Danger Here – Frank McNally on military metaphors in football

Commentary on sport, particularly the different types of football, has long relied on military metaphors. “Big guns” are often involved. So is “air bombardment”. Strikers “shoot home” typically after “midfield generals” find gaps in the “rearguard”.

Especially in rugby, where the First World War never ended, the ‘fighting in the trenches’ remains crucial. Not a GAA summer goes by without a county developing a “siege mentality.” And even the most modern of football managers still find it useful to turn back the centuries and ‘keep their powder dry’. Jürgen Klopp only did it on Tuesday.

However, a Gaelic football match at Cavan 100 years ago this week took the logic to extremes. According to the advert in Anglo-Celt (pictured), two battalions from the IRA’s Northern Division competed for the prize of a ‘Thompson submachine gun’.

Significantly, the ball was thrown in by Commandant-General Dan Hogan, a Tipperary man who would rise to become the Free State Army’s chief of staff within a few years.

The other Hogan, a brother of Michael who was killed in Croke Park on Bloody Sunday and whose memory is now commemorated by the Tribune Service, had moved to Clones for a job on the Great Northern Railway and then became prominently involved in the Revolutionary War there.

A 1921 picture in the Monaghan County Museum shows him in uniform sitting on the front lawn of a local grand house, with a machine gun on his lap. I wonder if he not only threw the ball at Ballyjamesduff but also donated the prize.

Unfortunately, the match report a week later, on May 20th, is disappointingly short. Under the heading ‘IRA match’ it only says that ”C’ Battalion beat ‘D’ 7 to 6 at Ballyduff (sic) on Sunday. Referee was Comdt McGurran. Small attendance.”

In contrast, the May 13 issue that contained the advert also contained a lengthy and colorful message from the Ulster Championship first round match between Monaghan and Antrim, in which the same ‘D. Hogan” played in goal for the home team.

Curiously, this report is conspicuously devoid of military metaphors, preferring instead to praise Antrim’s “beautiful, well-considered passing game,” for example.

Elsewhere he raves about “scientifically based football, which has received a lot of praise from the spectators”. And yet, somehow, Monaghan won 1-4 to 1-3 as Hogan’s “good save” defied Antrim science.

Where the Preis machine gun went in the civil war that began just weeks later is not clear. But Hogan was supportive of the treaty, and so was the Northeast in general, which was relatively quiet during the conflict.

As an officer in the Free State Army, he soon attracted national attention for his alleged involvement in yet another life-saving incident.

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

Six years later, however, Hogan’s meteoric rise was also violently ended, even if no weapons were involved at the time.

In 1929, as Chief of Staff of the Defense Forces, he had a falling out with the Secretary of Defense and apparently hit him. After completing his military career, he emigrated to the USA. He was last heard from a decade later in Chicago before disappearing to an unknown fate.

Returning to football’s military metaphors, George Orwell had football in mind when he lamented in 1947 that sport was “war without shooting”.

The war without the gunfight might have been considered progress at the time, but Orwell was depressed by the violent passions provoked by Russian champions Dynamo Moscow during a tour of Britain. He didn’t appreciate the benefits of sublimating warfare into a game where the main weapon is a leather ball.

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

Although it was ostensibly a club move, the climax game became a matter of national honor as Dynamo faced an all-English side posing as Arsenal.

Had the stakes not been so high, the game would have been abandoned due to weather conditions, making it largely invisible to spectators and dangerous for all involved.

It was set in one of London’s infamous pea soup fogs, a phenomenon that probably killed more people than the Thompson submachine gun. But Dynamo still won 4-3, continuing a periodic but longstanding tradition, only revived on Monday night, of Arsenal (aka the Gunners) reportedly firing ‘blanks’.

Leave a Comment