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Keyboard bullies put boot into young players' prospects

Before this year's Division 2 final, former All-Ireland winning manager Ger Loughnane was brought in to talk to the Clare hurlers. There was an issue that needed tackling.

A friend had shown him the content of an online forum and Loughnane was shocked at the extent of abuse directed at the inter-county players. A lot of younger players were being targeted and as a result their confidence levels were low.

As internet usage is on the rise, the number of online outlets for 'keyboard warriors' is also on the up. And these critics are attacking GAA players in a vicious and personal manner, in some cases forcing players to retire, causing mental health issues and affecting how the team they supposedly support performs.

Just last week two GAA players reacted to online rumours that circulated about them quitting their county teams. One took to the airwaves to set the record straight and the other tweeted in response.

"Apparently I've left panel . . . why do people make up these ridiculous stories #economicdownturn #nothingelsetodo," tweeted the aggrieved player.

A few days after those incidents, Down's John Clarke retired from inter-county football. He spoke of how he grew disillusioned with the barrage of constant criticism from so-called supporters. Last month his side suffered a five-point defeat to Armagh in the Ulster championship and Clarke was subjected to online abuse.

"You get a lot of criticism. You don't mind people criticising you to your face, but you have critics who sit behind computer screens and are on discussion boards, which is cowardly," said Clarke. "Players and managers alike take a lot of abuse on those things. That's not the reason why I'm retiring -- but there is criticism and there's criticism."

Elsewhere recently, an online campaign was launched to try and rid a team of one of its new players who the keyboard warriors believed was not up to the job. From behind their screens they publicly insulted the player and questioned his ability. In a subsequent championship game, the targeted player was the best player on the field for his county yet still the abuse continued.

The examples are numerous. One senior player who is in his 13th inter-county season is gravely concerned about what he described as "cyber bullying."

"It's the young players that are really affected," he said. "They don't even get a chance to prove themselves at senior level before they are abused and written off. It's okay for someone like me, I've developed a thick skin from years of playing but when you are 18 or 19 and you are giving up your life to play for your county, it's very damaging. Every player likes to read about themselves, most players like to hear it straight on some level but I don't think it's good for you to be hearing it that straight. We had a major issue with it in our county. We have a young team who in fairness spend all their time online but it was something we had to tackle."

A talented young player who is being touted as one of his county's stars for the future has already decided to call it a day and the abuse he gets online is in many ways to blame. He is playing in the current championship but as soon as that's over he's calling it quits. He simply, in his own words, "can't handle it". The team psychologist has tried to talk to him about it but it hasn't helped. He does discuss how he feels with his friends but it doesn't resolve anything and the abuse is having a direct result on his confidence both on and off the field.

Although he admits that he should probably just not read the forums, he says that he just can't help it. When you are in front of a computer screen for hours a day or walking around with an iPhone -- like most teenagers -- it's impossible not to stumble across references to yourself. It is a known phenomenon that people cannot resist googling their own name.

"I know that if I saw them in person I'd have no time for them whatsoever but the fact that you can't actually see them and you don't know who is saying it there is always a doubt that maybe he does know what he is talking about and what he is saying is right," the young player admitted.

"I know that there is probably only a community of about 20 people who actually contribute and maybe 10 or 15 of them might criticise me but that gives me the picture that everyone in the county feels that way about me and it affects my confidence."

In 2006, then Kerry captain Declan O'Sullivan suffered similar abuse but in a very public manner. He was substituted in the Munster final replay loss to Cork and was booed off by some of his own fans. He lost his place for the next game and it was widely reported that his confidence was shattered.

Before that incident there had been a lot made of Jack O'Connor's choice of captain and there was plenty of online discussion on whether O'Sullivan was fit for the job and if he was picked for the right reasons. However, he won his place back and led his team to the All-Ireland title.

But it wasn't a smooth ride to the finish. On the morning of that final against Mayo, O'Connor called O'Sullivan to his room at the Dunboyne Castle Hotel. He assured him that club and personal loyalty had nothing to do with him being named on the starting 15 and that it was form alone that earned him his spot. O'Sullivan went out and scored his side's opening goal.

The abuse of inter-county players is widespread. "You only have to ask parents who have kids playing what they have to listen to in the stands but these online forums and social media outlets have taken it to a whole new level," a doctor who has experience of being involved at inter-county level revealed.

"I know some of our players who every Sunday morning before matches or Monday morning after the match are looking at the papers to see what is written about them. It does upset and affect them. And then when you add what's been written on these sites it's just a dangerous level of criticism to be exposed to. It's hard for anyone to take; if these boys were getting paid then you would say something but they are amateurs who are entertaining people."

However, not all inter-county players feel the same. One prominent star feels that he is immune to the abuse. He hasn't read a forum in nearly five years but when it comes to Twitter and Facebook he takes it on the chin.

"If you are on a website or a social media site you are open to getting abused and that's a choice you make. I'm not affected by it at all even though I get hit with lots of negative comments. I think that when you are younger it can have a different effect but now I try to look on it as a bit of crack."

Sunday Indo Sport