Tuesday 19 February 2019

Ewan MacKenna: Why are the nasty and spiteful tactics in GAA right now passed off as a skill?

Daniel Flynn of Kildare leaves the field after being sent off by referee Seán Hurson
Daniel Flynn of Kildare leaves the field after being sent off by referee Seán Hurson
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

A not-so-unusual thing happened before the ball was thrown-in at St Conleth's Park on Sunday.

As both Kildare and Galway jostled for some immeasurable but important psychological advantage, as if to say neither would be lying down, Seán Andy Ó Ceallaigh decided to throw a left to the head of Paul Cribbin. Think about that for just a minute, as this is unique to the sport. Simply put, no other game starts with what looked like a strike to the face, and is then met with a shrug of the shoulders.

If that set the tone in terms of Galway's play, it crucially set the tone in terms of the officials' thinking towards it. And rather than making this solely about one county or one refereeing team, expand that out as any side crossing the line do it because they are allowed to cross that line. All of this is endemic of the bile within inter-county football right now, to the point it's cast as a skill.

Galway might be a product of their environment, but to give an insight into that environment let us look closer at them and their product. To boil it down, their rise to becoming a top-three team has coincided with them becoming the nastiest, most spiteful side about. Watch the game again and you'll see they're training in what these days is almost positively referred to as the dark arts.

It quickly became obvious that Peter Cooke's primary purpose was to drag out of the opposition ball-winners with every long kickout; Ó Ceallaigh and Declan Kyne worked in shifts on groping, grappling and grabbing Kevin Feely before the ball was aimed in at him at full-forward; Ruairí Lavelle couldn't kick a ball out later on in the match without a second appearing on the pitch, and this isn't the first time this season either due to Galway's backroom team; during the second half Gareth Bradshaw's go-to involved repeatedly shoving his opponent into the chest and, when he finally got a reaction, he held his face and took off ranting at both the linesman and umpires.

Let us not dress this up as something fanciful, as we all know what it is.

That's not to say they, nationwide, are alone in this or that Kildare were angels, although the home side were far less learned in veiling their aggression, much of which came from provocation. And it's not to say the better team lost as they didn't, helped along by the rightly rated Shane Walsh and the vastly underrated Ian Burke. However this is bigger than one result or some tit-for-tat around who did what, as the greatest incitement to guilt is the hope of sinning with impunity.

Perhaps what summed up Galway's obvious ploy best was the Dan Flynn sending off. Firstly, the red card was correct but that's far from the full story. After 45 minutes he'd had enough of being pulled and dragged and hit from his off-the-ball runs to the point he cracked. His swing didn't properly connect despite Ó Ceallaigh's reaction, but this is a huge problem in the game for it's not about protecting some players, rather about enforcing all the rules. Instead, not only is there a lack of a disincentive around such toxicity, there's an incentive as your opponent will be punished.

In aggressive sports like ice hockey, inciting is a misconduct penalty but in GAA it's a talent. That's because, while the third man is dealt with more harshly, number one and two are dealt with the same. Galway know this and even dual bookings for what they cause is another victory for them. However via their attitude and via the officials' interpretations, they usually come out better still.

For all the annoyance about the actual use of the black card, it was brought in in part to stop such play. Instead though the biggest indictment is around the enforcement as such cynicism isn't just surviving but, as Galway show, it's thriving and without it you are going nowhere fast.

That Flynn dismissal took us back to the bowels of the league and a quote from Monaghan manager Malachy O'Rourke after Fintan Kelly was shown the line for kicking out against Galway, but only after a run was ended by dangerous and un-carded tackles coming in high. "I don’t know, I might see it later on but we thought he was wrestling himself free," he said. "It was the changing of the game. We have to learn from it. But [we are] very disappointed with it. We were going well at that stage. We were well in the game. But as the game went on the boys started to tire."

Sound familiar?

And that's becoming a theme with this Galway and what they are continually rewarded for.

Tyrone when playing them were down to 14 men as early as the 25th minute when Declan McCurry was red carded for reacting to a late and dangerous hit on Connor McAliskey by Eoghan Kerin (below) after he'd kicked a point; Mayo got two reds after a mass brawl when they met in the league, this after previous brawls were instigated and crucially controlled by Galway to the point they ended up with five yellows but also an extra man as they killed that game by making it into rugby; then came that Kelly sending off on a day the Connacht side qualified for the league final; Eoghan O'Gara was sent off in the first Dublin game for an off-the-ball clash with Ó Ceallaigh; Niall Scully in the second Dublin game was the only "normal" sending off of the lot via a second yellow.

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Galway’s Eoghan Kerin celebrates at the final whistle after their victory against Mayo in the Connacht SFC quarter-final. Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Come championship Diarmuid O'Connor was rightly put off for an elbow; Killian Young went early in the first of the Super 8 games for an off-the-ball retaliation incident, either side of Eoin Brannigan grabbing an attacking arm to stop play - something they regularly do – and Cooke jumping on Stephen O'Brien after a mark had been whistled; and now it has happened Flynn.

The common strand throughout almost all of that lot? Galway starting something and benefiting as others finish it. All the while by committing the greater wrong, they are given the upper hand.

Indeed that's nine opposition reds in 12 games this season, as eight times across the year Galway have been given a numerical advantage. What's also interesting is that seven of those sendings off were forwards playing against this defence. That's not to say some weren't deserved, but it is to advantage the instigators and those last two are most synonymous with a worrying issue.

In Young's case the umpires saw and called attention to what was deemed a strike. In Flynn's case it was linesman Joe McQuillan who did the same. But there's a selectivity in what these extra officials report, as if they should only draw attention to what are incorrectly deemed the most serious incidents. In essence they deal with the effect, and never the cause, thus grime is growing.

Of course this isn't new to football, but past precedent doesn't excuse the present. Through the 2000s Tyrone were masters, Kerry for all the admiration about traditional footballing skills did it as well as any to get to the top, and Dublin for all the myth about only being a pure football team were and are no different. From Lee Keegan to Johnny Cooper to Monaghan, there is a praise bafflingly given. In Kerry it's cute-whorism, in Ulster it's street-wise, with Galway it's a mean streak.

Let's tear up such false terminology though, as well as all those other words used to mask the truth like gaining an edge and hardness and manliness. Knowingly breaking the rules to get an advantage is cheating and, while that's bad enough, the underhanded way of the Connacht side reduces the basis of such cheating to the cowardly variety as it's hidden and all to trigger a reaction. Tough football is great, in fact the tougher the better, but this is the exact opposite.

Kevin Walsh (below with Kildare boss Cian O'Neill) knows what tough football is, and it sure isn't what he's sending his team out to do. By his retirement in 2004, his nickname told a story as they called him Resurrection Man. Only 21 he was told by a doctor to consider stopping for his health, come 1998 he was warned he'd likely end up in a wheelchair when older, when tearing his groin clean from his stomach one time it turned ink black, and through it all he soldiered on. These days he's tetchy, but he's smart enough to know what his players are at.

Galway boss Kevin Walsh shakes hands with Cian O’Neill. Photo by Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Back at this start of this year we might have known what was coming when Paddy Tally was added to his coaching ticket. Seen as a guru in all of this, you'll get the resemblance from his work with Tyrone's defence in 2003 and it won't be a surprise that Danny Hughes said of his Down that "we regularly had fights breaking out at training. He wouldn't see that as any harm".

To the naked eye it works as under Walsh alone in the 2016 league they shipped 16 points per game, that dropped to 15 in 2017, but this time in a higher division it was just 12.6. It's the same in summer. In the last two championships they were allowing 16.4 points per game, this campaign that stands at just 13.6 - a goal per game better when that goal would have resulted in a different outcome in three of their five victories. That's a serious improvement, but what is it based on?

Some will correctly be put down to hard work and aggression, organisation and commitment, and there's nothing wrong with any of that. And crucially don't think this is about the populism of having a go at defensive systems for, while they are common, three of the four games at the weekend including Galway's were full of such set-ups and beside that they were oozing a class that just cannot be surpassed. Thus this isn't about some false ruination of football, but improving it.

Yet after a decade of being labelled too nice – a telling phrase that actually translates into playing within the rules – they have upped their game in that regard, becoming hateful and awful. Now it's the turn of Kildare to be seen as too soft because they aren't seen to be cheating enough.

What kind of an attitude is that?

Sadly it's been allowed to become the usual and a necessary ingredient, but does anyone stop and think how problematic it is? The prevailing attitude is bully or be bullied, when it shouldn't be about adapting to cheating but stopping it. All the while the sheer sourness of inter-county football is accepted when it should astonish, and speaking out against it will have you called a bad loser.

The winners like Galway though are far, far worse.

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