No lessons from saga

Colm Begley before the start of the game. Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Round 1, Wicklow v Laois, County Grounds, Aughrim, Co Wicklow. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE
Colm Begley before the start of the game. Leinster GAA Football Senior Championship Round 1, Wicklow v Laois, County Grounds, Aughrim, Co Wicklow. Photo: Matt Browne / SPORTSFILE

A BLUE and white hoodie pulled over his head, Colm Begley made his way across the pitch at Fortress Aughrim (and yes it's in our contract, everybody who writes about GAA has to call it Fortress Aughrim, them's the rules, we don't make 'em, just follow 'em).

From just the still images it was easy to detect (or to infer) that the Laois man was uncomfortable in the postion he found himself in: the centre of attention and not for the reasons a footballer of his stature likes to be.

On the pitch in O'Byrne Park he stood at the epicentre of a debate that's run and run and has plenty to run yet. For one week Begley found himself the poster boy of the club versus county debate.

Begley was dropped for Laois' first game of the Leinster championship after playing a club game during the week before the game by his manager, Kerry man Tomás Ó Flathartá. The decision has made Ó Flathartá a hero to some, a bogeyman to others – Oisín McConville described the decision to drop Begley as disgraceful.

You can view Ó Flathartá's decision to drop his star man as the ultimate demonstration that no one man is bigger than the team or you can view Ó Flathartá's decision as indicative of out of touch inter-county managers with a general disdain or disregard for the club game.

Of course, it's not quite as simple as that. Neither Ó Flathartá nor Begley wanted this to happen. Neither of them would have viewed their actions over the past few days as political statements.

When Begley lined out with Parnells in the first round of the Dublin championship he did so because he felt he had no choice. He didn't want to let his club – who, let's remember, employ him as a games development officer – or his team-mates down.

When Ó Flathartá sat down to pick his team, when he called Begley and told him he was going to drop him for the game with Wicklow, he did so because he felt he had no other choice. He didn't do it because he wanted to teach Begley a lesson or at least we hope he didn't.

The West Kerry man is a clever guy. More than clever enough to realise that just like he had no choice – rules are rules, standards are standards – Begley was similarly constrained. Both men were in invidious positions.

That's what makes this particular case not very instructive about the whole club versus county thing. These were exceptional circumstances. A player of one county whose club championship fixtures were being made by another – without, obviously and we would say quite rightly, any regard whatsoever for that player's inter-county schedule.

What it is, is high profile. What it is, is out of the ordinary and that's the important thing to remember here. Ninety nine times out of a hundred players dutifully follow the instructions of their managers and abstain from club activity.

That's the real story here. It's just a much harder story to tell. A much harder story to get people interested in. Something that's an on-going, facts on the ground, reality well that's just not newsworthy.

Plenty of club players and club chairpersons would beg to differ and, we'd be willing to wager, plenty of inter-county players also. It's the nature of the beast. Players want, not unreasonably, to play.

The restrictions put on inter-county players – particularly those unlikely to start or even to feature off the bench – are very often wholly unreasonable and probably even counter-productive. The benefits to the county team are questionable, same for the players themselves and the clubs? Well the clubs – and their younger players who would really benefit for playing alongside players of higher calibre – are the ones who really suffer.

The whole Begley situation was an interesting little diversion at the start of the championship summer. Just don't be fooled into thinking it revealed anything significant about how county teams goes about their business...

And that is business as usual.


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