Monday 20 January 2020

Comment - Blame the GAA for suspensions, not The Sunday Game

Jack O'Toole

Has there ever been a more powerful television show in Irish sport than The Sunday Game? In what other sport, in what other country, would a highlights show have the power to dictate a team’s fortunes and a player’s availability?

In 2017 alone, the Sunday Game has managed to get Diarmuid Connolly and Stephen Bennett suspended, they turned Pat Spillane into roadkill on national television, and the biggest sports story in the country for a day, and they have somehow asserted themselves as the judicial watchdog in the minds of several managers, selectors and county board members. 

Not bad for a flagship show on a sinking ship, relevancy is relevancy no matter what way you slice it, especially in a challenging and uncertain media climate, but the idea that The Sunday Game is somehow the supreme influencer in all matters GAA is an interesting concept.

Let’s take the five biggest incidents this summer - Diarmuid Connolly’s push on linesman Ciaran Branagan, Stephen Bennett’s pull on Damien Cahalane’s faceguard, Tadhg de Búrca’s interference with the helmet of Harry Kehoe, Adrian Tuohy’s pulling of Patrick Maher’s helmet, and finally, Austin Gleeson’s removal of Luke Meade’s helmet last weekend.

Four helmets pulled, three bans, two players that avoided suspension, one pushed linesman and an avalanche of criticism directed towards The Sunday Game.

We’ll start in order of w̶h̶o̶ ̶t̶h̶r̶e̶w̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶b̶i̶g̶g̶e̶s̶t̶ ̶t̶a̶n̶t̶r̶u̶m̶  what happened first and work our way from there.

Connolly pushed Branagan, Spillane reacted and Gavin stayed silent

During the second-half of Dublin’s 12-point win over Carlow in the Leinster quarter-final, Dublin forward Diarmuid Connolly pushed linesman Ciaran Branagan after a dispute over a line ball that he felt should have been awarded to Dublin.

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He put his hand on Branangan and pointed his finger in his face, and the clip was all over social media and the wider internet moments after the game had finished.

Pat Spillane and Colm O’Rourke assessed the incident on The Sunday Game and both agreed that Connolly could face suspension for his actions.

“This is black or white, this is a very obvious thing,” said Spillane.

“Diarmuid was infuriated that a sideline decision went (against him) and not giving the ball back. The pictures here say it all.

“A picture tells a thousand words, clearly going to Ciaran Brannigan the linesman, clearly putting his hand on the sideline man, which he’s not entitled to do, clearly pushing the linesman which he’s not entitled to do, and clearly, with his finger pointed, threatening the linesman.

“He put his hands on the linesman, he pushed the linesman back and a finger pointed in someone’s face sounds to me like threatening. It’s minor physical interference, it carries a penalty of 12 weeks.”

O’Rourke agreed: ”The rule is very clear. Now it was minor physical interference but Diarmuid Connolly is  a man who lives on the edge.

“He’s had a couple of black cards this year, got one against Monaghan that I thought he shouldn’t have got one in the League final.

“That has nothing to do with that incident last night but he’s a player that gets frustrated easily, he was playing poorly, got involved in a scrape and really could pay a heavy price for it.”

The Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) proposed a 12-week suspension for the altercation with Branagan, which was then upheld by the Central Hearings Committee (CHC) and accepted by Connolly.

The case was dead and buried until Dublin manager Jim Gavin reopened the saga when he refused to do one-on-one television interviews with RTE or Sky Sports for their coverage of the incident.

Gavin claimed that Connolly’s ‘good name’ had been attacked and that The Sunday Game had acted as judge, jury and executioner before the referee’s report had been issued, because you know, fans and pundits alike always withhold their opinions on matters until referee’s reports are published…

A few weeks later and Waterford forward Stephen Bennett received a one game suspension after he was cited by the CCCC for a category III (iv) infraction, specifically ‘behaving in any way which is dangerous to an opponent, including deliberately pulling on or taking hold of a faceguard or any part of an opponent’s helmet (in hurling)’, after referee Barry Kelly missed Bennett’s tug on Cork player Damien Cahalane’s faceguard.

Waterford and Bennett accepted the ban, however, Waterford selector Dan Shanahan questioned whether the player would have been suspended if the incident had not of been shown on The Sunday Game.

"I heard Jim Gavin on the radio talking about the CCCC and I don't know if Stephen would have been penalised if it wasn't highlighted on the Sunday Game to be honest with you,” Shanahan said.

A month later and Waterford were involved in another helmet incident when defender Tadhg de Búrca was sent off for pulling Harry Kehoe’s faceguard during the Deise’s All-Ireland quarter-final win over Wexford.

The Sunday Game’s panel of Liam Sheedy, Cyril Farrell and Anthony Daly were sympathetic towards de Búrca, and there was no real blowback from GAA circles until the Clashmore-Kinsalebeg sweeper lost his appeal to the DRA two days before Waterford’s All-Ireland semi-final with Cork.

However, before that, Galway defender Adrian Tuohy had avoided suspension when the CCCC ruled that he was facing away from Patrick Maher when he made contact with the forward's helmet during the Tribesman’s All-Ireland semi-final win over Tipperary.

The referee took no action against Tuohy, and while neither Micheál Donoghue or the Galway management team took exception with The Sunday Game showing the incident, panelist Brendan Cummins was still forced to defend the show’s analysis.

"If you are from Waterford and you are looking at this game and saying to yourself, 'well, everyone highlighted Tadhg de Burca's incident'," said Cummins.

"Well now the same type of incident happened where there was interference with the helmet. I don't think there was any agenda, certainly from myself, Ger Loughnane or Jackie Tyrrell on the show that night - 'show something there that went wrong so we can get a fella suspended'.

“I think it was only in the midst of fair play that it had come out. During the game itself it had been highlighted, 'Bonner' Maher was jumping up and down about it. We felt it was part of what happened in the game.

"We tried as hurling people to make sure that we did include Tadhg de Burca, to say that I don't think it's fair for Tadhg de Burca to miss out on an All-Ireland semi-final and I don't think it's fair if Adrian Tuohy misses out on an All-Ireland final."

Cummins summarises the situation perfectly in that the panel made a production decision to analyse an incident that they felt was a part of the game, the very essence of their job as pundits.

However, when Hurler of the Year Austin Gleeson pulls off Luke Meade’s helmet during an All-Ireland semi-final, the third Waterford player to be involved with a helmet incident this summer, and the Sunday Game analyse that incident, Waterford’s county board chairman Paddy Joe Ryan takes exception.

“I was very disappointed with the attitude taken by (former) players on RTÉ,” said Ryan.

“We’ve lived this as county board officers for the last 72 hours, because we want Aussie Gleeson for the All-Ireland final.

“The county needs him, the game needs him and the country needs him.

“Being at the game on Sunday, to the ordinary punter, nothing happened but when you start playing things in slow motion, blah, blah, blah, it’s so easy to dig up stuff. That makes it look a bit unreal – and it is unreal.

“There was no serious malice or intent with either Aussie or the Galway player (Adrian Tuohy against Tipperary).

“It’s great that common sense has prevailed.”

Ryan’s Uncle Sam spin aside, former Kilkenny hurler and four-time All-Star Eddie Brennan said that the evidence against Gleeson was conclusive, comments which he was later forced to defend on RTE Radio.

"I 100pc stand over my comments on Sunday night. I was asked a specific question. I was asked to comment on an incident, not about personalities, not about people involved," he told RTé Radio.

"I certainly wasn't arranging any campaign to have any player suspended for an All-Ireland final but I was asked a question and I didn't dance around the issue.

"As a former player who has been in the stand once or twice, I understand the predicament players find themselves in.

"As a person who greatly admires top-quality hurlers, I'm delighted that Austin Gleeson is free to play in the All-Ireland final. My comments were in no way of a personal nature on Sunday night."

Brennan, Cummins and other Sunday Game pundits shouldn’t have to defend their opinions or decisions to analyse incidents  from the likes of Gavin, Shanahan and Ryan.

It’s a highlights show, not a propaganda machine intentionally designed to get players around the country suspended.

Analysts give their opinions on post-game sports shows around the world. Any incident in modern sport is now posted all over social media within moments of it occurring, to ignore this change it is to bury your head in the sand, the issue is with the system and not with those who speak independently of it.

Austin Gleeson escaped suspension because referee James Owens told the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) that he had adjudicated on the incident in which Gleeson removed Meade's helmet, and hence, the CCCC could not act upon it.

Tuohy escaped suspension because the CCCC felt he had no case to answer for. De Burca was suspended after the CCCC, CHC, CAC and DRA all concluded that he was in breach of a category III (iv) infraction.

Bennett suffered the same fate and so did Connolly. The people behind these committees consume the media just like any other Irish citizen, but their inconsistency is the GAA's problem, not The Sunday Game’s.

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