Teams complaining about players being targeted are no strangers to the dark arts themselves
Published 10/08/2016 | 02:30
Jim Gavin, Mickey Harte, Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Seán Cavanagh have, between them, been involved with 13 teams that won All-Ireland senior football titles - a record of achievement that gives their opinions considerable weight.
Whether their views should be taken any more seriously than others because of their successes is a different matter (managers and players from weaker counties are just as well informed) but it's the way of the sporting world everywhere so let's leave it at that.
Instead, can we consider what Gavin, Harte and Cavanagh said after last weekend's quarter-finals and link it with Fitzmaurice's comments following the Dublin-Kerry Allianz League final in April?
All four expressed annoyance over what they perceived to be a failure by match officials to protect certain players. Harte and Gavin were speaking in the context of dismissals on second yellow cards for Diarmuid Connolly and Cavanagh last Saturday.
Fitzmaurice had commented on how Kieran Donaghy was treated in the League final, while Cavanagh outlined his frustrations after being unable to help Tyrone for the final 15 minutes against Mayo in a game which they lost by a point.
Harte: "It seems a shame that a man at this stage of his career, who has given so much to our games, should fall victim to that kind of stuff. This thing that there's always two involved - there isn't. There is always someone starting it and they (officials) need to be more tuned it to who started this thing."
Gavin: "It's a source of disappointment that for a team who plays the way we want to play, we end up with 13 men. We all knew what would happen, that some of our players would receive special attention. That was the case and it's up to officials to act on it."
Fitzmaurice: "There was basically rape and pillage going on inside in front of the goals (Dublin) at the other side in the second half and we didn't get anything. We knew it coming up, we know playing the games that's the way it's going to be."
Cavanagh: "I had brought it to the attention of the linesmen and umpires that any time you were trying to make a run, it was being checked and you were being pulled and dragged."
All four are perfectly correct. Some players, forwards in particular, are being targeted, through a combination of off-the-ball fouling and general niggling. The usual outcome is that after allowing it run for a while, both players are booked, even if one is the instigator.
But it's not quite as simple as it looks. Let's remove Cavanagh - who is still playing - from the discussion and ask this question: do Harte, Gavin and Fitzmaurice expect us to believe that none of their players are up to the very same chicanery they level at opposition?
Mayo manager Stephen Rochford responded to Harte's complaints last Saturday by questioning how one of his young stars was treated.
"Was Diarmuid O'Connor targeted in the first two or three minutes, if anyone wants to go down that line?" said Rochford.
Cavanagh complained of having his off-the-ball runs blocked - which is a black card offence - without any action taken. That has been happening to him for a long time, which must be deeply frustrating, but the same accusation can be levelled against Tyrone - and many others too.
Look back on Donegal v Tyrone in last year's Ulster first-round clash in Ballybofey and watch how often Michael Murphy's off-the-ball runs were checked. Tyrone are by no means the only county to use that tactic against Murphy but before sympathy overloads Donegal's way, they are pretty good at the dark arts themselves.
Therein rests the kernel of the issue. This isn't an example of the angels of good waging war on the forces of evil, because no county has a monopoly or either.
The cases made by Harte, Gavin and Fitzmaurice, all highly successful and articulate characters, sound persuasive but are we expected to swallow the line that their players are always the victims of opposition knavery, while never being guilty of it themselves?
Other managers make the same argument and it, too, sounds equally disingenuous since it ignores the key question: are all my little Johnnies saints being persecuted by cynical types?
Despite that, complaints that deliberate provocation usually goes unpunished are perfectly valid.
What's a player supposed to do when being pulled, jostled and niggled off the ball? Stand with his hands on his hips and try to ignore the jabs to his ribs. Run away?
There isn't a person on earth who won't react to that carry-on, yet when a player does, he is deemed equally guilty with the aggressor, and both are yellow- carded.
There are enough officials to identify who has started the niggling, which should attract an immediate yellow card. Working towards achieving that would be far more constructive for managers than portraying their players as always being the victims and never the sinners.
Of course, it's up to referees and their officials to be more vigilant too, just as it is when it comes to dealing with verbals, which is a black card offence. For some reason, refs don't seem interested, even when it's evident to spectators that it's going on.
After all, it's unlikely that a player screaming into an opponent's face is wishing him 'good luck'!