Danger Here – Frank McNally on military metaphors in football

An Irishman’s Diary

In rugby especially, where the first World War has never ended, “fighting in the trenches” remains crucial. No GAA summer passes without some county developing a “siege mentality”. And even the most modern soccer managers still find it useful to turn back the centuries and “keep their powder dry”. Jurgen Klopp did it as recently as Tuesday.

A Gaelic football match in Cavan 100 years ago this week, however, pursued the logic to extremes. According to the advertisement in the Anglo-Celt (pictured), it was played between two battalions of the IRA’s Northern Division, for the prize of “a Thompson submachine gun”.

Tellingly, the ball was thrown in by Commandant-General Dan Hogan, a Tipperary man who would rise within a few years to become the Free State's Army Chief of Staff.

A brother of Michael, killed at Croke Park on Bloody Sunday and now commemorated by the stand, the other Hogan had moved to Clones for a job with the Great Northern Railway and then became prominently involved in the War of Independence there.

A 1921 picture in Monaghan County Museum shows him sitting in uniform on the front lawn of a local big house, with a machine gun on his lap. I wonder if, as well as throwing the ball in at Ballyjamesduff, he also donated the prize.

Alas, the match report of a week later, May 20th, is disappointingly terse. Under the headline "I.R.A. Match", it tells us only that "'C' Battalion beat 'D' 7 points to 6 at Ballyduff (sic) on Sunday. Comdt McGurran refereed. Small attendance."

By contrast, the May 13th issue which had included the ad also featured a lengthy and colourful dispatch from the Ulster Championship first round game between Monaghan and Antrim, in which the same "D. Hogan" played in goal for the home team.

Odd to say, that report is strikingly devoid of military metaphor, preferring instead to eulogise – for example – Antrim’s “beautiful, well-judged passing game”.

Elsewhere, it also rhapsodies the visitors’ “sound scientific football which drew forth volumes of praise from the spectators”. And yet somehow Monaghan won, 1-4 to 1-3, as Hogan’s “fine saving” defied the Antrim science.

Where the prize machine gun went in the Civil War that started only weeks afterwards is not clear. But Hogan supported the Treaty and so, in general, did the northeast, which was relatively quiet during the conflict.

As a Free State army officer, he soon attracted national attention for his perceived part in another saving incident.

When Senator John Bagwell was kidnapped at Howth in January 1923, Hogan took it personally – Bagwell also being general manager of the GNR – and threatened reprisals against republican prisoners. The hostage escaped within 24 hours, possibly thanks to constructive negligence by his captors.

Six years later, however, Hogan’s meteoric rise was also ended by violence, even if there were no guns involved that time.

In 1929, as chief of staff of the Defence Forces, he had a row with the minister for defence and, it seems, punched him. Army career over, he emigrated to the US. He was last heard of a decade later in Chicago, before disappearing to a fate unknown.

Getting back to military metaphors in football, it was primarily soccer George Orwell had in mind when, in 1947, he complained that sport was "war minus the shooting".

War minus the shooting might have been considered progress then, but Orwell was depressed at the violent passions provoked during a tour of Britain by Russian champions Dynamo Moscow. He did not appreciate the benefits of sublimating warfare into a game where the main weapon is a leather ball.

Like the Antrim GAA team of 1922, Dynamo Moscow played a scientific version of football that shocked their hosts, who still thought of themselves as world leaders in the game.

Although ostensibly between clubs, the climactic fixture became a matter of national honour, pitching Dynamo against what was in fact an all-England selection, masquerading as Arsenal.

Had there not been so much at stake, the game would have been called off due to the weather conditions, which made it largely invisible to spectators and hazardous for everyone involved.

It was played in one of London’s notorious pea-soup fogs, a phenomenon that probably killed more people than the Thompson sub-machine gun. But Dynamo still won 4-3 and, doing so, added to a periodic but long-standing tradition, revived as recently as Monday night, in which Arsenal (aka the “Gunners”) are said to be “firing blanks”.