I was a boarding school boy in St Pat’s Armagh. When I was about 13, Fr Fergus Kelly, Dean of Discipline, presided over a solemn ceremony where me and my classmates signed contracts agreeing not to drink alcohol. When we got out of the room, Finbar McGrath, me and a few others tore up the enforced pledges and dropped them into the bin.
At around 9.0 that night, after study, I was called to the dean’s office. A few of the lads came up with me and waited round the corner. I knocked the door. Fr Kelly opened it and I followed him in, feeling sick.
“Do you know why you’re here child?” he said.
He held out the scraps of my pledge in one hand and hit me hard in the face with the other, knocking me to the ground. On my hands and knees, I could see the blood spurting from my nose onto the floor.
“Look what you’ve made me do child,” he said.
I haven’t been a fan of drink bans since.
For a culture of oppression to flourish, isolation and control are essential. Since both of these elements are present in modern senior inter-county squads, it can be easy for coaches to cross the line, unless there is a strong player protection system in place. Yet the GPA, who are specifically entrusted with player welfare by the GAA, are doing nothing to tackle the problem.
After an article I wrote some time ago on this issue, one player, who was suspected of having given me inside information, was targeted for special treatment at county training. He was hit hard and late and subjected to verbal abuse. The following week he was wheeled out to do a press interview where he praised the training and his manager. Like the American hostage in Iraq lauding his captors.
In the wake of that column, several current county footballers contacted me. They described a culture within their county squads of control and fear. As footballers, they are being micro-managed. They described how rehearsal and repetition has made the game joyless. Worse, their lives are being micro-managed. They are constantly tired. They suffer from dreadful boredom. One said that he would feel guilty if he socialised. It was easier not to.
Every one of them talked about the pressure to win and the fact that their real lives were deemed to be irrelevant. In each case, I asked whether they wanted to go public. In each case, they declined. They did not want to appear disloyal or provoke the hostility of team-mates or management.
Servile contracts are rapidly becoming the norm. A month ago, when Clare senior hurlers Davy O’Halloran and Nicky O’Connell were “caught” socialising in the town (not drinking) four days before a National League game, they were deemed by management to have breached their “behaviour contracts”. They were given a three-week punishment. They were denied access to the team changing rooms and forced to tog out elsewhere. They were banned from wearing the panel’s gear to training. They were barred from being involved in matches or travelling to them. They were segregated from their team-mates at training and forced to undergo intensive physical training in a corner of the pitch. They were barred from talking with other team-mates at sessions.
On any objective analysis, this deliberate humiliation of a fellow human being is outrageous, demanding a swift and forceful response. If it happened in a workplace or a school, the culprit would be summarily sacked. Yet, the Clare County Board, underlining the power of the modern manager, turned a blind eye. The GPA announced an “urgent investigation”, then two weeks later announced that they were not launching an investigation. They are, as my father is wont to say, as useless as tits on a goose.
Many commentators, among them Kilkenny legend and RTé pundit Eddie Brennan, have expressed disappointment that Fitzgerald, who revealed a few years ago he was the victim of prolonged bullying as a boy, could be running such an oppressive regime. Yet there is a large body of psychological evidence that people who have themselves been victims can often become trapped in a cycle. In his landmark paper ‘Coaching abuse — the dirty not so little secret in sport’, the eminent American sports psychologist Alan Goldberg defines an “abusive coach” as (amongst other things), “one who regularly uses public embarrassment and humiliation on his/her athletes, demeans his players, is a ‘yeller’, uses intensive training as a punishment, is rigid, over-controlling, defensive and often angry.”
When Davy O’Halloran wrote a letter of complaint and asked that it be read out by the team captain at training, Davy Fitz ripped it up in front of the squad.
When Jim McGuinness met the Donegal squad for the first time in 2011 in Downings, they were bemused when each man was presented with a typed behavioural contract, which had obviously been drafted by a solicitor. The agreement was described as “legally binding” and contained penalty clauses. It was the beginning of a dictatorial masterclass. Players’ phones were collected after team talks on the morning of big games. An atmosphere of paranoia surrounded the squad.
I sneaked into a session once at Letterkenny’s pitch. A local photographer snapped me with his long lens. After that, it was lock-down. In future, the gates would be guarded and no one allowed in. The players received texts at 5.0pm on training days telling them where training was that night. When Kevin Cassidy, a great servant of Donegal football, gave some very innocuous details about the squad to a journalist, he was dropped. There was no mutiny. He got apologetic texts from his embarrassed team-mates. That was the height of it. A few summers ago, Donegal had a training camp in Downings. I happened to call into the local Spar and caught Anthony Thompson and a few of the others filling a bag with sweets, chocolate bars, choc ices. “Does Jimmy know about this?” I asked. “Jesus Joe,” said Thompson. “There’s no women, no drink, no socialising. If we didn’t have chocolate, we’d go mad.”
Just last week, Newstalk’s Colm Parkinson was given a copy of a behaviour contract for a senior inter-county football squad. One of the clauses contains a drink ban. The exception is disturbingly weird. A panel consisting of three players (two of whom are teetotallers) and the manager can decide, upon application, to allow the squad to have a social drink once in the season. There is the usual confidentiality clause. The contract also specifies that football boots must be predominantly black and “a designated player will decide whether boots are acceptable”.
Managers now have unprecedented control over our county players. The foul win-at-all-costs philosophy is prioritised over life experience. And when winning is more important than the needs of the players, the squad can and often does become a breeding ground for controlling and oppressive behaviour.
Looking in from the outside, what is happening in some counties appears bizarre and unwholesome. They are infected islands, where healthy norms have become subverted. So, instead of a mutiny, the remainder of the Clare hurling team, 30 grown men, signed up to a cringeworthy management statement saying everything was great.
Neither the GPA nor craven county boards are going to help, so it is time for players all over Ireland to take back their lives. Have a drink now and again if you feel like it. Go out with your friends. Tell them a bit of crack from training. If the mood takes you, wear green white and gold goddamn boots. If one of your number is singled out, stand with him. Show some real loyalty.
I never regretted ripping up that drink ban. Not even when I was punched to the ground. When I came out of that study and the boys gathered round me, I thought, “Fuck him”, and smiled. Even today, I smile when I think of it. It was a taste of freedom in an oppressive regime. I recommend you do the same.
The greatest, the very greatest, of GAA players seem to epitomise in their personalities something essential about the nature of their counties. Christy Ring's bullish self-confidence and relish for the big stage was quintessentially Cork, Pat Spillane's blend of roguery, flair and charisma pure Kerry. Kevin Heffernan's legend was founded on metropolitan guile and cuteness, it's impossible to imagine him as anything other than a Dub.
RETIRING GAA players generally go quietly into the night but that was never a realistic option for Henry Shefflin. Over recent months he had been repeatedly asked about his intentions. Ballyhale Shamrocks' prolonged interest in the club championship exposed him to further questioning. If he knew then he could not say, aware of the publicity a disclosure would stir. Once the campaign ended, with another All-Ireland medal on March 17, the time was nigh.