Southern Italy wasn’t a place you’d expect to find a GAA zealot in the bosom of some of mankind’s darkest years, but that’s exactly where Cavan man Bill Doonan found himself in 1943.
One Sunday afternoon in the middle of September, the young devotee to the national pastime — who worked as a radio operator with the British Army — disappeared without warning. As you’d imagine, this was neither the ideal place nor time to go missing and it would have been justifiable to have feared the worst.
A search party was immediately dispatched and the Irishman was eventually discovered on the bough of a tree where he had managed to pick up a frequency of the All-Ireland football final between Roscommon and Cavan on his radio.
The story has been well-documented and to some GAA aficionados, it is thought of as nothing but a mere legend. But Bill did exist, and he survived both his escapade away from camp, and the war, to tell the tale.
Bill was an entity that is fast becoming a dying breed — the GAA maverick, cult hero or whatever fetching term you want to put on it.
Flashy hairstyles, tattoos and egos have no place in our game anymore — at county level anyway. There is a strict formula to be adhered to in fulfilling the robotic duties of an intercountry player.
Moreover, not only must you submit to your specific role within the lines, verse must be rote-learnt for fear of revealing any idiosyncratic or whimsical traits to the bloodthirsty journalists awaiting off the pitch.
After all, the GAA isn’t about playing true to one’s nature and enjoying the journey. Or should it?
The lone warden of the Doonan-esque essence of being a mad bastard has come in for a fair amount of criticism in recent times for his rollick onto the pitch at Nowlan Park.
Obviously Davy Fitzgerald’s actions this past spring cannot be condoned, but that’s not to say they cannot be appreciated in a world where GAA stars are tongue-tied, blinkered and bridled to the point of short-sighted sameness.
To steal some of Noel Gallagher’s words apropos of his soul-tortured brother Liam, Davy is like a man with a fork in a world of soup.
If the GAA was a bride in a Vera Wang wedding dress, the Wexford manager would be the angry Gremlin in oversized mud-drenched boots standing at her heels with a pair of scissors.
Nobody can accuse Davy of putting up a facade with this behaviour. He is simply expressing himself doing what he loves and when he overstepped the mark, he accepted his punishment.
Above all, he brings a bit of Broadway to the summer and judging by attendances, that may not be such a bad thing.
For years, this writer has bemoaned the continuous quibbling and quarrelling of Jose Mourinho as he hauled his chutzpah around mainland Europe. But the passage of time has bestowed an alternative wisdom upon him.
At the end of the day, sport is entertainment and Jose provides it in spades. Once you’ve been exposed to a summer of post-match ostinato consisting of “it was a great game to win” and “they’re always a tough team to play”, you begin to appreciate personalities speaking impulsively.
Dublin’s Jonny Cooper exemplified the programmed characters players and managers alike have become during RTÉ’s live production of this year’s All-Ireland Championship draw.
“It will be a tough challenge against either Carlow or Wexford,” said the All-Ireland winner looking ahead to Dublin’s first game in the 2017 edition of the championship.
Nobody is asking players to be derogatory towards their opponents but this is nothing short of absurd and patronising.
Wexford failed to win a game in last year’s championship while the former beat only Wicklow before closing the door on their campaign. Both teams spent their springs in Division Four of the league and although the Yellow Bellies gained promotion, to suggest that a possible game against Dublin will be anything resembling “close” is nonsense.
Dublin entered the game as 1/100 favourites.
Of course we can’t blame Cooper for his choice of words as it’s simply an element of the culture which has been cultivated for those involved with intercounty teams.
Unconventional characters probably still exist within the game, but they’ve been packaged within governed and moderated beings who have roles to obey rather than individuality to express.
At present we often have sensationalist punditry on mundane football. If only roles were reversed, the battle for match tickets could become the headache not only at the end of the summer but right throughout.
The efforts made to prevent a cause célèbre are hindering the game in a climate of high competition with other disciplines it hasn’t previously experienced.
Indeed, the danger of overstepping the mark will always be there. But it’s nothing a prolonged appeals process can’t remedy.
As for Doonan, he eventually returned to Ireland before winning back-to-back All-Ireland medals with Cavan in 1947 and 1948 — the famous 1947 decider taking place at the Polo Grounds in New York.
Alongside Doonan, how would the likes of Ciaran McDonald, Johnny Pilkington and Vinny Murphy fare on an inter-county team in today’s game? Would their unique personas too be masked?
Add Diarmuid “Rock” O’Sullivan and a fistful of the 1996 All-Ireland winning Wexford team to that list too.
It’s time to appreciate the eccentricities before the game evolves to such a stage that they can no longer be accommodated.
After all, soup is overrated.