Sunday 20 August 2017

Colm O'Rourke: Why losing the head never works out

It won't be easy to enforce suspensions as the GAA gets tough with cranky managers

Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald tussles with Tipperary’s Jason Forde at Nowlan Park. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald tussles with Tipperary’s Jason Forde at Nowlan Park. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
Colm O'Rourke

Colm O'Rourke

Is there a new 'get tough' policy with managers this year? Recent evidence with Kieran McGeeney would suggest that the GAA has decided to set out their stall before the championship. The three-month suspension handed down to McGeeney seems to indicate a hardening of attitudes at central level to dissent being dished out to officials.

The case of Davy Fitzgerald is rather different. Only the discipline of the Tipperary players avoided a mass brawl and I'm sure there were plenty of Tipp supporters at the game and watching on television who were secretly hoping that one of their players would accidentally turn him upside down. The GAA has moved a long way from the faction fights of old but a scrap, or even the threat of one, goes down well with the mob - even when they protest otherwise.

The position of McGeeney is a bit different in that his suspension seems to arise from comments he is alleged to have made to linesman Joe McQuillan at an Armagh League match. Armagh failed to get promoted from the third division after being relegated last year so there may be a lot of frustration building with the Armagh manager. He has often displayed complete bafflement with referees in general, but if Armagh are not able to get enough points from seven games it hardly adds up to a conspiracy by referees. Maybe it is because Armagh were not good enough.

McGeeney also likes to have a dig at commentators on the GAA in general, but none in particular. In that way he mirrors a lot of managers who make comments about "so-called experts", but nobody ever names them. If writers like myself name managers or players in a negative way then surely the same should apply in reverse and we should have to deal with criticism. Often people write to me to point out the error of my ways, generally in a mildly critical way, but there are the usual number of brave people who have a lot to say but don't sign their name. That group supply useful paper for starting the fire.

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25 March 2017; Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney during the Allianz Football League Division 3 Round 6 game between Armagh and Antrim at Athletic Grounds in Armagh. Photo by Oliver McVeigh/Sportsfile

Now when Croke Park dish out a suspension to a player the consequences are very clear. They miss the next number of matches, depending on the severity of the punishment. They are not stopped from training or having interaction with the team but there is a question mark over whether or not McGeeney or Fitzgerald are entitled to have any dealings with their squad in training.

Naturally they are not allowed to have a role on the line in games but that is hardly a major setback. In Fitzgerald's case it might be a benefit to both him and his team as it must be a distraction to every team he has managed to see him out of control on the line. There are occasions when every manager gets a bit worked up, and I include myself in that, but if it keeps happening then players will soon get fed up with the sideshow.

Of greater interest is who will police the bans. Most County Board officers will not get involved. They generally are a lot less powerful than county managers and even if they have all the power in theory it is the exact opposite in practice. So the Chairman is not going to put his oar in here as every officer of the board harbours ambitions of being in charge when the big cup arrives, so they are not going to rock the boat. In the Premiership a suspension is treated as exactly that - with the manager having no contact with their team from the time the bus gets to the stadium. They are not even supposed to have communication with whoever is in temporary charge. That is also hard to police. If McGeeney or Fitzgerald were on the phone from the back of the stand then they could argue that they were on to the local takeaway for a slice of pizza and a bag of chips as they were not going to be able to eat with the players after the match. That is an Irish solution to an Irish problem.

Of course there is also the other method and that is to completely ignore the official line. It happens all the time in the GAA. When Dublin won the All-Ireland in 1983 with 12 players, their manager Kevin Heffernan was suspended for going on to the pitch to check if one of his players was dead, half-dead or just taking a rest.

At that time the league resumed in October and Meath were playing Dublin in Navan. The pressure was on to ensure that Heffernan was not going to be allowed on to the pitch. Brian Smyth was Meath Chairman at the time and had played against Heffernan on many big days in Croke Park. In fact, Heffernan was largely responsible for putting the finishing touches to an ageing Meath team who had won the All-Ireland in 1954. In the following year's Leinster final Dublin destroyed Meath and finished the careers of a lot of players.

Anyway, on that day in Navan Smyth found himself in the difficult position of having to ensure that Heffernan did not take his place on the Dublin bench. Smyth decided that he was not going to insult his old adversary by asking him not to sit on the bench along with the Dublin subs. Instead he brought out a chair and offered Heffo a seat which was slightly removed from the rest of the Dubs. Heffo gratefully accepted, the match was played in a ferocious manner and ended in a draw.

Almost 30 years after their paths crossed on the field of play it was a very nice gesture from one legendary player to another.

Those were the pre-yellow card days and, short of murder, there were few sendings off in league matches. Championship games were different, they were refereed a bit more strictly in case there were TV cameras present but the dogs could be let off the leash in the winter. You could also throw the odd 'f**k' at the referee and the linesman heard and saw nothing. Perhaps there was a better sense of humour back then and referees told players to settle down if they had more than ten bad tackles, or if their language was getting totally out of hand.

Yet it would be unfair to think that all referees have lost their wit. Recently I was told of a prominent county player who was continually complaining to the referee in a club match. The cause of his frustration was the same as almost always - he was not playing well and his team were getting beaten.

Eventually he thought he would put his message across to the referee in what he thought was a nice way.

"You're not having one of your better games," he told the referee, who immediately responded: "You're not doing too well yourself."

That man should get the All-Ireland final. He would have no problem dealing with Davy Fitzgerald or Kieran McGeeney on the line.

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