Sunday 26 January 2020

Peter Canavan: I always had a target on my back - and I didn't always deal with it in the right way

Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Dublin's Diarmuid Connolly. Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Peter Canavan

According to the dictionary, a target is "a person, object, or place selected as the aim of an attack." Of course, I didn't really need to look that up. When you play as a forward in Ulster football for 16 years, you get the real-life definition of a target shoved down your throat.

Now, I'm not about to play the violin here. Far from it. In my career I gave back as good as I got. However, I did have to learn the hard way in the GAA fields of hard knocks.

Thumps off the ball, late tackles that pretended to be on the ball, knees in the back, rabbit punches, shorts pulled when about to make a run, feet stamped on when the play was at the other end of the field, verbals that questioned my masculinity, an opponent's hands on a part of my body that left no doubt about my masculinity, etc.

These things are still around today and they were also around before my day.

But, before I go any further, let me make one thing clear. As a rule, I don't like speaking for other people but when it comes to (in)discipline in the GAA, I believe we all stand accused of being hypocrites.


No matter what level you play at, a culture of ambiguity prevails when it comes to discipline: we all want to see punishments fitting the crime, except when it comes to our county, our club, our captain.

Last Saturday evening, shortly after Tyrone had exited the championship having suffered their first competitive defeat of the year with a one-point loss to Mayo, Mickey Harte was asked what he felt about Sean Cavanagh's sending-off.

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Mickey did what he would always do in these circumstances: he answered the question openly and honestly, saying he felt his captain didn't get fair play in relation to his first yellow card - especially from the linesman closest to the incident in which Mayo's Lee Keegan also got booked.

Now, hold your horses, before you say that I'm going to take the high moral ground.

Let's rewind the clock back to an incident ten minutes into the game when Sean's younger brother, Colm, made a great turnover on Aidan O'Shea and then let the Mayo man know what he thought. Should the Tyrone man have been brought to book?

Yes. When there was a break in play, the linesman - whether he actually heard what Cavanagh said or not - should have called back the referee and told him to mark his card. But, as is often the case, nothing happened.

Ignoring incidents like this sends out the wrong message: it is effectively telling the players they can carry on with impunity.

My day job is teaching and I'd compare these instances to the class 'jester' trying it on when a new teacher comes in.

It won't be long before the young jester tries to push the boundaries as much as he can when the teacher's back is turned.

If the teacher doesn't deal with it and discipline him, he's giving him licence to try it on again. Ignoring the problem will not solve it; in fact, it will lead to bigger problems down the road.

It's the same on a football field. Players will test the water early on to see what they can get away with.

But when you have six officials all 'miked up' and supposed to be helping the referee, this type of behaviour should be nipped in the bud from the word go.

I recall an Ulster championship game during the '90s in which Pat McEnaney stopped play, came down the other end of field and booked an opponent, telling him: "I didn't see it, but I know what you're at - do it again and you're gone." And that was the end of the matter.

As for the outcome of last Saturday's game, naturally I was disappointed to see Tyrone losing, but I'd also have to acknowledge that the better team won.

When you have 31 shots, like Tyrone did, and only score 12 points you can't complain about losing. Tyrone were not ruthless enough and didn't play at the pace they needed to.

Credit for that must be given to Mayo and I felt Tony McEntee's fingerprints were all over their performance. They got most of their match-ups right; the back-door games have clearly helped to get some of their star players - like Cillian O'Connor - back to form; and they used their physicality in the right way. They also have scope for further improvement.

So,too have Dublin, who took their foot off the gas a bit in the second half against Donegal.

They thought they had the game won, until they were rocked by Ryan McHugh's goal and then Diarmuid Connolly's sending-off.

Like Mickey Harte, Jim Gavin came out strongly about his star player needing protection in the media afterwards, but at training this week I fancy the Dublin manager will have reminded his players about the need to keep their discipline.

In relation to Connolly, I have a huge amount of sympathy because there's no one appreciates his wide repertoire of skills as much as myself.

But I also know from bitter experience that you have to learn to deal with having a 'target' on your back. I didn't always deal with it in the right way.

The game was different back in the '90s, but if I had an opponent hanging out of me, I'd be quick to be in the referee's ear asking what he was going to do about it.

If I got no change there, I wouldn't be long about giving back as much as I got.

In Ulster football back then, if you didn't stand up for yourself, you'd be walked all over. There were a couple of so-called star forwards in the province who defenders knew they could bully and more often than not, they got away with it.

Sometimes, I overstepped the mark in standing up for myself, as I did in the 2001 All-Ireland quarter-final.

No matter where I turned that day in Clones, I had a Derry hand on me and I eventually snapped before half-time, planted one on Johnny McBride, and got sent off.

With 14 men, we lost to a team we had beaten a couple of weeks earlier.

There's a reason teams target Connolly. He reacts. Sometimes he reacts with a brilliant score, other times he reacts by grabbing his opponent in a headlock.

It's no surprise then that Jim Gavin should publicly call for some protection in advance of their duel with Kerry, but neither would I be surprised if Eamonn Fitzmaurice came out and made a similar call in relation to James Donoghue or Kieran Donaghy.

After all, what's sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.

Irish Independent

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