Gaelic Football: Ambassador for all Ireland

Joe Brolly can thrill a crowd of 70,000 and is delighted not to be paid for doing so. Harry Mullan met him
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While the Gaelic footballers of Cavan and Kerry clash in front of 70,000 fans in Croke Park, Dublin today for a place in the All-Ireland Final, the man who is arguably the island's finest forward, Derry's Joe Brolly, will be performing on a more modest stage for his club, Dungiven, against Castledawson in the final of the Derry County Championship. By rights he should have been gracing Croke Park. Cavan beat Derry by a single point in an enthralling Ulster final to qualify for the Kerry date, but television replays showed conclusively that one of their points had gone a yard wide. But Derry, with Corinthian sportsmanship, declined to follow established precedent and appeal for a replay. Brolly approves: a protest would, in his phrase, have been "mean-spirited".

He is a complex personality: a Gaelic superstar with the flamboyance and cult status in Ireland enjoyed by the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Gianfranco Zola in the cross-channel game who clings to his sport's amateur tradition as fiercely as any old buffer at Lord's or Twickenham in pre- professional days. The Gaelic Athletic Association is the country's biggest landowner, so wealthy that it was able to spend pounds 44 million without need of a bank loan for a magnificent new stand in Croke Park, and there has been growing pressure for some of that money to be filtered through to the players themselves. Brolly would be one of the main beneficiaries, but he opposes the idea on grounds of practicality as much as principle.

"If you look at the soccer leagues here they are two-bit", he said. "We might play a handful of games a year in front of between 40 and 70,000 people, but you would really need that kind of crowd most weeks to generate a decent income, to make it worthwhile. The lads in soccer leagues are getting a brown envelope with pounds 100 in it every week, and if that's professionalism, forget it.

"The GAA is a very profitable business, but at least the money being generated is used altruistically within the association. Take a look around County Derry at the soccer pitches, and compare them with the Gaelic pitches - state of the art grounds in places that are no more than holes in the road, wee villages where there's only maybe a corner shop and three pubs, and yet their grounds have pavilions and floodlights."

Professionalism, with a transfer market and mercenary players, would be the antithesis of what Brolly sees as the GAA's role in the community. "The secret of the GAA's success is that it's so fervently supported at community level. We had a club match a few weeks ago, Ballinderry against Lavey, and there must have been 8,000 to 10,000 people there. It's hard to think of anything else that has such a solid base in the community. County cricket matches might get a few hundred spectators, but they're a more detached following; people who are interested in cricket, whereas here you don't have to be interested in football - everyone goes to support their parish, their club, their county.

"This will always be a uniquely Irish sport. You are never going to be able to sell Gaelic to the wide world market in the same way you can sell soccer, because there isn't the financial power behind it or the will to sell it. The marketing of soccer is stunning world-wide. Players all over Europe are household names here. The whole thing has a glamour attached to it but isn't necessarily paralleled by what you see on the pitch. Soccer can be terribly dull.

"Do I regret being a star in Gaelic rather than soccer? The money thing wouldn't bother me so much, but the great buzz...? The great incentive to play at this level is the thrill of the crowd, when you are doing well and you have them on the edge of their seats. Look at someone like Ian Wright, expressing himself every week in front of 50 to 60,000, that roar when the ball comes into your area, chin up and chest out and the ball's in the back of the net....that split second in your life when you are way up. That's really what it's all about.

"After the game it's always an anti-climax: It's what happens during the match that counts. I'd like that surge, that living on a higher plane for a wee time every week. It must be very difficult for professional soccer players when they retire, particularly for fellows like that who are at the cutting edge, the scorers, the people who match flamboyant image with flamboyant performance."

Flamboyance is the word most commonly associated with Brolly, whose extravagant skills have brought him one all-Ireland medal (1993) and three National League medals, as well as a 1996 All-Star Award when the players of all 32 counties voted him the country's best right-corner forward. The 28- year-old barrister inherited his extrovert personality from his parents Anne and Francy, who are internationally known folk-singers with a string of albums to their credit, and he has no inhibitions about expressing himself on the field.

When he scored a dazzling goal against Monaghan in the Ulster semi-final, he stood playing air guitar in front of the fans until his team captain Kieran McKeever, the Derry full-back, ran the length of the pitch to remonstrate with him fairly forcibly. It must have been the only time anyone has assaulted a barrister in front of several million witnesses and got away with it, but Brolly remains cheerfully unrepentant.

"Gaelic football is a lot more conservative than soccer in terms of how players should and shouldn't behave. But as I've got older and increasingly satisfied in the spotlight, I've just let it flow. I don't deliberately engineer these histrionics in advance but sometime if the mood of the crowd is right, especially when the game is at a defining moment and you do something that you know has turned it, then it's fun, it's great fun, people enjoy it.

"Gaelic football used to be very dour, people running around baring their teeth, it was all machismo. Now, in general, it's more acceptable for players to demonstrate that they are enjoying the game. I don't suppose I'd enjoy football as much if I were a defender. Up front and scoring is what suits me. It's where I want to be. That's what you play for - to be in Croke Park in front of 70,000.

"People can stick their chest out now about being a Gaelic footballer. Ten years ago it would have been unheard of to have live Gaelic football on Ulster television, but now BBC and UTV are battling furiously for the rights. Gaelic is easy to watch. It's free flowing and robust with a lot of scores, and that's attractive for the punter who is used to watching soccer, where there's maybe one goal in the space of 90 minutes.

"This is not a limited discipline: there are many things going on out in the field which make it attractive to watch. Increasingly all that nasty over the top, punch in the face fouling has been eliminated. It's a lot easier to score now, and more difficult to win by attrition. There is an atmosphere in the game today that doesn't tolerate serious fouling."

The 1993 All-Ireland success, Derry's breakthrough, was expected to be the first of many, but despite consistent league honours, a second championship still eludes them. "I remember as a child when I was playing football in the back garden the All-Ireland was the Holy Grail and winning it was the least likely thing that would ever happen to Derry. This year we had a number of players who just didn't take responsibility, didn't stand up. I love playing football but it's these other 14 bastards on your team that you have to worry about, and that's the charm and the disadvantage of team sport - you are dependent on others."