BY Tuesday morning, the word was seeping out from Armagh that a serious storm was brewing and headed south.
They had returned from O'Moore Park, Portlaoise two days earlier, smarting over the five-point defeat to Laois and the red card sensationally handed out to their captain Ciarán McKeever before the start of the second half. But that wasn't the end of it. Not by a long way.
The first thunder-clap sounded when a county board statement reached newspaper offices that day. "Coiste Chondae Ard Mhacha wishes to express concern at the alleged racist and personal abuse, directed at our players, apparently going unpunished," it began. It was clumsily-worded and unhelpfully vague but the connection with McKeever's sending-off was instant and, suddenly, an unnamed Laois player was associated with the most serious charge that can be levelled in modern sport.
And so the agenda was set. Headline writers, unburdened by the need for allegedlys or apparentlys, painted the scenario in stark terms The GAA was in the midst of a 'Racism Storm'. Joe Kernan called for the GAA to launch a thorough investigation. "It's the lowest of the low," the former Armagh manager said. Former GAA president Seán Kelly wanted the bigots to be hit hard.
In Armagh, supporters worked themselves into a tizzy. What basis had they to question the approach of their own executives? Over the past 15 years the board had forged a well-earned reputation for being one of the most hard-working and progressive in the country. "They must have very sound ground for their concerns," one supporter posted on a GAA forum.
No smoke without fire was the prevailing view. Speaking on Newstalk's Off The Ball show on Wednesday night, Conor Deegan acknowledged we were still in the realm of assumption, but couldn't help himself anyway. "I believe Ciarán McKeever wouldn't react unless something like that was said," the former Down player said, "and I absolutely understand why he would react the way he did."
The storm whipped up for two full days. On the basis of the abuse supposedly directed at McKeever, a litany of similar slights against northern players and teams going back years -- "since Adam was a boy," said Benny Tierney -- was invoked. That Laois had Justin McNulty, an Armagh man, in charge was raised as an aggravating factor and past history with the county remembered as if Laois was a hotbed of sectarianism or partitionism or whatever you wanted to call it.
There was only one problem, of course. There was little substance to Armagh's initial claim and all the talk that stemmed from it was based on a foundation of jelly. Whatever provoked McKeever into his half-time altercation in the Portlaoise tunnel, it wasn't personal or abusive language.
So the story began to wilt. When at Croke Park's behest, and to salve the understandable anger of Laois, the two counties released a joint-statement on Thursday afternoon, it left Armagh in an embarrassing and tricky position. The original allegations, it said, "do not accurately reflect what occurred in O'Moore Park." That begged a serious question: where had they come from?
How "inappropriate verbal exchanges" between players led to allegations of racism being wilfully and dangerously tossed around is an issue that ought to be clarified. Now that the juicy racism angle has disappeared, the big media outlets will probably tire of the story and quickly move on, but if you were a delegate looking forward to the next gathering of the Armagh county committee, wouldn't you be busy preparing questions you'd like executives to answer?
What we can assert with confidence is that, right now, the Armagh senior set-up is in a state of turmoil. The absent Crossmaglen contingent takes a bit of the sting out of their perilous league position, but last Sunday's events betray a much deeper fissure. McKeever's sending-off, Paul Grimley's angry confrontation with referee Michael Duffy, Paddy O'Rourke's passivity on the sideline: it left you wondering as to who was running the show.
Clearly, Armagh did their manager no favours. Given the results on his watch, O'Rourke's position seems delicate enough without his assistant and his county board further shredding what little authority he has left. In Kernan's time, could you imagine Armagh airing grievances without first being filtered through the manager? O'Rourke's silence last week was the silence of a man who appeared to have little control over what was happening.
Beyond that, it's hard to be definitive. Grimley's proposed eight-week suspension was reduced to four by the Central Hearings Committee on Friday night. McKeever was cleared to play against Down last night, although the incident in the O'Moore Park tunnel remains under investigation. Given his nature as a player, however -- a leader prepared to give and take in the physical exchanges -- it's hard to think that McKeever would have endorsed the actions of his own county officials. Whatever his own contribution to the initial statement, the mess that followed wasn't of his making.
Ultimately, nothing good can come from such a farcical, ill-judged affair. You could argue that, however cack-handedly, it helped raise the important issue of sectarian abuse in the GAA and that can only be a good thing. The problem is, though, that the ensuing debate has been so lopsided that it is unlikely to serve any purpose beyond enhancing the partitionist 'us and them' mentality that already exists.
In the stories that were recounted last week of abuse dished out to Ulster players, it was hard not to be reminded of the testy exchanges that used to take place between GAA and soccer people. A harrowing tale of prejudice against soccer would be trumped by an even worse crime against the GAA and the tit-for-tat exchange would continue until, finally, they would begin to realise that the prejudice existed equally on both sides and was regrettable in every case.
Talking to a former Ulster GAA player last week, he was inclined to agree with Joe Brolly's verdict that last Sunday's incident was a "storm in a teacup" and that was before the joint-statement was released on Thursday. He recalled one occasion where he was on the receiving end of sectarian abuse, but reckoned he'd been called far worse things. The problem was, he said, you can't legislate for the things different people will be offended by.
The thing is, though, it's not always hard to feel sympathy when those in Ulster complain of getting a raw deal. When Stephen Kernan's appeal against the red card he picked up in the All-Ireland club semi-final against Dr Crokes was turned down, for example, and a comparison was drawn with Diarmuid Connolly's successful appeal before last year's All-Ireland final, the "one rule for them, another for us" complaints didn't seem all that outlandish.
And yet, in the same spirit they lived through the hard years of the Troubles and earned the admiration of the entire country, Crossmaglen simply got on with the job of trying to win another national title. For sure, they would have seethed in private and used Kernan's suspension for the final as added motivation, but what you didn't see was Crossmaglen players or officials running to the media or wasting energy fostering a siege mentality.
But the world isn't a perfect place, of course. Crossmaglen aren't everybody. Nor, in a manner of speaking, are they Armagh as the sad and bizarre events of last week clearly showed.