Friday 24 November 2017

A licence to keep pushing your luck

The Diarmuid Connolly incident against Carlow
The Diarmuid Connolly incident against Carlow

Eamonn Sweeney

The attitude of players, managers and fans towards referees has long been a blight on the GAA. Too many referees have been assaulted over the years. The sight of officials being escorted off the field by Gardai while being threatened by a mob has been too familiar a sight. The notion that if a referee gives decisions you don't like he's fair game for all kinds of abuse is too common.

There is much in the culture of Gaelic games for us to be proud of. It has become something of a truism to observe how good it is that fans of both sides can mingle without any need for segregation. But that doesn't make the achievement any less remarkable. The attitude towards match officials, however, remains a black mark against the name of the Association.

That's why it's good to see the GAA begin to take a tough line on this question, as epitomised by the three-month bans imposed on Evan Comerford and Diarmuid Connolly for physical interference with match officials. The problem is that while pretty much everyone would agree that something had to be done, quite a few would prefer if it was done in an abstract rather than a concrete way. They can see why players should be suspended but they'd prefer if these were imaginary players rather than guys who play for a specific team.

This attitude has always bedevilled the Association in its attempts to deal with disciplinary issues. Too many people adopt the 'yes, but' attitude towards the question. Write an article condemning threatening behaviour towards a referee and you'll get correspondence from the fans of the club or county responsible pointing out in an extremely self-righteous fashion that there'd have been no trouble had the official given the right decisions. Respect for a ref, it appears, is conditional on the kind of 100 per cent efficiency nobody demands from a player.

It's also the case that too many people think tough discipline is only acceptable as long as it doesn't affect anyone playing for their team or anyone famous or anyone playing in a big game. Hence the black card rule, a noble attempt to lessen the amount of cynical fouling in football, gets lambasted when refs apply it against big-name players in big matches. All of a sudden we see the hand-wringing craw-thumping go bhfoire dia orainn stuff which is another unlovely GAA speciality. 'To think of that dacent young man and him training all year for his big day in September and him to be sent off in his prime'. It would turn your stomach.

People prone to lamenting the cynicism of the modern game suddenly perform a volte-face and suggest that Gaelic football is entirely played by lovely young fellas who'd never deliberately foul anyone and shouldn't be punished in any way at all. It's the Martin Carney 'nothing malicious in that Ger' attitude taken to the nth degree. It's bollocks and most of the people coming out with it know that it's bollocks.

There's been a similar childish reaction in certain quarters to the Connolly suspension. Not to the Comerford one by the way. Most of the bemoaners wouldn't give a stuff if the Tipperary goalkeeper had got three years. They are, however, much exercised by the idea that a Dublin star might have to serve a long suspension.

Why is this? You can't claim that Connolly has been the victim of injustice. He was caught bang to rights doing something which carries a 12-week suspension. Having done the crime, he should do the time. The excuse that 'it wasn't much of a shove' doesn't hold much water unless you believe that the rulebook is remiss in not permitting an acceptable level of physical player interaction with referees. Perhaps those making this argument believe that the 'manliness' has been taken out of the game and that officials get too much protection these days. Maybe the rule should be changed so that players have to draw blood or knock the official off his feet before a suspension kicks in.

All the stuff about Connolly being the subject of provocation by the opposition is a red herring. It's a red herring so red, it's the red herring all the other red herrings call 'ginger'. If the player had really been driven beyond endurance by the opposition, surely it's one of the opposition he should have been shoving and roaring abuse at while extending a threatening finger in their direction. It's hard to see what the linesman had to do with it.

You even have those who, following an unbelievably tortuous line of reasoning, imply that if the linesman had been more receptive to Connolly's need for protection, the player might not have been put in the bad mood which led to the offence. The shove was the linesman's fault, the referee's fault, the Carlow players' fault, the fault of Darragh ó Sé and Lee Keegan and society in general. The outlandish notion that it might have been Diarmuid Connolly's fault doesn't really seem to have occurred to his defenders.

This perpetual wail from Dublin about the need for Connolly to be protected is an insult to our intelligence. It's also an insult to the player himself, who is portrayed as a kind of simpleton who can't be expected to control himself.

I've given short shrift in this column to Mayo claims that Lee Keegan was black-carded in the All-Ireland semi-final replay as a result of a Dublin conspiracy. Keegan deserved the black card. He, like Connolly in Portlaoise, was caught bang to rights. The referee wasn't influenced by a conspiracy. But that's not the same as saying there wasn't a conspiracy. On that occasion the aim was to encourage acceptance of the idea that Lee Keegan shouldn't be allowed to mark Diarmuid Connolly too tightly.

This time the campaign, I assumed, had two aims. One, to push the notion that Diarmuid Connolly, alone of all forwards, is a special snowflake who should be allowed to play the game without physical interference. And two, to prepare the ground for the latest Dublin attempt to get the player off on a technicality. So I was very surprised by Friday night's news that Connolly would not be appealing.

It is a remarkable fact that the St Vincent's man has been sent off in two All-Ireland semi-finals yet served not a single day of suspension for either offence. It certainly gives the lie to the idea that Connolly is being singled out for unfair treatment. If anything, the opposite is the case. The conspiracy theory abroad last week was that he wouldn't serve this suspension either because Dublin would contrive to get him off in some way. Which is a terrible indictment of how other counties view the people who run Dublin GAA.

I'm very fond of the current Dublin team. I think Jim Gavin's attacking philosophy makes him a model for every other football manager to emulate. I'm a great admirer of Philly McMahon, who I find to be an inspirational figure. Now there's a player who really is unfairly maligned. I also hate all that begrudging stuff about Dublin's success being solely down to demographic and financial advantage.

But that doesn't stop me from thinking that Dublin getting Diarmuid Connolly off a suspension for the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final replay is the most unsporting act in Gaelic games over the last decade. It made a mockery of the GAA's disciplinary system and led to a huge increase in cynicism about the way the Association is run, not least because most people had predicted that Connolly would get off on some pretext or other.

That's exactly what happened and to this day it's very hard to discern the reasoning behind the quashing of the suspension. To the untrained eye it appeared that if you run something through the GAA's unnecessarily convoluted disciplinary structure enough times, some technicality or other will be found. A sporting body has little defence against people who pretend that a suspension should be treated as though it were a matter of criminal law. The DRA shouldn't be there at all: it's merely because a sorry reminder that another unique feature of the Association is a refusal by certain elements to simply accept punishment and get on with things.

Two years ago Diarmuid Connolly escaped suspension because Dublin simply weren't having it. Their behaviour suggested that they believed Dublin to be bigger than the GAA and thus entitled to set their own rules.

At least we have been spared that this time. Afterall, what would the GAA look have looked like if once more the same player escaped suspension?

So while Dublin fans will no doubt feel their team has suffered a major blow with the suspension of Connolly, their county board's refusal to go down the objection route this time around makes it a good week for the GAA. It may even turn out to be a good week for Diarmuid Connolly in the long term. Paul Galvin had been dicing with danger for a while before he suffered a similar suspension back in 2008 after an altercation with a linesman. The suspension may even have cost Kerry that year's All-Ireland. However it was the making of Galvin. A year later he came back, a chastened figure with a much better hold on his temper, and played the football of his life. Kerry won the All-Ireland and Galvin was Footballer of the Year. The lesson had been learned.

There's no reason Connolly can't enjoy a similar renaissance. Three very important months lie ahead of him. They could be the first days of the rest of his footballing life.

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