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Mick O’Connell’s 'Off The Ball' Interview Was A Beautiful Reminder Of The Inherent Simplicity Of Gaelic Football

Mick O’Connell’s 'Off The Ball' Interview Was A Beautiful Reminder Of The Inherent Simplicity Of Gaelic Football
By Conall Cahill

The Mick O'Connell Off The Ball interview was awkward and brilliant and a reminder that, even today, Gaelic football is a beautifully simple game.

You couldn't help but smile as you listened to the great Mick O'Connell being interviewed by Ger Gilroy and Joe Molloy on Off The Ball last night. And one got the sense that everyone else listening to the show was smiling, too.

Gilroy and Molloy just had to laugh in the end - though one got the sense right throughout the piece that they were thoroughly enjoying O'Connell's "prickly" nature - as their attempts to get O'Connell to elevate his Gaelic football career to anything above a humble past-time failed over and over again.

Surely O'Connell would have some great tales of the training he would have done on Valentia Island, perhaps completed under the guidance of some wise old mentor with a pipe, a beard and an inherent sense of what made the perfect Gaelic footballer? One almost leaned towards the radio, waiting with bated breath for tales of yore to spring forth from the great man.

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Instead, his only coaching came when he "saw the games played by the local teams". In terms of training, it was "running, jumping...a bit of hill climbing and things like that, that was it...kicking a ball against a wall".

O'Connell seemed almost bemused at the notion that Gaelic football is anything more than a game, something to be enjoyed as a recreational break from the rigours of daily life. Nothing more, nothing less. It just so happened that he was particularly good at it.

Listening to O'Connell made me smile because it reminded me of a conversation I had with my grandfather at Christmas time of last year.

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I always knew he had played Gaelic football, first for St Canice's, Dungiven and then for Drumsurn (both in Derry). And I knew that there had been success of some kind, judging by the old team photo proudly positioned in the hall of the family home. Grey, chiselled and serious faces stared out at me every time I paused to inspect it.

A sudden curiosity about this photo led to the quick discovery that it was the 1951 Derry county championship that had been claimed by Dungiven as well as the North Derry league and championship in the same year. The county title had been claimed against Bellaghy, by 4-3 to 1-9. Just as significant was my discovery that my grandfather had - according to my sources - bagged a crucial goal in that final, which was held at Celtic Park.

Upon quizzing him about this goal, I perhaps expected him to break from his ordinarily quiet demeanour and launch into a tale of defender-defying feats and incredible skill, a youthful forward jinking past hapless Bellaghy hardmen before cheekily lobbing the keeper and waving to the adoring crowd. Instead he simply smiled and told me that it was a "scrappy" goal, really. Nothing to boast about.

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But we'd struck upon something, unearthed a memory. Different generations of family heard for the first time tales of a bygone age. Shooing the cows off the field before a championship match. County stars taking a cigarette out of their sock as soon as the half-time whistle went. There wasn't much running on the roads, or training of any description. There was the match at the weekend, a break from a week's work; a chance, perhaps, to meet up with men you wouldn't otherwise see from one end of a year to the next.

Men like Mick O'Connell and my grandfather speak simply of that time. They don't see the need for romanticising, philosophising or mythologising; Gaelic football was what it was, just one part of a life that was often hard and uncompromising.

But even the simplest of words spoken by survivors of that misty time should be cherished, for there will never again be a generation whose experience and perspective of the GAA is so vastly different from that of the modern day Gael. A generation whose recollection is of a game before it all seemed to get so complicated, before weights and tactics boards and sports psychologists.

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A simple game that, at its core, perhaps isn't as different as we might think from the one we love today.

We could certainly do worse than celebrate that simplicity.

SEE ALSO: Mick O'Connell At 80: Letter From Welsh Tourist Captures His Greatness Most Vividly Of All

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