Tuesday 20 February 2018

Peter Canavan: A guy would try to remove your intestines with a tackle but there was no sledging

And when it comes to sledging, it's up to referees to apply the rules and start doling out the black cards

Michael Murphy (centre) – whom Donegal claimed was ‘targeted’ – has a word with linesman Maurice Deegan alongside Tyrone’s Justin McMahon (right)
Michael Murphy (centre) – whom Donegal claimed was ‘targeted’ – has a word with linesman Maurice Deegan alongside Tyrone’s Justin McMahon (right)

Peter Canavan

The first time I played for my club, I was eight, maybe nine. It was an U-12 game. The jersey was hanging down over my knees, on legs resembling two matchsticks.

I had three pairs of socks on because I was wearing my older brother's boots. A strong gust of wind would have blown me away like tumbleweed. Then when I wandered into corner-forward, I had this big, strong corner-back peering over me like a sheriff with a shiny badge.

In my mind's eye I can still picture him laying down the law, telling me what he was going to do to me on his beat. I didn't know what to think. I couldn't hit him. I couldn't run away. Thankfully, my big brother could see what was developing. He intervened. The sideshow was over. New law was established. The Sheriff was run out of town.

That boy wasn't coached to mouth or push me around. He just embraced the circumstances before him. He was big. I was small. He could bully me so he tried to do what felt natural to him.

As I got older and bigger and could no longer rely on my big brother to protect me, I couldn't lie down when other players tried to intimidate me. I learned to deal with it myself and players who find themselves being targets for the opposition have to do that.


That U-12 game was my first induction to bullying. Some lads would do anything to try and soften you up but sledging was never really a part of that process during my career. I marked some great players, hard warriors: Ciaran McKeever, Mick Deegan, Seamus Moynihan, Enda McNulty, Seán Marty Lockhart. They'd take your life on the pitch like an assassin but they were hard and fair - never once foul-mouthed.

For 12 years in Tyrone, Errigal Ciarán and Carrickmore went at it like two prizefighters. We were the two best teams in the county and neither of us would back down to the other inside the ring. In some games, the pitch was like a battlefield. It was all-out war between the lines. If a guy got a chance, he'd remove your intestines with a tackle. It was hard and tough but there was never any sledging .

There were times at club and county level where defenders would inform you of what they were going to do with you, of where they intended to bury you, but it was only on sporadic occasions. I never paid any heed because I always felt it was done out of fear. The majority of footballers I played against don't want to see that stuff. They certainly didn't want to hear it.

On our Tyrone team, Ryan McMenamin was renowned for talking trash during games. He said himself recently on TG4's 'Laochra Gael' series that he felt it gave him an edge. It helped him get inside players' heads. Whether you agreed with him or not, at least Ricey was honest enough to admit it.

Players expected him to be banging his drum in their ear but I don't think he was ever malicious with his words in the way some players use them now like verbal grenades, primed to detonate for maximum effect. I've heard stories of players mentioning deceased relatives to opponents. That is cancerous stuff that is eating away at the soul of our game.

It is so ingrained in the fabric of football now that the logical assumption to make is that sledging is being coached. From my experience, it definitely is not. I have never seen it at any level, from school to club to county, where a coach graphically teaches a player how to verbally abuse or taunt someone. But more players are developing runny mouths, with bile and venom spilling out.

People are giving out about defensive football but this is a far more pressing issue. In last week's Donegal-Tyrone game, there were so many positives. It was intense. There was a brilliant atmosphere around the ground. Some of the football was first-class. And yet, most of the discussion afterwards was about sledging. It was justified because I never saw a match with so much of it going on.

I was on radio on Monday evening. The show played a previously recorded interview with the referee Maurice Deegan, who said that unless a ref is within earshot of sledging, there is nothing he can do about it. That is totally incorrect. A good referee can read a situation. He can make a statement that acts as a loud deterrent to everyone else. When the referee knows something is going on, as everybody could clearly see there was last Sunday, it is his responsibility to intervene.

In one game towards the end of my career, a defender was constantly in my ear, hammering away at my head like a woodpecker attacking the bark of a tree. Pat McEnaney was 40 yards away but he could read the malicious intent in my opponent's body language. He didn't need to hear what was being said and he dealt with it quickly by issuing a yellow card.

At the time, he had no legislation to support his intuition but there is a rule there now and it's up to referees to use it. With all the sledging and mouthing last Sunday, don't tell me that the two linesmen and four umpires didn't hear what the ref couldn't.

One black card early on would have stemmed a lot of the poisonous bile flowing around the pitch like a river.

Referees have got to man up and start doling out black cards to fit the punishment. If somebody runs 20 yards after getting a score to roar in an opponent's face, to me, that's a black card. It's not good enough and referees have got to root this virus of sledging out early on to ensure it doesn't spread and infect the rest of the summer.

With all the talk of sledging this week, the issue took a nasty turn on Thursday. It was claimed by the Donegal minor management that one of their players was viciously taunted and mocked about the death of his father to cancer by a Tyrone player.

That is a serious allegation to make. If it is true, it is absolutely reprehensible. If it is, then it is up to the Tyrone county board to launch an internal investigation and punish the accused player with a lengthy ban.

It is my understanding that this is not the case. Therefore, it is up to the Donegal management and county board to come forward and clarify this situation. Aside from the seriousness of the allegations, this is a serious slur on Tyrone. The matter needs to be heavily investigated by both county boards to get to the bottom of such a contentious and sensitive issue.

The Ulster Championship can be an unforgiving arena in so many ways, and Monaghan will be fully conditioned to that threat tomorrow. They are favourites. They are on the easier side of the draw. They have the experience that Cavan are still trying to accumulate. Monaghan know they are strong enough to win Ulster. And yet, they'll equally be aware of how everything could come crashing down through a potential Cavan ambush.

Cavan have the talent. They have been talking for long enough now about their potential from all their Ulster U-21 successes but most of this group are in their mid-20s and it's time to start delivering. Their manager Terry Hyland admitted as much this week. Cavan will know too that while Monaghan are at a more advanced stage in their development, there is still only so much higher they can go.

Some of the Monaghan players are already dancing in the last-chance saloon. Guys like Dick Clerkin and Vinny Corey have been unbelievable servants to Monaghan football but how much more than they really give? I wouldn't be surprised if this was Malachy O'Rourke's last year as manager.

Yet Malachy and Monaghan have enough experience and class to extricate themselves from a game as tricky as this one. At the back of their minds, they know they will probably never get a better chance to win an Ulster title with this team. That reality should push Monaghan over the line.

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