Ahead of his time – Frank McNally on the day Eamonn Breslin shocked Croke Park
An Irishman’s Diary
You’ve heard of William Webb Ellis, who supposedly picked up a football and ran with it, launching a new sport. Somewhat less famous is Eamonn Breslin, although his radical intervention in a different code is no myth. For the last 55 years of a life that ended earlier this month, aged 80, he was known as the Gaelic footballer who had scored with a header at Croke Park.
It happened in November 1964, in the first round of the National Football League. Dublin were All-Ireland champions, just back from a trip to New York and now trying to earn another one. The “home” league winners of 1964/65 would play a two-leg “away” final in the Big Apple. First, Dublin had to beat Laois.
The game’s only goal came before half-time, after a slick move up the left involving Mick McDonnell and Joe Levins. By some accounts (although not Paddy Downey’s in The Irish Times), the ball was then teed up with a soccer-style cross from Jackie Gilroy, father of later Dublin manager Pat.
But the climax is well documented, in grainy black-and-white pictures, which show Breslin launching himself at the ball from the edge of the square and beating the Laois goalkeeper with a diving header.
Mickey Whelan, another subsequent Dublin manager but a player then, remembers the silence that followed. “People expected it to be disallowed,” he says. But the young referee, Seamus Aldridge, knew there was nothing in the rulebook about headers. “Throwing” and “carrying” the ball over the line were illegal. “Driving” it, with any body part, was not. The goal stood.
Playing behind a leaky defence that day, the Laois keeper had “dealt brilliantly” with a dozen conventional shots to keep the final score close: 1-11 to 0-10. But Breslin’s header was not a calculated ploy to surprise him. Nor was it the instinctive reaction of a man who played a lot of soccer.
Despite growing up in Ballyfermot, where there was plenty of that, he had played only Gaelic, with Inchicore Hibernians and Ballyfermot Gaels. In his post-GAA career, it was rugby he switched to, with Monkstown. The header only happened, Mickey Whelan recalls, because the ball came across at a low angle that made it easier to head than punch. In the wake of what GAA fundamentalists considered an atrocity, there was talk of a rule change to prevent recurrences. The Irish Times recalled a similar furore years earlier about goalkeepers wearing different-coloured jerseys from the rest of their team, something the purists thought “aped soccer”.
A northern delegate to congress, Barney Carr, had quipped then that to avoid all such dangers, the association should “go the whole way and invent a square ball”. In the event, GAA balls had stayed round then and there was to be no new rule about heading either. Somehow, football carried on as before.
Still, and allowing that a fist can always reach higher than a head – a point dramatically illustrated in 1986 by the great Argentinian GAA stalwart, Diego Maradona – it seems remarkable that headers have not been used more often.
During the 1964 debate, somebody recalled a precedent in a club-game in Cork, involving an Army team. Ironically, the Army had not used arms in scoring a goal, only someone’s head. And increasing the irony, the referee had ruled it out for “dangerous play”.
In the years after Breslin’s version, equally, there was at least one notable recurrence. It was in the Ulster minor championship of 1972, when an Antrim player headed past the Derry goalkeeper, only for the referee to disallow that too. Antrim lost – by a goal – and the Sunday Independent called the decision a “boner” (a word that underwent an unfortunate change of meaning subsequently but then just meant “bad mistake”). Maybe there have been other cases too.
In the meantime, it was reader Kevin Farrell, himself a former Inchicore Hibernian, who wrote to me about Breslin, in the light of recent discussion here about how the phrase “head the ball” came to mean “eccentric” or “character”.
One theory was that it must have had GAA origins. If so, it’s odd that the most notorious example of heading in Gaelic football should have happened a few months after the death of the writer who seems to have introduced “head-the-ball” to English literature, Brendan Behan.
In any case, Eamonn Breslin’s innovation did not create a new sport, or even a new version of the old one. If anything, in an era when brain trauma is a big problem in soccer and rugby, memory of his goal may highlight the hitherto unsuspected wisdom of Gaelic footballers in using their heads only as a last resort.