Tuesday 25 April 2017

Moral panic over Tiernan McCann has bitter flavour

Tiernan McCann in action against Monaghan’s Karl O’Connell. McCann’s theatrics are being used as a jumping-off point for blackening Tyrone’s name
Tiernan McCann in action against Monaghan’s Karl O’Connell. McCann’s theatrics are being used as a jumping-off point for blackening Tyrone’s name

Eamonn Sweeney

What a great week it's been for the GAA. We can all stop worrying about cheating, cynicism and general foul play in Gaelic football. Because, like the serial killer in the last episode of True Detective, the culprit has been unmasked.

It's all Tyrone's fault. They are a scandal, an outrage and a disgrace. They are...

Sorry, I couldn't keep a straight face any longer. The historian, Thomas Macaulay, once observed that there was "no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality". It's just as well he never saw the Irish public in action. As in many other popular sports, when it comes to outrage we punch well above our weight.

Tiernan McCann was wrong to dive when Darren Hughes ruffled his hair. But, in doing so, he was merely doing something which plenty of other Gaelic footballers have done in the past. His fall may have been spectacular but it was no more spectacular than that of Aidan O'Mahony when pushed lightly in the chest by Donncha O'Connor in the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final.

That dive got O'Connor sent off. That it was a dive was tacitly acknowledged by the GAA when O'Connor's suspension was subsequently rescinded.

The boot was on the other foot in this year's drawn Munster final when Michael Shields went to ground holding his face following an extremely innocuous push to the chest by Paul Geaney. Shields was presumably, like McCann, hoping to land his opponent in hot water with the referee. Instead, Pádraig Hughes was having none of it, the game carried on and few remarks were passed afterwards.

Pádraig Hughes was not codded but Marty Duffy was, though he seemed to be in a good position to see what McCann had done. Had he, like many a ref before him, simply told the player to get up and cop on to himself, the incident would have provoked a few cynical laughs and that would have been that.

But because Duffy reached for the red card McCann finds himself at the centre of a preposterous moral panic. You can't blame the Sligo man. If players are going to try and con referees, there will be times when they succeed. The responsibility lies with the players involved.

But over the past week you'd think Tiernan McCann had committed some really serious offence - like putting a cat into a wheelie bin, or making a sexist joke at a computer conference. In reality, the best reaction to his collapse is ridicule.

The ever-excellent satirical site Waterford Whispers hit the right note when, in a story headlined 'Tyrone player's hair rushed to hospital after violent on-pitch attack', it revealed: "The half-forward's mane was rushed to Dublin's Beaumont Hospital, where it received a cutting edge wash and blow dry, but staff were left distraught as the bounce and vitality had all but deserted the follicles, such was the ferocity of the gentle pat landed by Hughes."

Hughes himself also landed a nice dig when tweeting, alongside a picture of him rubbing his pet puppy: "Playing with Mila's hair this last 20 minutes and she hasn't budged." Well played, that man.

That is how it should be played. There have been reports that the GAA is poised to impose an eight-week ban on McCann. As knee-jerk reactions go, this is a real doozy. Two months for an offence which, within the rules of the game, should be punished by a yellow card? Two months for something which has gone unpunished altogether on many occasions in the past? Because, if Aidan O'Mahony was punished back in 2008, I missed it. I missed the retrospective punishment of Michael Shields, too.

There's also a certain bitter irony about the fact that no suspension at all was imposed after the incident in the recent Dublin-Armagh match which resulted in Dublin defender, Davy Byrne, spending two nights in hospital. The GAA appears to think that McCann's less serious infraction demands draconian punishment.

Why? Well, partly because of the outrage orgy in both mainstream and social media. And partly, I suspect, because McCann is seen as having let the side down by providing incontrovertible evidence that GAA men dive too. The GAA's biggest weakness, or at least its most irritating, is a desire to prove itself morally superior to soccer. Hence the tedious repetition of the line that, while soccer players dive and roll around in an effort to get opponents in trouble, 'You wouldn't get that kind of thing in the GAA'.

Well, you do and you have done for years. Not nearly as often as you do in the Champions League, it's true, but then again this probably has more to do with national culture than the moral superiority of the GAA. Diving is, after all, rare in the League of Ireland too, so much so that local fans are often left open-mouthed by the visits of European teams whose time-wasting antics have all the fascination of artefacts from an entirely different civilisation. If he gets an eight-week suspension Tiernan McCann will essentially be punished for denting the Association's illusions of moral superiority. Which will be very wrong indeed.

What's also wrong is the way that the Killyclogher man's theatrics are being used as a jumping-off point for blackening the name of the Tyrone team as a whole. We've had suggestions that their opponents in the semi-final, Kerry, will somehow be flying the flag for decency in football.

But the reality is that the most cynical performance in an All-Ireland final in recent times was Kerry's tour de force of negativity against Cork in 2009, when the tone was set by Tadhg Kennelly's hit on Nicholas Murphy in the opening seconds, an attack Kennelly's autobiography subsequently revealed was premeditated. The referee on the day, who did not send Kennelly off, was Marty Duffy.

And what of the other semi-finalists? Dublin took a pretty spectacular dump on the spirit of the game in 2007 when taunting Laois in the closing stages of the Leinster final before indulging in some unseemly sledging against Kerry in the All-Ireland semi-final. And Mayo committed a string of cynical fouls when holding on to a narrow lead in the 2012 Connacht final against Sligo, before going on to do the same thing against Dublin in the All-Ireland semi-final of that year.

Yet it wouldn't be right to say that Kerry, Dublin or Mayo football are built on a foundation of cynicism. So why say it about Tyrone - who, when seeing pundits going all the way back to the 2003 All-Ireland final to try and discredit their approach to the game, are entitled to feel themselves the victims of an unsavoury witch-hunt?

It's similarly distasteful to hear a chorus of couch potatoes and middle-aged media men persistently claiming that there's not much wrong with Tyrone players who receive treatment, something which is hardly ever said about other teams. People who aren't playing in a game should be pretty circumspect about belittling the wear and tear involved. Though perhaps if Jose Mourinho is looking for a new physio he should consider the many outstanding Irish candidates who possess the miraculous ability to judge the extent of an injury merely by looking at it from the press box, stands or sofa.

And when you hear Darragh ó Sé on Sky going on and on about Tyrone faking injury, the thought which sprung to my mind at least was that this was vintage sour grapes arising out of Kerry's failures against Tyrone in 2003. And 2005. And 2008. ó Sé, like Ciarán Whelan, who last week called on McCann to apologise, was a great player - but hardly an icon of moral purity on the pitch.

Tyrone seem never to have been forgiven for their success. They won three All-Irelands under Mickey Harte fair and square, but last week's outrage overload seemed like just the latest attempt to deny them the proper credit for those victories. Yet when other teams have played in a similar fashion they have been praised for being 'streetwise' or 'grimly compelling', for 'ratcheting up the physical intensity' or 'playing close to the edge'.

If you want to call this 'whataboutery,' be my guest. Because 'whataboutery' is essential to informed debate. It's also known as putting things in context. In a year's time, last week's rhetoric is going to look as daft as the furore about John Terry and Wayne Bridge back in the day.

It's not looking too clever right now.

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