Sport Gaelic Football

Tuesday 22 August 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: There is a malaise in the GAA of everyone taking themselves too seriously

Hold The Back Page

We all need to lighten up a bit when we're talking about football. Photo: Sportsfile
We all need to lighten up a bit when we're talking about football. Photo: Sportsfile

Eamonn Sweeney

The 2017 football championship is beginning to resemble a very long and boring episode of Liveline. Keeping tabs on it is like being the teacher of a peculiarly fractious infant class. "Miss, Miss, they're after taking Diarmuid's character." "And they're subjecting him to trial by television." "James called me a tit." "He started it Miss, he teased Aidan for taking a selfie." "Pat only told on me because he's from Kerry and he hates Dublin." "I'm not talking to him." "He pulled my hair." "This caffeine gel tastes yucky." "Miss, Miss, freedom of expression is one of the rights in the Republic but it's not absolute."

In the words of James Joyce, it would give you a heartburn on your arse. There's an old joke, "Why are rows in academia so bitter?" "Because the rewards are so small." Something similar may explain the mean-spirited nature of the current exchanges. The arguments are so bitter because the world of Gaelic football is so small and so enclosed.

Look at them from outside the GAA bubble and their ludicrous nature is immediately apparent. In years to come there will probably be a pub quiz question along the lines of, "Who said 'freedom of expression is one of the rights in the Republic but it's not absolute' and what were they speaking about?' Was it (a) Abraham Lincoln defending the censorship of the press during the American Civil War; (b) Willy Brandt speaking about the ban on Nazi regalia in West Germany; or (c) Jim Gavin complaining that The Sunday Game had discussed Diarmuid Connolly pushing a linesman."

When the sports-minded members of the team tell the others that it's C, everyone will have a good laugh.

Because the one saving grace of the current controversy is that it is extremely funny. Nothing is funnier than watching someone bursting with self-importance and lacking a sense of humour, self-awareness or a sense of proportion totally losing the run of themselves. That's why Basil Fawlty, Hyacinth Bouquet, David Brent and George Costanza are such immortal comic creations.

These characters raise a laugh because we know there's a bit of them in all of us. We all have a tendency towards self-importance but it's usually checked by the realisation that life seldom agrees with our estimation of ourselves. Things are different for the successful inter-county manager. Coddled by the county board, assured of his genius by admiring fans and journalists and placed in a position of control over a group of much younger men, it's easy for him to become convinced that he is A Very Important Man Indeed.

Only someone convinced that he is A Very Important Man Indeed could have come out with that line about freedom of expression in the Republic. It is magnificent in its irrelevance. It is the sporting equivalent of Basil Fawlty beating his car with the tree branch.

The whole 'this lawyer told me I was in the right so he did but out of the goodness of my heart I let things go' is just as daft. And so is the contribution of Kevin Walsh, who lent his support by saying that RTé shouldn't be analysing controversial incidents until the GAA has finished dealing with them. Think about how that works for a moment. There's a big incident which the entire GAA community is talking about but when the match concerned comes up on The Sunday Game, Des Cahill informs the audience that, "As this has not yet been dealt with by the relevant GAA authorities, we will be offering no opinion until the various disciplinary committees have completed their investigations. Thank you for watching."

That Kevin Walsh, and Paul Grimley who weighed in with similar insights, think this is something which should happen tells us a lot about the sheltered world inhabited by some GAA managers. Do they really think we can go back to an era when, as Breandán ó hEithir wrote in Over The Bar, every time Michael O'Hehir said, 'I can't for the life of me tell what that booing is about', you knew someone was after being felled by an opponent?

One problem with trying to take such arguments seriously is that it's impossible to do so without making yourself look silly too. Hence The Irish Times 'Gavin Lambasts RTé,' headline irresistibly conjures up memories of the fanatical correspondent in Over The Bar who tells ó hEithir, "I am lambasting the enemies of the Gael in style this week."

The use of artificial language is always a give-away that someone is batting on a sticky wicket. Think of politicians going on about 'the substantive issue' or intoning, 'it is what it is and we are where we are.' Who speaks like this? Similarly, all that stuff about pundits, 'taking Connolly's character' sounded like something from a Breach of Promise case in the 1930s. Invoking 'due process' sounds equally archaic when you're talking about a suspended footballer rather than defending someone at a tribunal.

It's a fair bet that no-one debating the Connolly suspension in the real world invoked 'taking of character' and 'due process.' Such language is pretentious because it's bound up with the pretence that on The Sunday Game Very Important Men Indeed are talking about Very Important Things. You could have cut the pomposity with a knife. But you'd have needed a very big knife.

The problem with self-importance is that bitterness often follows in its wake. So we get stuff like Eamonn Fitzmaurice ripping into Sport Ireland for ringing up poor Brendan O'Sullivan to tell him he'd be suspended for years and Christmas only just around the corner. That the phone call never took place as described was beside the point. The self-pitying note had to be struck. We get Bernard Flynn claiming that Aidan O'Shea posing for a few selfies is a devastating indictment of the player's attitude and then throwing his hands up in maidenly outrage going, 'Did you hear what he said about me? Did you ever hear the likes of such language?' because James Horan said he'd 'made a tit of himself.'

Horan could have let Flynn's comment go too. There was a time when GAA people shrugged this kind of thing off. But these days the attitude is that, like a man having a row over a parking space, you can't be seen to back down. Self-importance is at the root of it all. Gavin's Croke Park tantrum merely mirrors Jim McGuinness's insistence that the journalist Declan Bogue leave his victorious All-Ireland final press conference or he would refuse to answer questions. McGuinness's gesture, like Gavin's, was born out of pettiness. But the great advantage of self-importance is that you can convince yourself there are great issues of principle at stake when you're really just indulging in a personal vendetta.

It's a good and a necessary thing to take your job seriously. But it's a terrible thing to take yourself too seriously. JJ Hunsecker, the newspaper columnist played by Burt Lancaster in the 1957 movie Sweet Smell of Success, is one of the great monsters of American cinema, a powerful and manipulative character who brooks no dissent. Then one night his sister's boyfriend stands up to JJ and tells him he and his column are a disgrace.

JJ is furious and he tells his assistant Sidney Falco that he's going to ruin the kid's life, "Do you think this is a personal thing with me? Are you telling me I think of this in terms of personal pique? Don't you see that today, that boy wiped his feet on the choice, on the predilections of 60 million men and women in the greatest country in the world? It wasn't me he criticised. It was my readers."

Of course it is a personal thing with JJ. It's always a personal thing. When I hear a manager saying he's losing the rag on behalf of a player or team morale or that while he doesn't mind the criticism personally it's his family he's thinking about, I think of JJ Hunsecker. I always wonder if JJ knows he's lying.

We all need to lighten up a bit when we're talking about football. There have been few wiser words written than those of Robert Burns, "O would some power the gift give us/to see ourselves as others see us!/It would from many a blunder free us/and foolish notion/What airs in dress and gait would leave us/And even devotion."

Leave the bubble for a moment and imagine what someone on the outside would think looking at this year's GAA sniping matches. Those children, they'd say. Those silly foolish children.

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