, the Derry boys were left without a manager. Suddenly, it was Kieran McGeeney v no manager at all. It was too late for them. it is too late for them. Like Mayo, they have lost too many big games. They are imprisoned in a losing cult.

Armagh duly outplayed us in last year’s final for large stretches except when it mattered. Draw, extra-time, then penalties. In the All-Ireland quarter-final the previous season, their penalty shootout against Galway had been a sorrowful disaster. The Armagh men came up one by one like men going to the scaffold. The O’Neill’s size five was suddenly a medicine ball. One by one, they missed. Wide, at the goalie, over the bar. Galway didn’t. They enjoyed it, crisply scoring all theirs and winning 4-1. I felt sorry for them.

In last year’s Ulster final, Armagh did exactly the same thing again, scoring only one penalty and fluffing the others, leaving us needing to score only three penalties which we did, gleefully. Bing, bing, bing. It is the difference between winning and losing. Armagh’s history is of narrow defeats. This Derry team’s is of victories, winning every division in the league and two Ulster titles.

If Kieran McGeeney has been team building in Armagh for 10 years, Jimmy McGuinness had four months. Then again, Jimmy has always worked quickly. He first managed his county in 2011, winning Ulster immediately and climbing into the psyche of the nation. By 2012, unbelievably, they were All-Ireland champions, whipping Tyrone, Kerry, Mayo and anyone else who got in their way. I remember shaking my head at the end of that 2012 final and laughing, prompting Pat and Colm to laugh as well. What could you say?

Now, with a much more limited group of players, he is doing it again. If Kieran McGeeney has never been judged by his results, Jimmy’s speak for themselves. In his first stint as manager, they were double Ulster and All-Ireland champions within 18 months. Two years later in 2014, having won Ulster again, they destroyed the unbeatable Dubs in one of the greatest managerial coups ever seen in any sport, before narrowly losing a dull final to Kerry.

In his second coming, within four months, he has won the Division Two National League, thrashed one of the All-Ireland favourites in Ulster (another brilliant strategic victory) and beaten the 2021 All Ireland champions Tyrone to reach the final.

On the Thursday night before the final, I was in Kilkenny returning a 50 year old favour. The last time I saw Eddie Keher it was the early seventies and he was sheltering under a table in the Dungiven clubhouse after a bomb had gone off in the Main Street.

He had come up with Brian Cody and teams from the legendary Village, Kinnity and Gort clubs to promote hurling in the town and give us a huge lift. It was a reminder to our beleaguered, under fire community that we were not alone. So, when Eddie bumped into me in Croke Park a few months ago, and asked me to be the guest at the Rower Instioge’s big fundraiser, it was a duty that had to be performed. Noel Skehan was there (I could barely speak when I was introduced to him) looking fresh and well. What a night it was. I nobbled Tommy Walsh, who won nine All-Irelands and in his own words, “left two behind.”

Me: Why did your team never freeze?

Tommy: We won the All-Ireland when I was only 19 and that set us on the road. After that, there was no call for worry, we just played. I wasn’t coming up to big games thinking ‘Jesus are we ever going to win this?’ So you had that in the bag and we got used to winning so there was nothing to worry about.

Me: Did it come from Cody?

Tommy: A lot of it did. We were all young and had a manager who had total belief in us. He bred us all to have absolute belief. He didn’t give a damn about mistakes. It was just Go Go Go and never a backward step.

Me: Did the belief come from the training?

Tommy: The culture was that everything was do or die. When we were lining up to do sprints, I got butterflies. I was jittery. Every sprint was an All-Ireland. But the secret was winning that first one. That gave us clear heads to just go out and play. We were no different to any other humans. We just got used to winning young and then leaned into it.

Me: One last question Tommy. Donegal or Armagh?

Tommy: To be totally honest Joe, I know nothing about it.

Come Sunday, Armagh outplayed Donegal throughout the game except for when it mattered: the last quarter of ordinary time; the last five minutes of extra time; the last penalty.

They had a solid game plan, good discipline, took good shots, didn’t foul Donegal in the scoring zone, kept their ’keeper in nets and made it impossible for Donegal to score a goal.

When they went four up in the 53rd minute, I said to the glamorous brunette, “I think they might win it now.” She said, “They won’t Joe. Donegal will win.” As the logistics person for the Mayo footballers in the 2015/2016 season, she knows what she is talking about.

From the 53rd minute to the 73rd minute – the final whistle – they did not score again. Donegal scored four unanswered points to draw in that limbo. One point every five minutes was all it took.

One point would have won it for Armagh but they had stopped trying to win. They had stopped driving on. Instead, they were thinking and praying that they were going to hold on. Their minds had taken over from their bodies. They were worried. In the 72nd minute Tiernan Kelly had a mark from a great position to win it and he missed. Of course he did.

The penalties were inevitable. The Armagh players and management were distracted. Kieran McGeeney had a smile of resignation on his face as he linked arms with his players. He knew what was coming. Like them, he was worried. It was an ‘oh Christ tell me its not going to happen again’ expression.

As each of his players scored their penalties they punched the air and gestured to the crowd. It was an outpouring of relief and a roar of come on come on. Meanwhile, the Donegal players scored their penalties and walked back to the group. As Jimmy said afterwards, winning is a ruthless business.

Niall O’Donnell, who a few months ago looked like a middling player on a middling team, got MOTM. He said, “We knew we would win today. We don’t think anybody can beat us. If we do what we are supposed to, we will win.”

Jimmy McGuinness has lined them up and fired them from the cannon. Whatever happens, they will not lose because they got worried.

I texted Tommy Walsh that evening. “Donegal won.”

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