Kieran McGeeney: People like to shove down new kids on the block. Trial by social media is a poor way to go.
Mark Sidebottom (BBC): Do players not have to assume responsibility?
KMcG: What happens if someone pushes you, do you push back?
MS: Well, I (interrupted) …
KMcG: What would you do?
MS: That (interrupted) …
KMcG: What would you do?
MS: Well, it depends on (interrupted)
KMcG: What would you do?
KMcG: I’m asking a simple question, it’s a yes or no.
MS: It’s not (interrupted) …
KMcG: If you’re not going to answer my questions why should I answer yours? It’s a very simple question. Would you push them back?
MS: It depends on the lead I’m given by the manager ...
Armagh have form. At least, this Armagh group does, and Mark Sidebottom knows all about it. Kieran McGeeney’s confrontational reaction to his question, like Joe Pesci in the pub scene in Goodfellas, suggests a culture of aggression that is condoned.
What McGeeney should have said was: “What happened out there was unacceptable. Our senior team has a responsibility to the game and to the people of the county. There was a breakdown in discipline and in the standards we expect of ourselves. A number of our players have brought shame on the jersey, and I will be sitting down with them over the coming days to remind them of their responsibilities.”
Instead, it was poor Armagh. How dare the television cameras capture one of our players eye gouging an opponent? Do they not realise the eye gouger has a family? How dare people watch it on TV. How dare they comment on it. When a game is played in front of over 70,000 people and another three quarters of a million watching at home, it is a strictly private matter. The player’s privacy has been invaded. It is “a witch hunt”. The public are going to track the eye gouger down to his home, drag him out, lug him onto a pyre of sticks, tie him to a stake in the middle of them and burn him to death. For God’s sake, think of the little children.
When Rian O’Neill punched Paul Conroy in the face as he jogged past him, my son and I did a double take. I said, “Did you see that?” He said, “What the hell?” Conroy had been standing minding his own business. It was shocking because it was so casual and so out of place.
James Morgan should have been sent off. He tortured Shane Walsh. Right in front of us, he knocked him to the ground. He wrestled with him repeatedly. When Walsh wanted to run upfield, he tried to make circular runs away from Morgan but still got nailed.
Pádraic Joyce was enraged, constantly remonstrating with the linesman. But on it went. The first Armagh red card came from a scandalous, dangerous attempt to confront an opponent. Matthew Tierney left the field with blood streaming from his head. He was lucky he wasn’t more seriously injured.
Not all of the Armagh players were involved in the goading and hitting and over-the-line tackling, but enough of them were to create an unsavoury atmosphere. It is the third time this season an Armagh game has boiled over into an all-out fracas. One melee is unfortunate. Two might be a coincidence. Three suggests a culture.
The excuse was that passions were high. And what do you do if someone pushes you? And, most ludicrous of all, it’s the anti-six counties bias of the media. Tiernan Kelly is said to be “devastated” and I can understand that. But he deliberately chose to eye gouge another person on live TV. It was vicious.
What did he think was going to happen? If he did that on the street and it was captured by CCTV, he could get six months. The worrying thing is that he was prepared to eye gouge, a nasty and malicious action designed only to injure. That said, he is a young man and can only learn from this. In the GAA family, we will protect him, as we always do, but we must also hold him, and the management team that permits this culture, to account. It is lucky he did not do serious damage to Damien Comer’s eyes, and that the Galway man was able to play on in extra time.
Seán Kelly, the Galway captain, was wrongly sent off. He was clearly shocked by the eye gouging. Like the rest of us, he couldn’t compute it. Bewildered, he pursued the Armagh man as if to say, “What the hell are you doing?” as Tiernan Kelly repeatedly, defiantly, hit him in the chest. In his actions and words, Seán was respresenting the entire GAA family.
In 2014, when Armagh’s assistant coach Ciarán McKeever was captain of Armagh, he initiated a mass brawl against Cavan before the pre-match parade in an Ulster quarter-final.
The Belfast Telegraph described the scene as follows: “The fracas occurred when the Armagh team stood directly behind the Cavan flag for the pre-match parade, resulting in a flare-up with punches thrown right in front of the St Michael’s Scout Band. All manner of hell broke loose with both teams collapsing in a writhing heap on the floor. After the situation calmed, Cavan took their place behind their flag again, only for McKeever to walk across the line and stand in front of Cavan captain Alan Clarke. Armagh manager Paul Grimley acted as peacemaker, instructing McKeever to stand in the correct line.”
In the course of the melee, Cavan’s Martin Dunne, who had scored 0-8 against Armagh in the previous year’s championship, sustained multiple fractures that forced him out of the game before the throw-in.
In 2015, Kieran McGeeney brought his Armagh team to DCU for a behind-closed-doors challenge match with Dublin. Shortly after throw-in there was a mass brawl. Dublin’s Davy Byrne (Ballymun Kickhams) was struck off the ball and sustained a facial fracture that required surgery the following day. He was hospitalised for three days.
David Hickey, the eminent transplant surgeon and Dublin team doctor at the time, recounted the episode to me last week: “Davy’s man, who by the way behaved disgracefully last weekend against Galway, pulled his shirt over his head that evening and pummelled him very badly. That attack on Davy was the worst assault I ever saw in Gaelic football. The mass brawl felt like a contrived plan by Armagh, let’s see what this Dublin team are made of. I told Jim Gavin to get our boys off the field and send Armagh home. What happened afterwards was a typical GAA conspiracy of silence. It was shameful.”
So shameful that the Ard Stiúrthóir at the time, Páraic Duffy, wrote in his annual report about the incident, bemoaning the refusal of anyone to co-operate with the investigation. “Group solidarity is one thing, but a code of silence that condones violence is quite another.” He went on to say that “the cover-up has damaged the GAA’s reputation” and that “the misguided loyalty that protects players who engage in violent behaviour on the pitch can only by seen, by those concerned with the good of the game, as a failure of leadership.”
The following January, Armagh hosted Cavan in the first round of the McKenna Cup. In another very unsavoury affair, five players were sent off, three from Cavan and two from Armagh. McKeever was photographed by Sportsfile’s Stephen McCarthy in another unsavoury incident with Cavan’s Niall Murray.
The GAA contract was badly broken by Armagh in Croke Park last Sunday. We do not set out to deliberately injure an opponent. We do not carry out a premeditated assault on an opponent. We do not goad and act maliciously. We are a worldwide family. We look after and respect each other. We travel the same road. What happened last Sunday was corrosive and depressing and the group must be held to account. It has been glossed over for several years and here we are again. Another trial by media. Another witch hunt. Another case of handbags when passions were high.
I remember Oisín McConville saying once his Armagh team never forgave Tyrone for the sending off of Diarmuid Marsden in the 2003 All-Ireland final. Philip Jordan feigned injury, Marsden was wrongly sent off and some of the Tyrone players applauded as he left the field. It was a rotten thing, which spoiled Tyrone’s great win. Marsden himself said later it was the worst day of his life and that he still feels shame at having been sent off in an All-Ireland final. “How do I explain it to my daughter Lara?” he said. The fact the red card was later rescinded was neither here nor there. What Tyrone did was malicious and broke the GAA contract. This is why the Armagh men never forgave.
Years later, Joe Kernan, in an interview with the Irish Independent, said: “We were furious that he [Diarmuid] had been wronged. There’s an honour among players — or at least there should be — and to see a man gloating at an opponent’s bad luck in an All-Ireland final is something I could never understand. It’s not the GAA where I was brought up or one I ever want to be part of.”
The majority of these Armagh players conduct themselves with honour and integrity on the field. But there is a hardcore who do not, and this is now an established pattern. It is a rotten culture and in the end, management is responsible.
The most important thing we have is the GAA contract. More important than me or you or winning or losing. It is the glue that binds us, from Antrim to Kerry, from Galway to Chicago. As US soccer star Megan Rapinoe said last week, “Sport is not the most important thing in life. Life is the most important thing in life.”
This game was not played behind closed doors. The GAA has no excuses. I wonder what the 2022 Annual Report will say.