Sunday 19 November 2017

Alan Brogan: You do what you have to do when the game is on the line

Lee Keegan tries to distract Dean Rock by throwing a GPS unit into his path at the climax of last week’s All-Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile
Lee Keegan tries to distract Dean Rock by throwing a GPS unit into his path at the climax of last week’s All-Ireland final. Photo: Sportsfile

Alan Brogan

In 2011, the Dublin senior football team came together roughly 180 times between gym, field sessions and meetings. If I missed three of those sessions, that was the max. I had made my senior debut in 2002 and toiled for 10 years to achieve my dream of walking up the steps of the Hogan Stand to lift Sam Maguire.

I had made countless sacrifices which my wife, my son, my parents and my friends all had to endure to help me reach this goal. I was just one small part of this team; multiply that by 35 players and 12 backroom staff and that gives you an idea of the number of lives affected by Dublin trying to win a first All-Ireland in 16 years.

We promised each other nothing would stand in our way and this was all that mattered for the nine months we were in it. It was the only way we could bridge the gap, knowing we had made these sacrifices gave us the mental resolve to finally fall across the finishing line against Kerry in September 2011.

We adopted a win-at-all-costs mentality and gamesmanship was going to play a part in achieving that: winding down the clock if needed, disrupting the opposition by any means necessary. It's the same for any county trying to achieve success and anybody looking in from the outside who thinks otherwise is fooling themselves. It doesn't have to be spoken about in the meeting room beforehand, the best players, the successful players, know what to do and when to do it.

The best players play as close to the edge as they can get away with. Don't get me wrong, there is a line that must never be crossed and this is what I would class as cheating. Doping, match-fixing and deliberately injuring an opponent fall into this category. Any of the above brings any sport, not just Gaelic games, into serious disrepute and cannot be tolerated. All are illegal.

Let me give you some examples. The Lance Armstrong doping scandal, Ben Johnson's use of steroids, American skater Tonya Harding and her husband colluding to attack Nancy Kerrigan with the intention of injuring her ahead of the 1994 Olympic Games, Mike Tyson biting off part of Evander Holyfield's ear . . .

But gamesmanship, defined as the use of methods, especially in a sports contest, that are dubious or seemingly improper but not strictly illegal is common practice amongst the most successful Gaelic football teams and it would be difficult to compete without understanding how to push the boundaries that a referee provides.

People on the outside will cast aspersions about players who push these boundaries, but they are not the ones who have put their lives on hold in pursuit of this dream - be it Mayo's first All-Ireland since 1951 or Dublin's first three in-a-row since 1923. They are not the ones who have completed, give or take, 180 sessions in the previous nine months. They are not the ones with the weight of history on their shoulders.

So, people can judge from the outside if they like and everybody is entitled to an opinion, but both sets of players last Sunday adopted a win-at-all-costs mentality. How could you expect anything less? I would be disappointed if that wasn't the case because without that mentality we would not have been served up the enthralling game Dublin and Mayo provided, with Chris Kamara of Sky Sports saying it was better than any soccer match he had ever been too.

The two most high-profile incidents of gamesmanship last Sunday involved Lee Keegan and Cormac Costello.

Let's take the Costello one first. As Dean Rock lined up to take that free, Costello spotted that David Clarke had his kicking tee in place to take the kick-out quickly. Costello picked up his tee and threw it out over the endline. The reason he did this was to slow down the restart and also to disrupt the flow of Clarke's concentration.

I have seen this before. Indeed I have done it myself many times. Any forward worth his salt has done it. Its equivalent is walking across the ball as the goalie is ready to kick it out, again to slow down the kick and let your team get set up. It's not something that would have been discussed in the Dublin dressing room, it's quick thinking by a player to try and help his team get across the line.

It is not the most sporting thing we have ever seen on the field, but at that stage of the biggest game of your life, winning is all that matters. Dublin footballers like Costello have a duty to play the game in the right spirit. They are role models to kids all over the country, but, as Paul Geaney aptly put it last week, "it is kill or be killed".

Clarke retrieved his tee a moment later, but during the delay Dublin had tagged all Mayo players. Costello received a yellow for holding and Ciarán Kilkenny a black for pulling Lee Keegan to the ground. Again, it's kill or be killed and as Vince Lombardi once noted: "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing". Coincidentally or not, Clarke skewed the kick-out over the sideline and with it went Mayo's chance of an equalising score.

Dublin play football the right way. It's the job of the referee and the rulebook to set the boundaries and sometimes, in order to win, you need to play close to the edge. Dublin, like all great teams, know how to do that if required and Costello won't lose a second's sleep over it. I certainly wouldn't expect him too.

The other incident of note was Keegan throwing a GPS tracker towards Rock's feet as he took the free. I must admit it was quite extraordinary when it came to light after the match. Looking at the situation light-heartedly, one can only admire Keegan for his quick thinking and audacity to try something like this in an All-Ireland final.

Taking it more seriously, and Keegan was criticised quite strongly by some last week, put yourself in his shoes. Keegan is in the top five Gaelic footballers in the country, an athlete at the peak of his game and a selfless team player, as we have seen in recent games against Dublin and Tyrone, where he was tasked with nullifying probably the opposition's most influential players in Ciarán Kilkenny and Seán Cavanagh, sacrificing his own game in the process.

Yet here he is on the cusp of losing his fourth All-Ireland final in six years. We know he plays on the edge, we know he will push the opposition and referees right to the edge of what's allowed and sometimes spill over it. That's what makes him who he is; he's not afraid to admit it either as his quote from last year testifies: "I'm not out there to make friends or be a nice guy. Nice guys don't win All-Irelands, unfortunately."

Like Costello throwing the tee away, throwing the GPS at Rock is probably over the boundary of what's acceptable and is gamesmanship of the highest order. But this was an All-Ireland final, Keegan has put his life into this and he certainly hasn't crossed the line between gamesmanship and cheating. If I thought I could give Dublin a chance to win an All-Ireland in the mid-noughties by throwing a GPS unit at the feet of a free-taker I would have done it. Would I dope or fix a match to give Dublin a chance to win the same All-Ireland? No, I wouldn't. There's a line that must not be crossed and inter-county footballers and hurlers know where that line is.

Gamesmanship is part and parcel of elite team sport, it always was and always will be when there is so much at stake. It is the job of the authorities to eliminate what's unacceptable. Players' nature is to push the boundaries looking for any extra inch. I know the character of both men mentioned above and I'd take either on my team any day.

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