Monday 16 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: Football spared the death penalty

‘I’d like to show you the point Conor McManus got late in the game last Sunday. Look at that, look at the skill there, a particular skill which you wouldn’t find in any other game on the planet’
‘I’d like to show you the point Conor McManus got late in the game last Sunday. Look at that, look at the skill there, a particular skill which you wouldn’t find in any other game on the planet’
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Order. Order in court. Who have we up next, court clerk? A Mister Football, judge. Mister Gaelic Football.

The name sounds familiar. I think he might have been up before me on a few previous occasions. What's the charge?

That Mister Football has committed a serious assault on the aesthetic sensibilities of the Irish sporting public, that he has been extremely boring in a public place, the he has betrayed the great traditions of the GAA and that he isn't as good as he used to be.

The same charges as last time then. I remember him now. How do you plead Mister Football?

I never touched him ref, I never laid a hand on him.

What my client means to say is 'Not Guilty' your honour.

Ah, the defence is here. And the prosecution as well, what have you got to say for yourself?

Your honour, we're viewing this as a very serious case. You can see here I have some footage from the recent match between Galway and Mayo in Castlebar. I apologise in advance for any distress I might cause because of the graphic nature of what's on show. But I think it's necessary to give a proper picture of what Mister Football has been up to. You'll notice here, Judge, in the top half of the picture, that several of the spectators have fallen asleep.

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That seems pretty compelling evidence. Have the defence anything to offer by way of rebuttal?

We do, your honour. This is some footage taken a week later in Omagh where Monaghan are playing Tyrone. I think you can see here that the game is being played at pace, that there is a great deal of skill being displayed and that the crowd are in an undeniable state of excitement. My contention would be that this more properly reflects my client's true nature than the admittedly regrettable material introduced by the prosecution.

The prosecution would like to point out that the Galway-Mayo game is not the only example of this kind of behaviour. We would like to mention the 2016 Ulster and Connacht finals and the 2016 quarter-final between Tyrone and Mayo as other examples of behaviour which make it necessary for the public to be protected from Mister Football.

The defence finds it interesting that the prosecution have gone back two years in this case. Even they will not attempt to deny that last year's All-Ireland final, the two semis between Mayo and Kerry and the Connacht and Leinster finals were highly entertaining. A lot of the evidence against my client is mere hearsay which is not backed up by a forensic examination of what actually happened.

It's the case, is it not, that Mister Football has been in court before on similar charges? I can remember him being in the dock after the 1980, 1983 and 1988 All-Ireland finals.

Precisely, your honour. He'll never change.

Excuse me. I have to point out that after the 1980 Kerry-Roscommon final it was also suggested that Mister Football would never change. Yet two years later the Kerry-Offaly final was an all-time classic. You may remember, your honour, the Doyle v Darby case where you found the defendant not guilty of a push in the back. The Dublin-Galway match was close to being indefensible yet a couple of years later we had a great final between Kerry and Tyrone.

I remember that the Meath-Cork match of the 1988 final was prosecuted for being what was then known as a 'video nasty.'

It was, Judge. Yet three years later the very same group of Meathmen were involved in not just a great final but a magnificent championship. I won't deny that my client has sailed close to the edge in his time but he has always mended his ways. There is an awful lot more good than bad to him.

This may be so. But it is the prosecution's contention that the public have had enough this time. They are sick of seeing him behave like this at weekends.

With respect, that's not true. Football championship gate receipts were up by almost €1.5m last year. The average attendance was 19,049 which was the highest figure since 2008. It's higher than the average for the top soccer divisions in Argentina, Brazil and Holland, the NBA and NHL in America and the Champions Cup in rugby. Speaking of which, I'd like to show you the recent final of that competition between Leinster and Racing.

Objection. Irrelevant.

Just cause, your honour. The match shows that all sports produce boring games from time to time. The difference is that when it happens in rugby or in soccer you don't have a posse of pundits claiming it signifies the death of the game.

I'm minded to agree with you defence. However, I'll disallow the showing of the rugby final because making someone watch it again constitutes cruel and unusual punishment.

Accepted. Can I make the argument that Mister Football isn't getting worse, he's evolving?


Why not?

Because it's bollocks. It's the very worst argument in this case. It is entirely possible for something to evolve into something worse. So I'd warn you to move away from that line of defence.

Judge, the prosecution would like to point out that the All-Ireland hurling championship had an average attendance of over 10,000 more than football. Surely this is a terrible indictment of football. My learned friend Hurling Man is keen to speak on this matter.

The defence accepts that hurling is a more attractive game than Gaelic football, but we submit that this is beside the point. Pretty much everything looks a bit shabby next to hurling. And as regards those crowd figures, Hurling Man wouldn't be half so smug if he had to include the figures for the Christy Ring, Nicky Rackard and Lory Meagher cups. The football championship includes everyone.

On that point, if I may interrupt, surely the football championship has been rendered meaningless by the utter dominance of Dublin?

I object to the phrase 'utter dominance'. The Dubs have won four All-Ireland in five years, three by the narrowest margin. From 2006 to 2015 Kilkenny won eight of the 10 hurling All-Irelands. I don't recall anyone said this invalidated the hurling championship. Dublin's three in a row is the first in 37 years. These things happen. And in any event there is more to a championship than the final destination of the title. We are always being told that La Liga is the greatest football league in the world yet two clubs have divided 13 of the last 14 titles between them.

Ha-ha, you've fallen into my trap. They've done that because they have more money than anyone else. Is it not the case that Mister Football has been recklessly distributing money to the bigger counties so that it is impossible for their smaller neighbours to compete with them?

I'd remind my esteemed opponent that size isn't everything. Monaghan has the fourth smallest population of any county in Ireland. Fermanagh has fewer clubs than anyone else. Yet last weekend they defeated Tyrone and Armagh respectively and they've been punching above their weight for years. If they can do that, we can hardly blame Mister Football for the state of the game in Meath, Derry and Cork.

The defence is painting a very rosy picture of his client but everyone is well aware that Mister Football is no angel.

Your honour, I'll admit that he has been in some trouble of late but he's come under the influence of some dubious characters who seem determined to lead him astray. However, there are some people willing to help him turn over a new leaf, Mister Gavin, Mister McStay, Mister Fitzmaurice, Mister Bonner and a few more, and I believe in the end he'll heed them rather than the others.

What kind of sentence is the prosecution looking for? Given that you think there's no hope for Mister Football, I presume you want the death penalty?

Not at all, your honour. All we want is the ability to keep cribbing non-stop about how terrible he is year after year.

Well, I can't prevent you from doing that. But I also can't make anyone believe you. Have either of you anything to add?

Just one thing, your honour. I'd like to show you the point Conor McManus got late in the game last Sunday. Look at that, look at the skill there, a particular skill which you wouldn't find in any other game on the planet. How can you write Mister Football off as a bad job when he's responsible for moments like this?

I'm inclined to agree. Mister Football, you're free to go. Though I would appreciate if you gave some thought to how you've been conducting yourself of late. You have a lot of friends who've stood by you and spoken up for you and it would be a shame for you to let them down. You still have a lot to offer.

Thanks, your honour. I'll do my best.

The prosecution will appeal against this verdict. At great and numbing length.

The defence regards this decision as a triumph for common sense. Mister Football has always been a handy target but he's contributed an awful lot to the community.

Thanks. Now show me that McManus point again.

Buckley helped change attitudes to women’s sport during a wonderful, astounding career

Early in her inter-county career, Rena Buckley grabbed the headlines in spectacular fashion. She was just 19 when she won the player of the match award for a terrific performance at right half-back as Cork beat Tipperary in the 2006 All-Ireland senior camogie final. Yet the beginning of her career wasn’t typical of Buckley. She didn’t specialise in the spectacular.

Among her team-mates were some remarkably talented individuals, the likes of Valerie Mulcahy, Juliet Murphy, Gemma O’Connor, Anna Geary, Ashling Thompson and Briege Corkery, some of the country’s most high-profile sportswomen. Buckley, who plays camogie with Inniscarra and football with Donoughmore, always cut a more understated figure.

But she may be the player who perfectly epitomised the indomitable spirit which enabled Cork to dominate both ladies football and camogie in the past decade. No matter what happened, the Rebelettes kept going. And Rena Buckley kept going too, until last September when she won her 18th All-Ireland senior medal, a record unequalled by any Gaelic games player of either sex.

Over the years her remarkable diligence and efficiency, which often saw her direct opponents held scoreless and taken off, earned her 10 All Star awards, five in either sport. The first two of her medals arrived in 2005 when Cork were outsiders in both deciders but upset Tipperary in the camogie and Galway in the football.

At the time the camogie championship seemed the more prestigious competition, but that was about to change thanks to the football team which became a by-word for excellence in Irish sport as it won 11 out of 12 All-Irelands.

That Cork side contributed hugely to changing the way in which women’s GAA was covered in this country. Not just their talent but their obvious seriousness of purpose demanded respect. When they won that first All-Ireland in 2005, Valerie Mulcahy was referred to in one national newspaper’s main report as “the bubbly corner-forward”. The generation of Cork stars of whom Rena Buckley was the most durable helped ensure no-one writes about female footballers that way anymore.

That the last two All-Ireland ladies football finals have been the highest attended women’s sporting events in Europe also owes a great deal to Cork. Their dominance was total but not monotonous because they were pushed to the limit so often. Five of their final wins were by a single point and two by two points.

If you were supporting Cork there was massive comfort in seeing Rena Buckley at the heart of things when everything was on the line in the closing stages. In the latter years of Cork’s run she moved to midfield to partner her equally indestructible comrade Briege Corkery. At times the duo seemed to be able to turn the game their team’s way by sheer force of will.

In camogie, Cork had looked almost as invincible when winning four All-Irelands from 2005 to 2009. Yet the first half of the current decade was a fallow time for them as Wexford and Galway took over at the top of the game. The last four years have witnessed a remarkable renaissance with three titles. Buckley was at the heart of this and was a vital steadying presence in the 2015 win over Galway when so many players from the previous year’s team had dropped out that she admitted to being afraid to open any camogie-related text in case it brought news of another defection.

Yet it is last year which may stand as the crowning achievement of her career. Buckley was spectacular once more, a star rather than a supporting actor. She not only won the Player of the Year award but lifted the O’Duffy Cup in Croke Park, becoming the first player to captain All-Ireland senior winning teams in both codes. It couldn’t get much better than that.

And it won’t. Because last week Rena Buckley announced that at the age of 31 she’s calling it a day. It has been a wonderful, astounding career. It was also a career during which the great teams she played on did not get to grace Páirc Uí Chaoimh. If ever a player deserved a monument it’s Rena Buckley. The best would be to let Cork camogie and ladies football teams play in the county ground and emulate Kerry who have put their men’s and women’s Munster football championship games on a double bill in Killarney next Sunday.

As Buckley commented recently, “The girls are no longer put on the back field. And it’s not just in sport, it’s in all walks of life.”

Times have changed for Irish women. By overcoming public indifference, challenging male condescension and providing a generation of girls with wonderful role models, the great Rena Buckley and her remarkable team-mates played their part too.

When Buckley started playing football with Donoughmore she’d cycle the dozen or so miles from Inniscarra, do 16 laps of the pitch before a full training session and then cycle home again. That kind of attitude never left her. As a child she idolised Sonia O’Sullivan. Now she belongs alongside O’Sullivan in not just the Cork, but the Irish sporting pantheon.

Phenomenal woman, that’s her.

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