Wednesday, January 05, 2005

So. Farewell Then, Fergal Kelly

An Spailpín heard via text message late last night that Fergal Kelly's time as a member of the Mayo panel has come to an end. And do you know, I feel for the man, even though he's not exactly the greatest midfielder the county has ever seen, and seldom has a man looked so out of his depth in an All-Ireland final before Maughan mercifully pulled him ashore after twenty-five minutes or so.

Players who don't have good games aren't singled out in the media for a butchering, and this is a good thing. It's fair enough in soccer, when the abuse comes with a paycheck, but for amateur players it would be out of the question. But Fergal Kelly's is an interesting case, and it may highlight something very strange that's going on in the Mayo setup, something that the county may pay for in the season ahead.

Ray Silke wrote in the Examiner the day after the All-Ireland Massacre that the journey from being a goalkeeper with a junior club to playing midfield in the All-Ireland Final is a long one, and Silke was right. The question should be asked, and has never been asked, how it came to pass that Kelly was asked to fulfill the role that he did, a role for which he was clearly unsuited. If Kelly had shown any competence as a midfielder he would have been playing in midfield for his club; it is more or less axiomatic that any club names its teams by putting their best men at 8 and 9 first and then worrying about the rest. The fact that Kelly does not play in midfield for his club would suggest that the Mayo Brains Trust of John Maughan, George Golden and Liam McHale saw something in Kelly that had never been seen by all the teachers and club mentors with whom Kelly had contact all during his career, or that the Mayo Brains Trust have serious issues when it comes to addressing who is capable at the highest level and who is not.

No-one but a fool or a rogue would suggest that Fergal Kelly did anything other than to burst his gut trying to win an All-Ireland for home and fatherland. If An Spailpín was to pull the green and red jersey over his distended belly, if his little legs were asked to cover every blade of grass in Croker for the honour of the Yew Trees, he would try his heart out too - until the St John's ambulance ferried him away after five or six minutes. The Mayo mentors have no business asking An Spailpín to do something for which he is congenitally incapable, and neither have they any business asking Fergal Kelly to come out from between the junior goalposts to play on the greatest stage of all, where you meet the likes of John McDermott, Anthony Tohill, Jack O'Shea, Mick O'Connell and the rest, men whom you do not meet in the Mayo Junior Leagues.

Insofar as I can deduce, the reason that Kelly got the nod to start in the All-Ireland was because the Mayo Brains Trust of Maughan, Golden and McHale would sooner start Old Henry Devil in there ahead of David Brady. This begs two questions: firstly, what's so terrible about Brady anyway, and secondly, why couldn't the Brians Trust do a better job of recognising a midfielder rather than asking a junior goalkeeper to do the job?

Brady. David Brady is, by all accounts, a difficult man to love. I've never met the man, I don't know, but I have heard all manner of people taking pops at him (free shots of course - I'm not sure how many would say such things to his face) for what he has done and for what he has failed to do. So let's examine the case via a reductio ad absurdum - let's assume it was David Brady that shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 to start the great war, and it's Brady's fault that, as the song says, a whole generation were butchered and damned at Ypres, Flanders and Paschendalle. This makes Brady a very terrible man indeed but the only thing that damns him as a prospective footballer is that at over one hundred years of age he's might not have seventy minutes in him.

Nothing else matters. Kieran McDonald has his detractors too, all of whom have returned to the long grass and all of whom will emerge in full voice once McDanger has one bad game. Same with Brady - for all the complaints about his ego and attitude, the fact is that Brady turns it on on the pitch. Brady is an all-action midfielder whose return was second only to McDonald's in significance in having the team get to the All-Ireland final in first place. No less significantly, Brady taketh the slap and he giveth the slap, something that was badly lacking in September when Kerry were pushing Mayo around like minors or schoolgirls.

Brady's detractors point to his one bad game against Fermanagh. One bad game that negated his appearance from the bench against Galway in what was and remains a famous victory by a county that don't do comeback victories; Brady's dominance against Séamus O'Neill of Roscommon, where no small amount of slaps were exchanged; or Brady's virtuoso display against Tyrone, the All-Ireland Champions. Nor is his coming off the bench when the replay against Fermanagh was still very much in the balance given to him on the credit side of the ledger. One bad game, a bad reputation - leave him on the bench and be damned to him.

Mayo paid a big price for that. It's not like they were never going to use him; Brady did after all appear, once the misfortunate Kelly had been ripped to shreds by Kerry and Mayo with him; I wonder was it worth it?

The second question is: why Kelly? Supposing that Brady had indeed started a World War, broken up the Beatles and introduced the smoking ban that banned crack from Irish bars for evermore? Why did the Mayo Brains Trust of Maughan, Golden and McHale choose a junior club goalkeeper to play in midfield rather than one of the recognised county midfielders they had in the panel? James Gill? Heaney? Nallen, even, who was only having the season of his life?

Is John Maughan gunshy after his Dermot Flanagan substitution of 1997? If he is, then I'm afraid there's no hope for him. As manager, he must have the courage of his convictions; once doubt enters, it'll only get bigger and bigger until he's utterly incapable of making any decisions at all. And that is worrisome indeed.

The All-Ireland Final of 2004 was a bitterly disappointing end to what had been such a miraculous summer, so disappointing that it inevitably soured memories of what had gone before. But, as he fades slowly into the crowd, spare a thought for Fergal Kelly, who did his best for his county when he was called. And no more can any man do.