Joe Brolly is misunderstood. Much of this is his own fault, of course. He wants to be misunderstood. There is an impish streak in Brolly. He finds it extremely hard to resist divilment. We saw it during his playing career, when he blew kisses to the crowd after scoring a goal. We see it now again on the Sunday Game, when puts a match to a stick of dynamite and then pretends to be surprised at the resulting explosion.
Brolly’s attitude is fundamentally different to the other agents provacateurs on the RTÉ Sports payroll. Eamon Dunphy and George Hook are professional irritants. They have made such names as they have by insisting that black is white and holding firm on that belief in the face of facts or evidence.
Dunphy and Hook have to do it because, if they were to lose the punditry gig, it’s not like Google or Facebook would come running to get them to write a few yards of Java or C++. Brolly is different; Brolly is a QC. He doesn’t need the pundit gig. He does it because he likes it. He does it because there’s a part of him that craves the attention. It’s the same part that made him blow the kisses, even when he knew his corner-back was likely to take the gesture the wrong way.
Brolly is different too in his attitude to the game on which expounds. Hook and Dunphy claim to be great lovers of the game, and make much of having seen an exceptional display by a brontosaurus at stand-off half/the hole behind the front two back in old God’s time, and it’s a perpetual disappointment to both men that none of these modern Jessies can fill that brontosaurus’s admittedly enormous boots.
Brolly doesn’t really do that schtick. Brolly talks about football and he knows about football but he keeps it in its context, as only a game. As only one part of the rich tapestry of life. And Brolly’s donation of a kidney to someone he hardly knew last year is proof that Brolly does see the big picture and, in that big picture, surely walks with the angels.
Unfortunately, the big picture is problematic for the Mayo football public. Mayo can only see two things – Sam, and bleak and utter hopelessness. Nothing else. Sam they’ve seen on the telly. Bleak and utter hopelessness they live with every day.
Big picture wise, Brolly is correct. Football is only a game. But equally, Brolly can see the big picture because he was sated during his football career. Some believe the Derry team of the early 1990s should have won more than one All-Ireland but at least they did win that one All-Ireland. Joe knows what it’s like to be an All-Ireland Champion. He has that warmth to temper and add perspective to his views, to help him relax.
Mayo people know no such temperament. All they know is the Fiend. The Fiend that visits every night and whispers “if only he’d sent off McDermott … if only someone had levelled Lacey … if only this fella had done that … if only that fella had done this.” If, if, if.
Martin “Glory” Storey, hero of the Model County, was profiled on Laochra Gael some years ago. In the early ‘nineties, the Wexford hurlers couldn’t win a raffle. They lost sixteen finals in a row, between Leinster and the National League. The National Leagues, if anything, were worse, because it’s not like anybody cares who wins it. But Wexford couldn’t even manage to win a title nobody wanted, reaching a nadir in 1993 when they took Cork to two replays and still couldn’t fall over the line.
Storey was smiling as he reminisced about those finals. But Storey wasn’t smiling because he’d been talking to Joe and reading Kipling and treating triumph and disaster just the same. After those sixteen loses, Storey’s Wexford finally did win Leinster in 1996, and then went onto to win the All-Ireland.
Storey’s smile may have been partly due to bonhomie and good will to all, but your correspondent will bet Grafton Street against a two-bed apartment in Gorey that Storey’s particular smile was fueled by the presence of a little celtic cross in the dresser, on the wall or inside the hip pocket. Just like the one Joe Brolly himself has.
Without that celtic cross, would Storey have been so wry in his reminiscences? Would he have spoken so easily about all those finals? Or would his haunted and hollowed out look be like that one most Mayo men see in the mirror on the fourth Monday in September?
The people of Mayo would like to look on those twin imposters, triumph and disaster, just the same. But they really need to triumph before they can realistically compare it to the disaster they’re all too familiar with, and that hasn’t quite clicked yet. So, if their outlook seems especially gloomy, if they seem particularly irritated by Joe Brolly in a way they shouldn’t, reader, forgive them. They have no other cheek left to turn.