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Tensions in the Derry air

O N Friday, the GAA community in Ballinderry learned that while Derry v Tyrone is absorbing theatre, there's always scope for more drama. Two days ago, the club received notification of a series of hefty suspensions proposed by Derry's CCC. The suspensions, which result from an investigation into an injury inflicted on James Kielt in a league match between Kilrea and Ballinderry on June 7, will all be appealed.

The outcome of a disciplinary meeting on Thursday night was as follows. James Conway of Ballinderry was suspended for eight weeks for "disruptive conduct" which will see him out of football until August 2. It was proposed that the club secretary Brian Duffin and chairman Camillus Quinn each be suspended for 24 weeks for "non-cooperation" in the investigation. And the club's three adult teams were suspended from all non-championship competition for the remainder of the year, including challenges.

"We are gobsmacked by the severity of the proposed suspensions," said Duffin on Friday evening soon after learning the news. "They have now left 60 guys without football for six months." He said the club would be appealing every one of the proposed suspensions and added that local interest in the Derry match had been overtaken by the events. "I think many of the people in Ballinderry won't go to the match now. I'm one of them. The match I most enjoy watching is Derry v Tyrone. In fact, I might not watch it on television as I am that disgusted."

Ballinderry, home to the reigning senior football champions and 2002 All-Ireland club title winners, is a vital source of players to the county squad. This episode is untimely and distracting for county manager Damian Cassidy who has been faced with disciplinary problems since the start of the championship. The Monaghan match cost him Fergal Doherty and Brian Mullan, while Kielt and Conway are missing because of an incident in a club game of no great importance.

The Kielt incident happened off the ball, wasn't seen by the referee, who didn't have neutral match officials, and there was no video evidence available to help the county board probe. The Derry board then asked the club to cite the player involved. Ballinderry took legal advice on the matter before declining the request. The injury to Kielt occurred shortly before half-time, with initial reports that he had broken his jaw.

When Derry CCC sat down to rule on the case last Thursday night, they had put the deadline for a Ballinderry response back three times, to no avail. "The vibes we are getting are that we are going to get absolutely hammered," one club member admitted a few hours before the news arrived last Friday. The referee's report only referred to an incident, Kielt having a "cut lip" and that he left the field with a blood injury. Later it emerged that he had suffered a hairline fracture, not as serious as first feared. But rumours that he might make a surprise appearance at some point in today's match were yesterday firmly ruled out by his club, who said he was out for four to six weeks.

Because the two involved were Derry players, the controversy attracted considerable attention and the news quickly spread. Kielt is one of Derry's brightest young stars. A 20-year-old dentistry student at Queen's, and the scorer of two stylish points on his senior championship debut against Monaghan, he isn't a man easily knocked about, standing over six feet tall and weighing around 14 stones. He was captain of the Derry minor team in 2007 and in an ironic twist his manager then was James Conway's brother Niall.

Ballinderry believed that naming a player could cause a split within their club. They won the match comfortably. In the first half a row broke out near one of the dug-outs and some players and officials got involved. Ronan McGuckin of Ballinderry was sent off on a straight red card. Ballinderry are appealing his eight-week suspension. Kielt's injury happened a few minutes afterwards and wasn't directly connected.

Two days later, a newspaper published Conway's name and that night Derry had arranged a press night for the Tyrone game. It was decided that Conway should not attend. The chairman of the county board, Seamus McCloy, said the decision not to invite him to any of the Derry training sessions that followed was taken by the county management team.

Derry has a firm record on discipline and at the GAA's annual congress this year McCloy was one of the speakers in favour of the disciplinary reform proposals. A few years ago, Derry's CCC suspended Paddy Bradley, their most valuable player, for three months at a time when many counties were blatantly placing personal interest before the rules.

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Last year they came down heavily on Slaughtneil after their county final defeat by Ballinderry, issuing several lengthy suspensions of up to 96 weeks, although some of these were reduced on appeal.

Unusually for a county chairman, McCloy has been outspoken and unequivocal on the Conway-Kielt matter. After Conway's removal from the county squad, he stated memorably: "Somebody can't just break somebody else's jaw and then expect to come into the dressing room and say, 'right boys, tea and scones for everyone'."

Conway has kept his counsel and some, even with Ballinderry sympathies, feel he should have stepped forward, taken the hit, and saved everyone time and trouble. There was a suggestion that Kielt had said something to him before the incident but this wasn't confirmed. Ballinderry are livid that serious injuries inflicted on their own players went unpunished in the last two years and they feel strongly that justice is not being evenly distributed.

Gavin McGeehan, from the same Derry minor team as Kielt, was taken off the field unconscious, it is alleged, in a league match against The Loup this year and hasn't kicked a ball since, but no disciplinary action was taken.

In other incidents they point to, Michael Bell and Enda Muldoon's brother, Fabian, both had their jaws broken playing for Ballinderry and no one was held to account. "All we are saying is there are serious inconsistencies in the county. There are things that don't get dealt with and suddenly when we are involved we are hammered. We feel we have a very good record (on discipline)," said a club source.

Club football in Derry is extremely competitive and intense and Ballinderry have been one of the most successful of recent times. "I have absolutely no doubt, there would be jealousies there," said the same source. He recalled a photograph in one of the Derry papers last year showing their U16, minor and senior captains after winning their respective championships last year. The headline read: Holy Trinity. "Apparently," he said, "that pissed people off."

Not everyone in Ballinderry is a conspiracy theorist, but they feel they aren't getting a fair hearing. One officer feels that the testy relations between the county board and Ballinderry can be traced back to 1982 when they won the county championship before it was declared null and void. The decision was later reversed and players finally got their medals in 2006. They were Ulster champions when the first call was made, however, and prevented from defending it. Those wounds took a long time to heal.

"We are standing firm, very united," said the Ballinderry officer. "If they feel they can suspend him on the evidence they have, then why do they need evidence from us?" When asked if they were disputing Conway's involvement, he said: "We are not saying anything (on that)."

There were reports that Ballinderry were planning to pull their players off the county panel in protest but those proved false. Kevin McGuckin is the only player from the club starting today but Niall McCusker, the vice-captain, is on the way back after injury and Enda Muldoon is another key player currently recovering fitness. Conway has been on the panel for a few years. In normal circumstances, he'd be pushing hard for a starting place.

"I think it is disgusting that he be taken off the squad before he had been tried; he has been found guilty before he has even been tried," said a member of the Ballinderry club. "The board have not gone through the proper channels in terms of proposing a suspension."

There were claims that Bellaghy, the chairman's club and that of county manager Cassidy, was asked to name a player allegedly involved in an incident with an U16 player earlier this year. No information was forthcoming and no action taken against the club, according to sources in Ballinderry.

But the county chairman, McCloy, dismissed the Ballinderry claims of uneven distribution of justice by saying that they were engaging in "whataboutery" and each case needed to be examined on its own merits.

"All we could do is look at the referee's report and if there's nothing in it you can go back and ask for clarification. It's embarrassing to be honest for Derry and the county team but it's there and you have to deal with it."

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