Saturday 10 December 2016

Joe Brolly: In the name of winning, everything is now justifiable, including cheating

The philosophy of win at all costs is holding Gaelic football to ransom

Joe Brolly

Published 05/04/2015 | 17:03

Diarmuid Marsden and Philip Jordan
Diarmuid Marsden and Philip Jordan

A few weeks ago, my 14-year-old son Rory was playing for his school team against St Joseph's Crossmaglen.

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From the throw-in, their midfielder took off on a solo run through the middle of the defence. Rory saw his chance and went racing in to nail him. Just as he reached him, the big midfielder off-loaded the ball. A split-second later he was crunched.

As he lay on the turf, winded, the referee raced in and reached into his pocket. My son stretched out his arms imploringly and started the obligatory sorrowful pleading. "Come on ref, I was committed to the shoulder."

"Don't blame me son," said the official, raising the black card, "blame your da."

The black card only became necessary when the win-at-all-costs philosophy took hold of Gaelic football. Up until then, the game was a manly one, played in good faith. It's spirit was preserved by managers and players. It was self-regulating, like hurling. But by 2010, the good faith was evaporating. Footballers were routinely feigning injury, holding their faces and rolling on the ground to get a fellow Gael red carded.

When Tyrone's Philip Jordan defaced the 2003 All-Ireland final in this way, getting Armagh's Diarmaid Marsden sent off, something very precious was lost. Six years later, when Aidan O'Mahony's outrageous play acting got Cork's Donnacha O'Connor sent off at the same venue, we watched the slow mo' in the RTE studio and I wondered aloud if Aidan had been struck by the Invisible Man. We used to laugh at this sort of thing in soccer, secure in the knowledge it would never happen to us. We're not laughing now.

After Tyrone had systematically hauled down Meath's forwards in Croke Park in 2013, I bumped into the Meath players and management in the corridor under the stadium. We chatted for five minutes. They were disgusted and angry. There would be no sharing a drink in the players' lounge and no sporting handshake. It was a vivid illustration of the poisonous effect of the win at all costs ethos, an ethos that fosters hatred and grievance.

In his autobiography, The Gambler, Oisín McConville describes a relationship with some opposing teams that is alien to me. In my era we would have a drink and a laugh together. To this day I am firm friends with players from Tyrone, Donegal and Down, the three teams that haunt my nightmares. Those sorts of friendships are no longer a given.

'It's a results-driven business' became the excuse for each new attack on the ethos of the game. So, when James O'Donoghue or Conor McManus were in a goal scoring position they were dragged down or tripped. The crowd roared their disgust and groaned, but afterwards the opposing manager would stand in front of the nation and tell us it's all about the scoreboard. In this deviant new game, being defensively solid involved systematically pulling men down, tripping them, body-checking them and exhorting the referee to give a card. Instead of challenging this pestilence and calling out the culprits, the GAA hierarchy, the GPA and the county boards said nothing.

The black card had to be introduced, because a small number of out of control managers were screwing with the game.

In the name of winning, everything is now justifiable, including cheating, overtraining, the destruction of club football, and the perverse tactics that are driving supporters away. Add to this a disturbing level of control over the private lives of our players. The black card was a small step, not a panacea. Unchecked by their boards, these all-powerful managers have continued to screw the game without consequence. When a player is black carded, they say he took one for the team.

When Derry intercepted a stray pass from a Kerry defender in Celtic Park recently, Paul Murphy raced back and dragged Mark Lynch down, killing off the goal chance. When he was black carded and walked to the bench, Eamon Fitzmaurice patted Murphy consolingly on the back.

When, for the first time ever, a Derry senior team shamed the Gaels of the county last Saturday night in Croke Park, manager Brian McIvor cut a pathetic figure when he told the press, "I don't like to play this way, but it's a results-driven business." In fairness to Brian, at least he looked ashamed, as he had every right to be. When Brian managed his beloved Ballinderry to an All-Ireland club title in 2001, they played with adventure and honour. I remember being in Ballinderry for the homecoming, when they were piped through the thronged village, revelling in my neighbours' glory. That is a distant memory now.

The game is being held to ransom. Mickey Harte, for example, should be sacked by the Tyrone Board for what he has peddled over the last three years. Brian McIvor should at the very least be brought in by the Derry County Board and warned that what happened last weekend in Croke Park must never be repeated. Even as our home crowds diminish game by game, the Derry board refuses to speak out.

Last year, playing attacking football, we had a fantastic league, including a heart-stopping home win over Dublin and an epic semi-final victory over Mayo. We flopped in the championship but so what? We played with courage and self-respect. We entertained and crucially, we provided good example to the kids in the county. My old friend and team-mate Danny Quinn is underage co-ordinator at the fabled Bellaghy club. On Saturday night he texted me to say, 'We must concentrate on underage football and ensure it is not destroyed too.' It is a huge worry for all Gaels.

In Division 1 last year, every team played adventurous man v man football, giving us a most entertaining league. But Donegal's victory over the Dubs in Croke Park in August opened the gates of the silo and we are suffocating in the slurry. The debate now is centred on rule changes. It is the wrong debate, even if there are some interesting possibilities. The real problem is the dictatorial managers who run their regimes with no regard for the good of the game or the good of the county. County boards must, as a friend of mine put it, "grow a pair of balls".

They must curb the power of managers and ensure there is robust oversight. No point in them sitting at matches, groaning in despair with the supporters at the travesty unfolding before their eyes, when they are the only ones with the power to do something about it. They hired them. They can fire them. In so doing, they will find that they have the gratitude of the players (who hate playing this way) and the supporters (who hate watching it).

In May 2011, just four months into Jim McGuinness's reign, I wrote that he had created "a footballing death star that has the potential to destroy Gaelic football." Four years on, it is doing precisely that. Yet Jimmy did us all one big favour. He proved that winning at all costs is something to be avoided at all costs.

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