Saturday 10 December 2016

Rules there to stop hatchet men - so let's use them

Tyrone's treatment of Michael Murphy was a step into the gutter

Eamonn Sweeney

Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30

'What actually betrayed the spirit of the game was the treatment handed out by Justin McMahon to Michael Murphy and the licensing of that treatment by referee Joe McQuillan'
'What actually betrayed the spirit of the game was the treatment handed out by Justin McMahon to Michael Murphy and the licensing of that treatment by referee Joe McQuillan'

Gaelic football was badly let down in Ballybofey this day last week. Not by the defensive tactics of the teams, we still ended up with an exciting match with plenty of positive football in it. Not by the half-time shemozzle which was a storm in a teacup with no real damage done. And not by the 'sledging' as Seán Cavanagh's complaints, coming only a couple of weeks after Tyrone dismissed Tipperary's concerns on this matter in the All-Ireland under 21 final, perhaps have as much to do with disappointment about the result as concern about the fragile mental health of inter-county players.

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What actually betrayed the spirit of the game was the treatment handed out by Justin McMahon to Michael Murphy and the licensing of that treatment by referee Joe McQuillan. From start to finish McMahon passed very little heed on the ball, instead opting to push, drag, pull, jostle, obstruct and generally employ every means possible to prevent the Donegal full-forward from playing the game.

It was impossible to escape the conclusion that not only was McMahon intent on stopping Murphy from getting on the ball but that he was also hoping to provoke the player into retaliation. Yet a weak referee allowed the Tyrone full-back to behave in this manner until finally producing a yellow card in the 62nd minute.

The ironic cheers from the Donegal fans showed that they, like most of the TV audience, couldn't see much difference between the offence for which McMahon was finally pulled up and the way he had behaved for the previous hour. This was the very definition of 'too little, too late'. Was this the WWE? Was this MMA? Was this the WBA? I thought it was the GAA.

Afterwards Rory Gallagher spoke of Murphy being targeted and Jim McGuinness wrote that McMahon's marking was a calculated move on the part of Tyrone. It is impossible to disagree with either of those assessments.

I've been a big admirer of both Tyrone and Mickey Harte in the past and have defended the team from what I've seen as unfair accusations of foul play. (I've got a collection of irate Kerry emails to prove it). However, not just McMahon but the Tyrone team and their manager should hang their heads after what happened on Sunday. It was a step into the gutter.

I couldn't help thinking of the way Lar Corbett was lambasted after the 2012 All-Ireland hurling semi-final for following Tommy Walsh rather than the ball.

The Tipperary corner-forward was treated as a pariah yet there was very little physical contact involved and certainly nothing like the sustained campaign pursued by McMahon against Murphy.

Joe McQuillan had a bad day in Ballybofey but he's not unique in adopting a laissez-faire attitude to this kind of behaviour. There has long been a culture in football of allowing ball-players to be bullied by hatchet men. It's as though the referees think they're adopting a balanced attitude. Player A is entitled to bamboozle Player B with his skill but in return Player B is entitled to slow up Player A by pulling and dragging out of him.

This is not just an Ulster or an inter-county thing. In recent times at club level I've seen Brian Hurley, one of the most exciting forwards in the country, be subjected to the same never-ending stream of provocation and intimidation.

And twice I've seen him snap and be sent off for retaliatory offences which were mild in comparison to the punishment he'd received. He is not the only player to have been trapped in this manner because referees are much quicker to punish the retaliation than what went before it. The puller and dragger's motto might be that old IRA favourite, "You have to be lucky all the time, we only have to be lucky once." In the past Michael Murphy has also been sent off after putting up with enough for one afternoon. That he kept the head this day last week is greatly to his credit.

The ambivalent position taken by referees in situations like this does Gaelic football a huge disservice. In reality, the GAA is not an Equal Opportunities Employer. The hatchet man does not have the same right to practise his trade as the ball-player does to practise his. If a defender doesn't have enough talent to stop his man, that's his hard luck. He shouldn't be allowed to narrow the gap by cynical means. Let him get skinned. Essentially what Justin McMahon did was spend 70 minutes acting out his inferiority complex vis-a-vis Michael Murphy.

In the long run people don't go to games to see this kind of stuff. It's in the interests of the game that Michael Murphy and Brian Hurley and James O'Donoghue and Bernard Brogan and Cillian O'Connor and another dozen super forwards are given a fair chance to display their talents. Not carte blanche, just a fair chance.

Skilful players are entitled to protection from the hatchet men. It doesn't need a rule change. The rules are there. All refs have to do is use them. It might take guts but it'll have to be done.

The good of the game depends on it.

Sunday Indo Sport

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