The figure of Brandon O’Brien was made to rise not so very high from the ground such that he would keep a tight eye on the trickeries of the Devil below. And in the heart of Tyrone, where tea is sweetened with the ashes of hellfire, the spirit of young Brandon ascended to the very highest towers of Heaven to blare out the trumpets of the angels. From the bench, Na Cúnna’s own particle accelerator came on to collide the ball with the back of the net. Banished were the wickedness and snares of defeat and once again the Wolfhound of Limavady leaped.
Legends of Callum Brown’s Nijinskian acrobatics span hemispheres, but at that moment it was the Na Cúnna faithful who were performing Olympian feats of athleticism. Seats were vaulted, Klitschko-proportioned punches were thrown in the air and great mammoth hugs of embrace landed on neighbours as roars became tears and laughter rose from the ashes of fears. Worries and burdens and time slipped away amidst flares and ecstasy as in the blackness of night, thickets of yellow-and-blue smoke drifted slowly away as if ushered gently by the fluttering of angel wings.
Yet it is infrequently that the seraphic is seen amidst the flailing elbows and squelching muck of junior football. “Philosophy”, writes Chesterton, “is generally left to the idle; and it is generally a very idle philosophy”, and so it is with junior football. It is Stormont-esque in the sense that a great deal is said of what very little occurs. Games are Rorschach tests made flesh as the watcher’s interpretation assumes the importance of the player’s action. Thus the lower leagues are only secondarily a place of sport and primarily a place of metaphor. Leant over fences with joint hands, the spectator is poet-philosopher.
Imagination is paradoxical. It is at once escaping from and reliant upon its surroundings. Van Gogh would have struggled to paint sunflowers had he no yellow on his palette. Nor did Michaelangelo paint the roof of the Sistine Chapel using a toothbrush. These limitations of material impinge equally upon the devotees of junior football. They cannot weave grand tapestries of gilded warriors nor recite epics of shining cavalry and cannons. Indeed, if the object of art is “to hold as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature”, then to do so would be an injustice and a distortion – it would be to “o’erstep.. the modesty of nature”. And it is a spectacular blessing that this is the case. The art is not in disposing of the ordinary for the extraordinary, but in finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. How ghastly and unnatural it would be if all the coarseness and life of a Wolfhound or Magilligan or Glack full-forward were exchanged for the attributes of a Development-Squad experiment who swapped his personality for a protein shake.
But in spite of the wonders of junior football, it must be said that Limavady are not a junior club. This is true in both an administrative and stylistic sense. Having secured promotion into the intermediate ranks for next season, the Wolfhounds are technically speaking no longer junior footballers. Yet in a more important sense, Na Cúnna have not been a junior club for the entirety of the season. The archetype of junior football strikes discord with the composition of the Wolfhound side. The lower-league tradition of strife between the limitations of jerseys and the expansion of bellies is one not seen in the ferocity of the Wolfhound attack nor in the steadfastness of its defence. The familiar themes of the junior story: of grinding hamstrings, of still-fresh swilling chow meins, of ethanol laced perspiration, all fall afoul of the Limavady reality. To make a still greater distinction, the Wolfhounds have not simply played in a style unconventional to junior football, but in a manner inconsistent with the understanding of Gaelic football itself. Lean, skilful and fearless, the Wolfhounds have carved out a philosophy not of stereotypical ‘puke football’, but of an aggressive, guerilla ‘Kalashnikov football’.
The Kalashnikov, or AK-47, changed warfare. In particular, it was vital to the victory of the Vietcong. It was the standard rifle of North Vietnamese infantry. Designed by the Soviets, the Kalashnikov is characterised by simplicity of construction: they were to be mass-produced and widely-distributed to guerilla movements across the globe. It was, then, the peasant’s weapon. In preparing a new theatre of war in the Far-East, the US Army was confident that the rudimentary, clunky Kalashnikov would be no match for their precise and sophisticated standard rifle, the M16. On rifle ranges, the M16 was supremely accurate and unparalleled in its lightness and fire rate. But in the jungles of Vietnam, it proved at times almost worthless. Engineered in a controlled environment of equilibrium and balance, it was unevolved for jungle warfare – jamming and clogging in the ubiquitous water, muck and sun. The AK-47, however, was unperturbed by the extremities of the environment. It could be stored in dirt and dust, be pulled from streams and caves and function perfectly. It was not the most refined or progressive instrument, but the Kalashnikov was infinitely durable, versatile and facilitated a strategy of of sporadic ambush and perpetual attack. At any point, it could be pulled from the ground and fired.
The whiteboards of Pairc na gCúnna are not like those in the supposedly higher halls of the GAA. Coaches do not stand armed with markers and models, murmuring uncontrollably about systems and statistics and wildly drawing lines and postulating equations like some kind of cocaine-riddled theoretical physicist. Philosophy, rather than strategy, is sovereign. Tactics are not manufactured scientifically. The ethos is one of attack and, moreover, one of expression. This ostensible simplicity may incite sneering and scorn from the vast army of pseudo-scientists and armchair-analysts presently seizing power over the GAA, but it is one which works, which excites and which, in the rough turf of junior football, arms the Wolfhounds for wave-after-wave of ambush and attack football.
Limavady being traditionally a soccer town, it is unsurprising that the Wolfhounds should have so many soccer players. They are ‘soccer players’ insofar as they primarily, or at least substantially, played soccer in their earlier years. And, stylistically, they play Gaelic football as soccer players.
Gaelic football, typically understood, is a game of minimum activity in maximised space . Its agrarian mentality is a consequence of its context: Gaelic football is traditionally strongest in rural areas. Most commonly, it has been played and practised in open, green spaces devoid of obstacles, with no windows to shatter, flower-beds to destroy or neighbours to antagonise. Human beings are by nature problem solvers. The mind naturally wanders to the greatest challenge before it. And, in this rural environment, the challenge is to do as little as possible in order to make the ball travel as far as it possibly can. Thus was conceived the cult of the ‘high ball into the big full forward’. The course of the game was merely an extension of how children played.
Soccer, however, is a game of maximum activity in minimised space . Again, this is a product of circumstance: soccer is a game traditionally most popular in urban areas. Think of the environment many of the great soccer players grew up in and how this influenced their style. Ronaldinho grew up playing in the working class streets of Porto Alegre. He played with his friends and when his friends went home he played with his dog – bamboozling poor ‘Bombom’ with an ever-increasing litany of skills. He rainbow-flicked and flip-flapped and Cruyff-turned his way through childhood. George Best graduated from a similar education. On the Cregagh estate, walls and lampposts and kerbs were incorporated into his training. In nutmegging the bigger kids, in pinging balls at bin-lids and in swerving around cities, they learned to thrive not in space, but without it. Aristotle states that ‘we are what we repeatedly do’. And, in the very act of closing space against players of this mould, you trigger their most exercised reflex. These are players who want to be tackled, who invite conflict, who play by setting traps and launching ambushes – these are guerilla footballers.
The logic is evident on the pitch. Typically, when competing for a ball on the ground, two cliché’s dictate what a player is expected to do: a) ‘throw the shoulder’ and b) ‘bend the back’. This is received wisdom, and roared out tirelessly from stands ar fud na tíre. Yet Richard King reduces this to a single step by simply flicking the ball into his hands. Alternatively, upon receiving the ball, the corner forward is expected to a) ‘throw the shoulder’ and b) put it over the sticks’. But Cormac Quiqley almost never does this. As he did playing centre forward for Roe Valley FC, he runs at his marker with pace and looks to goal. Terrified, full-backs often respond by pulling him down, in which case Ruairi Hassan or Richard King slot over the free from short range. Oisin Hassan at corner-forward delights in weaving and dummying defenders towards him, before laying off to Aaron McGregor who plays the through ball past a dislodged back line. Oran Hartin stations himself between the 21 and 45 yard lines as if Pep Guardiola was commanding him to play sweeper. The Wolfhounds consistently apply soccer skills within a Gaelic framework. Wides often stack up, but only as a consequence of the sheer volume and aggressiveness of attacks. Like the Kalashnikov in the jungle, the point is not to be deadly accurate – but to fire at will.
Tactics are not mere mechanisms restrained to the markings of the field. Tactics are political. They must be; otherwise how could they change so dramatically with the injection of finance into sport? The concept of ‘marginal gains’ is associated with Team Sky and British Olympic cycling. In a narrow, sporting sense, the purpose of the marginal gains ideal is to generate major performance improvements by an accumulation of minor modifications to the method of performance. Apparently, the reasoning for vast investment in minute weight and aerodynamic gains to helmets and tyres is to allow Team Sky, Team GB and its riders to win races . But that’s not really true. Marginal gains is a PR stunt; an innovation of Rupert Murdoch and Tory Government to use cycling victories to launder their own reputations. Sheikh Mansour, sitting atop an oil empire and a government with a brutal human rights record, does precisely the same thing with Manchester City.
This is the essential purpose of modern sport: the use of capitalist risk-management to minimise the probability of adverse outcomes for shareholders. Ed Woodward is an investment banker. Maurizio Sarri is an investment banker. Google anyone with any position of administrative power in sport and it can be all but guaranteed that they are an investment banker. Or an accountant. Or a CEO. Or a hedge-fund manager. Or any of one of the thousands of official titles and designations capitalism creates as code-words for the term ‘arsehole’.
The GAA is little different. The institutional acceptance of neoliberalism has expressed itself in tactical terms. Teams do not play to win, and still less do they play for self-expression – they play to minimise the probability of adverse outcomes . Hence comes the blanket defence. As a case-study of the intimacy between political economy and sporting tactics, consider the link between: 1) the prevalence of corporate policing of workers’ personal space – in monitoring computer activity and login times, in recording bathroom-breaks, in bombarding workers with emails while at home and on holidays, and 2) the dictating of players’ diets and social lives and the strapping of heart-rate monitors and distance trackers to their chests. Fundamentally, these are exercises of control – the valuing of a human being only insofar as they may be of marginal utility. ‘As the leader goes, so goes the company’, and when the hedge fund cartel raided the VIP boxes of Croke Park, their influence extended to the changing rooms.
Nostalgia, particularly in the present political climate, must be met with suspicion. However, the history of the GAA is fundamentally anti-establishment. Institutionally, it must be understood as a product of both the Gaelic Revival and the Enlightenment. For people rejected by the state and market, the GAA offered a platform to resist systemic oppression by means of individual expression. Jarlath Burns presented a documentary, ‘Níos mó ná Cluiche’, highlighting the role of the education system in fostering gaelic games in Ulster. The Education Act of 1947 afforded Catholics a greater opportunity for secondary education. Within the confines of school, gaelic games were allowed to flourish independently of the intrusions of a hostile state. For this generation of players, therefore, their coaches were teachers. Gaelics games became but an aspect of a syllabus of literature, science and Latin designed to let the intellectual and spiritual elements of children to flourish. The Act of ‘47 conceived a great generation of civil rights leaders and writers – of Hume, Devlin, Kavanagh and Heaney. In this soil in which revolution and beauty flowered, the roots of the game were watered with poetry and its face set to the sunlight.
Luke Kelly asked, “For what died the sons of Róisín / Was it greed?” It was certainly greed that led AIB and AIG to the GAA, and it was greed when the GAA welcomed them in with open arms. It is absurd that the centralised GAA, having emblazoned Croke Park with the banners of the banking sector, markets itself as a national institution or as a family organisation. The financial class are the architects of ghost estates, the agents of austerity, the “faceless men who for Mark and Dollar” pushed a generation on boats to Australia and hundreds of those left behind to the freezing cold streets. Imagine the hypocrisy of holding a constitution which states that “Each national quality which is lost makes us poorer as a nation” and yet selling off that same institution to the banks and Sky Sports. Imagine reducing the game of the people; of schools, communities, artists and rebels to a corporate lunch. Imagine a child on the northside of Dublin missing a final at Croke Park because some insufferable solicitor from the other side of the country has more friends on a County Board. Now imagine how all this can be changed.
The Newbridge-or-nowhere campaign pierced light through the smokescreen at the apex of the GAA, revealing that real power lies at the base – it need only be taken. The anarcho-syndicalist structure of the GAA places sovereignty with the club. County boards and national committees exist (or should exist) insofar as they facilitate cooperation between clubs. Whether by collective constitutional misinterpretation or by political manipulation, this seems to have been forgotten.
Revolution is not tearing down that which you hate but building that which you love. The language of revolution is not in texts of Marx or Castro or Bolívar. In fact, Oscar Wilde is the greatest of all revolutionaries. He writes:
“You have a wonderful personality. Develop it. Be yourself. Don’t imagine that your perfection lies in accumulating or possessing external things. Your affection is inside of you. If only you could realise that, you would not want to be rich. Ordinary riches can be stolen from a man. Real riches cannot. In the treasury-house of your soul, there are infinitely precious things that may not be taken from you”.
Revolution, then, is to declare Newbridge-or-Nowhere. It is to say that the value of a club is not dictated by its ticket prices. It is to say that the value of a person is not dictated by whether they can afford those prices. It is to prize Pairc na gCúnna over Croke Park. It is community. It is on a summer day to stand atop Binevenagh as golden sunlight showers the green valley below and feel the cool breeze ruffle your hair as the wind tickles the spine of the mountain. It is on an autumn morning to disappear in the woods as the noise of life fades away to the rustling of leaves and the nestling of blackbirds. It is to live for others but to be entirely oneself.
It is for the Wolfhounds to win Ulster. It is to do it not for money or fame but for oneself and one’s community. It is to let imagination run wild – to dream Pairc na gCúnna into a kingdom filled with legends, heroes and sacrifice and for the clubhouse to be a castle so fabulously rich with a glory so infinite and precious that all the money and power of AIG and Rupert Murdoch could never hope to buy it. It is to see the extraordinary in the ordinary.
It is to fear very deeply that one day Jack Deery may trigger global thermonuclear when he goes up for a high ball and comes back down with a North Korean spy plane. It is to petition the United Nations to seek the solution to climate change not in the renewable energy of the sun or the waves, but in the endless energy of Sheagh McLaughlin. It is to consider the lament of Einstein and Newton and DaVinci in Heaven, who mourn that they never saw true genius until they looked down upon Eugene O’Kane. It is to think how foolish Charles Darwin was to say that evolution was a matter of survival of the fittest when he had never even encountered Callum Carten and so couldn’t possibly know the first thing about fitness. It is to theorise that when an immovable object meets an unstoppable force, Manus Quigley emerges with the ball. It is for Pearse Kealey to report that the Parish had to build a graveyard beside the pitch in order to accommodate Ruairi and Oisin Hassan burying so many corner-backs. It was for the under-14 corner-back combination of Conor Eakin and Niall Mallon to collect more scalps than a warring Comanche Chief. It is to take back the GAA. It is to play Kalashnikov football.
It is to say that we are the Vietcong.
It is to say that the revolution is yellow-and-blue.
It is to say upa ‘Hounds.