Monday 19 February 2018

Casting a light on dark arts is murky business

Eamon O'Hara

ONE MAN'S purveyor of Gaelic football's 'dark arts' is another man's 'cute hoor'.

It all depends on your point of view. In GAA circles, it has long been deemed a 'skill' to pull the wool over the referee's eyes and inflict as much mental and physical damage on your opponent as possible and, crucially, escape censure.

With all the furore surrounding Paul Galvin this week, it got me thinking about some of the best examples of 'cuteness' I've come across during the past couple of decades.

It's not necessarily that things have got any better or worse over the last 20 years, but the trends have changed, or maybe as you get on in your career, opponents decide a different approach is needed to put you off your game.

In Galvin's case, I'm sure opposition teams go out specifically to wind him up and with his reputation, he probably gets more attention in this regard than anyone. It might be a little too simplistic but in this case, a closed mouth would have caught no flies.

Not to condone what happened but if you're going to give it out, you had better be prepared for the consequences.

Of course the ultimate aim is to put a player off his game. Some fellas use the boot or fist, while others prefer to talk in your ear for 70 minutes.

Over the years I have come across pretty much everything from a slap in the family jewels -- much like how Vinnie Jones introduced himself to Gazza -- and been spat at, in the face.

The hair on my legs has been pulled, while another opponent kept yanking at my little finger. The virtue of my mother/girlfriend/ extended family has come under rigorous examination. As a younger man I found it much harder to deal with but some of the stuff nowadays would make you laugh.

Some people are born with an intuitive understanding of the 'dark arts', while others have to learn them. I was in the latter bracket and the day you realise that 70 minutes is time enough for your retaliation, you have cracked it. I generally find you always get one chance to retaliate but if you can do it fairly, it's much more satisfying.

In my championship debut against Mayo, an opponent took an unusual approach of engaging in polite conversation to put me off. Having an experienced and respected footballer asking me how I was and telling me I was doing well for someone playing his first game completely threw me.

I was chatting back and he was catching ball. We were 1-8 to no score down after 20 minutes and I got the bishop's crook. Walking off the pitch that day I knew I had been played -- it's a lesson I never forgot.

Strangely, the challenge-game circuit is a hotbed for what cricketers call 'sledging'. Players are more likely to cross the line when there is relatively little chance of censure compared to championship matches, where cameras track your every move. So much is at stake in championship football that players are generally too focused on their performance to waste energy on 'mouthing' but in challenge matches it is rife.

My 'tan' comes in for plenty of stick and by extension I've picked up plenty of homophobic jibes. Once, an over-zealous opponent tried to stick his finger up my backside. Shortly after that game, we had a video session where we watched some of the match and one of the members of the backroom approached me asking what happened because they had footage of the incident.

In a Railway Cup match, an opponent told me that he had something I never would, obviously referring to his All-Ireland medal. I retorted with whatever smart-ass comment I could come up with at the time -- an exchange that's par for the course really.

Strangely the teasing has changed a little over the course of my career. Opponents are never long reminding you that you're from a county with a lower profile.

After I was awarded an All Star, that eased a bit before people started telling me I was too old and to give it up and that seems to be their preferred modus operandi these days.

The club scene is different again. It's much more incestuous, as your opponents generally know you and your family and on the back of that, it can be cutting. By and large, all of these things should be left on the field. You don't have to like the lads you are playing against, but you should respect them.

So as far as the moral outrage that has raged this week, well, frankly it's all a bit false. These 'dark arts' have always been around and are no better or worse than they were in the early 1990s. Players who give it out have to be able to accept the consequences, whatever they may be, and not run to the referee for protection.

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