Friday 23 March 2018

Shining a light on dark world

Armagh’s Jamie Clarke lifted the lid on the level of sledging that goes on in ‘most big games’
Armagh’s Jamie Clarke lifted the lid on the level of sledging that goes on in ‘most big games’
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Finally confirmation then, the GAA is home to unscrupulous, bad-mannered types, endlessly rooting for trouble like pigs on a truffle run.

By far the most depressing conclusion drawn in the GPA's 'Fair Play' survey is that suggesting more than eight out of ten GAA managers turn a blind eye to verbal abuse. But are we really surprised? Is it not part and parcel of trenchantly aggressive games that - under pressure - people, occasionally, revisit the cave?

Surely, the element of denial is the funny bit. The sense of solemn hurt mastered by some managers when it is put to them that their teams ought really take the field wearing stocking masks.

It's not that the games we love are lawless. They aren't. But "getting at" people is a part of GAA culture and, more and more, that involves the relatively modern phenomenon of "sledging".


The easy thing is to imagine it as something ordained by geography. But depicting it as a strictly Ulster phenomenon is every bit as bogus as it is convenient for those drawn to the partitionist view that they simply do things differently up there. True, as a player, 'Ricey' McMenamin became a kind of poster-boy for the practice and, accordingly, Tyrone were seen almost as setting a template.

But, as Jamie Clarke outlined this week, "it happens in most big games".

Why? Because, like it or not, a culture of ruthlessness prevails in the GAA north and south today and, within that culture, exists an implicit understanding that players will, as Clarke put it, "do whatever it takes to win".

That understanding has stretched even to racist abuse as some of the GAA's most respected figures like Jason Sherlock, Seán óg ó hAilpín and, more recently, Lee Chin will aver. This, of course, is the most toxic strain of verbal abuse. But if it is in your nature to mouth obscenities about someone's family, does it really take a great, philosophical leap to turn that focus to skin colour?

When seven out of ten players report to the GPA that they have witnessed verbal abuse, how come managers pick up so little from their own teams?

The answer, of course, is selective hearing in an environment where scruple has never been mandatory.

One of the most striking aspects to Paul Galvin's autobiography 'In My Own Words' is its almost matter-of-fact acceptance that there would be no great referencing of any moral code in how opposing players tried to stop him.

His battles with Cork's Noel O'Leary were notorious, but Galvin's description of a North Kerry senior final maybe best encapsulated the broad understanding that GAA etiquette is largely convoluted and superficial.

Winning management teams will still visit a losing dressing-room with conciliatory words, no matter the unsavoury tenor of what's preceded that visit.

The idea is that you shake hands regardless, that you park what happens on the field as if out there is an independent land with entirely different laws and behavioural mores applied.

In Galvin's case, he recalls standing for the National Anthem "when I got a crack of a fist into the face from behind".

His instinctive reaction was to swing back, leaving his opponent with "a shiner". What happened next?

"The anthem played on. Both of us stood our ground. No-one budged. No umpire or linesman raised a flag and no-one in the crowd batted an eyelid. I didn't care. He started it, I finished it. An eye for an eye."

Face it, only the hopelessly sanctimonious could see in that exchange something incompatible with the GAA we lovingly embrace.

A world in which fair play exists only in the eyes of the beholder.

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