Tuesday 24 April 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: Celtic cross difficult to bear

Eamonn Sweeney

There was a certain element of cultural cringe about the ecstatic paeans which greeted the news that Jim McGuinness had secured a couple of days a week as a 'performance consultant' with Celtic. Had the Donegal boss climbed to the top of Mount Errigal, commended his spirit into the arms of the Lord and ascended into Heaven, the coverage probably wouldn't have been quite as hagiographical.

I wish McGuinness the best. He's an admirable character and I've never agreed with the notion that he is a barbarian propelling the game of Gaelic football into the very maws of doom.

Yet the OTT reaction to his Parkhead appointment had less to do with Jim McGuinness than with that part of the GAA psyche which simultaneously worries and fantasises about how the games are perceived abroad. I'll always remember, for example, after the 1999 Leinster football final between Meath and Dublin when then Leinster Council chairman Seamus Aldridge decided during the presentation to tell us that he'd been talking to two Scottish journalists who thought Gaelic football was a great game.

Fair enough. But chances are that if I went to the Scottish FA Cup final and mentioned to SFA chief executive Stewart Regan that I thought it had been a decent match, the man wouldn't feel the need to pass this on to teams and spectators.

It's different with the GAA. The story of the foreigner who thinks our games are superior to his own is an old favourite in the Association. I used to have an Our Games annual from the '60s which contained a story about a Spaniard called Pablo or Carlos or some such who thought that everything about Ireland was crap until he saw the Leinster hurling final. You could even argue that this desire for foreign pats on the head has had a bad effect on our GAA-loving Taoiseach who never seems happier than when revealing that the Germans have the height of time for us.

Who hasn't heard a story about a GAA star who goes for a soccer trial and is told that he's the fittest man they've ever seen and could be a superstar if he wants to be? No dice, says our man and returns home, inviolate in his amateurism. Over the years I've been told that Anthony Tohill could have made it at Manchester United and Michael Donnellan was the star of the show when he did half a season at Galway United. Having actually seen both of these great Gaelic footballers play soccer, I was forced to demur. The fact is that very few players master two sports at the highest level. And if you're a top-class inter-county player you've done plenty to be proud of.

This tendency to seek a spurious soccer-GAA connection is also obvious in the determination, for example, to claim Kevin Doyle as a lost Gaelic footballer even though he never even played underage for Wexford, the reasoning apparently being that a guy with a country accent who puts himself about a bit simply has to be a GAA star manqué.

There's obviously something a bit post-colonial going on here. It reminds me of the sleeve-notes from a great album of O'Carolan's music by Derek Bell, Carolan's Receipt, where the writer retells an old story about the harper outclassing the Italian composer Geminiani in a musical competition before sniffily observing that these days we've gone past that kind of insecure boasting. Have we really? Because it was striking how many people seemed to see the Celtic appointment as putting an imprimatur on McGuinness's career which confirmed him as the outstanding manager of his generation.

Sure, he's a good manager but is he any better than Jack O'Connor, Mickey Harte or Pat Gilroy? Certain circumstances, Dermot Desmond's position as money man at Celtic, the club's Irish and Donegal connections, his qualification in sports psychology, meant the circumstances were propitious for McGuinness to get a start at Parkhead. Whether you think this marks him as first among equals depends on whether you think that the highest accolade a Gaelic football manager can get is the admiration of a soccer club.

Or of foreigners in general. Who among us has not been bored in the pub after the match by something along the lines of, "I was talking to these two Yanks so I was and do you know what they said to me? I can't, listen to me now, believe that those guys are amateur players. Imagine that. Isn't that a good one, hah?"

The GAA's continued insistence on cherishing the unlovely child which is International/Compromise/Queensbury Rules has a lot to do with this desire for international approbation. Gaelic footballers, who've been told all season that they play an awful game which is getting worse every year, are suddenly informed that they're every bit as good as top professional sportsmen because they've got the better of this year's sun-tanned hair-dyed Brads and Blakes.

Rugby, funnily enough, shows its own particular brand of insecurity by tending to overstate its GAA connections, perhaps as part of a need to show us all that it isn't merely a game played by posh lads who've been to boarding school and once had a girlfriend called Ciara. Around the time Croke Park opened up we were deluged by articles about the profound links between the Irish rugby team and the GAA.

And yet none of this stuff matters. Hurling and Gaelic football are wonderful games in their own right. We know that because we watch them and thrill to them every year. The opinion of someone who's taking in a game on their holidays isn't worth a hill of beans really. In the same way, I don't really care that Angela Merkel thinks Enda Kenny is a very good boy, I'm more bothered at what the people marching in the streets against health cuts and bemoaning the destruction of rural communities by unemployment and emigration think of him. They've got some skin in the game.

Predictions that McGuinness will be followed into the world of professional soccer by other inter-county managers are off-beam. Kevin Moran made the transition from Gaelic football to soccer and nobody followed him. The Irish managers and players who enter the professional game will by and large come from the League of Ireland as they always have done. Like Pat Fenlon, whose remarkable achievement in steering Hibernian to the top of the Scottish Premier League went largely unsung as everyone concentrated on Jim McGuinness's new advisory job in the Celtic youth set-up. Jim McGuinness will never manage Celtic but Pat Fenlon might. And the Donegal man who really matters in the world of professional soccer will be Seamie Coleman.

Of course Pat Fenlon wouldn't be able to manage a team to win the All-Ireland. That's not his game, but it is Jim McGuinness's. And that's why I couldn't care less how the Donegal man does with Celtic, the job is so nebulous we probably won't be able to work out how he's doing anyway. So we'll get a few articles where an unattributed source tells us the Bhoys have never seen the likes of Jim for hard work.

But if McGuinness could bring Donegal a second All-Ireland title in a row, then that will be something truly great. And we won't need anyone from Celtic to tell us that.

Headbangers can never be tolerated

It's getting a bit tiresome. Another GAA weekend, some more thuggery off the field of play.

In Ballyhaunis on Saturday, referee Kevin McGeeney was knocked to the ground by a player from Galway club Skehana after they'd lost the Connacht junior club hurling final to Calry St Joseph's from Sligo. And on Sunday in Armagh, St Eunan's joint manager Eamon O'Boyle was left dazed after being pushed over on the sideline during his side's defeat by Crossmaglen Rangers in the Ulster senior club football championship.

We've become so used to this sort of rubbish that the first impulse seems to be to find excuses for the culprits. Hence suggestions that the Connacht Council were to blame for Saturday's assault because "the crowd of less than 300 were allowed to watch it from inside the perimeter fence, and their proximity appeared to have contributed to the flashpoint in which the referee was struck." GAA president Liam O'Neill's quest to remove management teams from the sideline during games was brought up in reference to the attack on O'Boyle.

But these explanations, like a Mayo forward in an All-Ireland final, miss the point completely. It shouldn't matter how close the crowd are to the pitch, the referee should still be safe from them. In any event past experience has shown us that if someone really wants to attack an official they'll manage it no matter what the venue. It wasn't the Connacht Council who attacked Kevin McGeeney.

Similarly, people should be able to patrol the perimeter without attacking each other. If the Crossmaglen man in question was annoyed by the presence of Eamon O'Boyle, he could just have walked around him. Off the field, and on-field, assaults are the responsibility of the perpetrators. 'The Connacht Council made me do it,' is one piss-poor excuse.

The most unwelcome, exasperating and misguided emails I ever get about the column are the ones which seek to justify incidents like the one in Ballyhaunis. The writers usually make two main arguments. One, that if I'd been at the match I'd have seen that the referee was terrible. But that's no excuse at all, even if it's true. The rules of the GAA don't say that you must respect the referee if he gives decisions you agree with but that you can attack him if you're not happy. And two, that the club is 'passionate' about the GAA. At which point I usually despair because defending an attack on a referee on the grounds of passion is a bit like defending a rapist on the grounds that he's really fond of sex. It's no excuse at all.

These correspondents also tend to accuse me of blackening the name of their club which they inform me is full of decent, hard-working people. I'm sure that much about Skehana is admirable in the way of small GAA clubs everywhere. And I know that an incident like this could happen to almost any club. All it needs is a few headbangers. But it's those headbangers who blacken the names of clubs everywhere and until there's zero tolerance shown to them by the GAA, and within their own community, there'll be more unwelcome headlines to come.

Whether attacking a referee after the final whistle is the very worst thing you can do to him is something I hope to write about once the FA reveal their decision on the Mark Clattenburg affair.

Why did you go and do that Joe?


It was one of the great pleasures of my life and now I'm going to have to give up. I wouldn't exactly say I was addicted but I did enjoy it a great deal. Especially at weekends. After a big match in particular. Sometimes I just couldn't get enough of it. And now I'm going to have to give it up.

What fun it was, giving out about Joe Brolly.

It was as much part of the championship as buying dodgy burgers on the way to the ground and complaining that there wasn't much in the programme considering the price of it. But no more.

Because last month the Dungiven man had donated a kidney to Shane Finnegan, who coaches the St Brigid's under 10 team in Belfast along with Brolly and had been waiting six years for a transplant from a live donor. And even though the transplant, heartbreakingly, failed when a clot caused the kidney to stop working after just nine days, Brolly is still in there looking for a new donor for his friend, saying a few days ago, "The clock is ticking and he needs a live donor urgently. He is very weak, he has lost a few stone and is very frail but mentally he is very strong. If someone were interested, they can easily contact me north or south. If someone puts their hand up, the process is excellent, you know it's something well worth doing. I would do it all again tomorrow if I could."

The only conclusion I can reach after Brolly's sacrifice is that he's a bigger, a braver and a better man than me, and I suspect than most of us. And how can you give out about a man like that? I hope someone comes through for Shane Finnegan and that he has better luck with the transplant next time round. If you're a praying man or woman, keep him in mind.

So no more giving out about Joe Brolly.

I hope Spillane doesn't do anything heroic before the championship.


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