Monday 22 January 2018

'The Dublin official didn't like what I said . . . he spat at me'

1997 U-21 row almost split county board but integrity of Whelan and Costello has stayed with me

Jason Sherlock, Dublin
Jason Sherlock, Dublin

Jason Sherlock

But what really occupied my headspace in 1997 was an altercation with a Dublin County Board official at an U-21 championship match against Offaly in March.

The match was fractious. A fight broke out and heavy suspensions followed, including the removal of Dublin from that year's U-21 championship and the banning of both counties from the 1998 championship.

At one point a spectator climbed the wall and ran on to the field with a bottle before being waylaid.

Davy Billings was in charge of the Dublin U-21s but, because of my soccer scholarship with UCD, I wasn't always available to him.

I was selected for the team's first two matches, against Wexford and Offaly, but missed both because of UCD soccer matches. Nonetheless, I turned up on each occasion to support the lads and was on the sideline that afternoon against Offaly, as Davy was always keen to have me among the group.

I took my place in the dugout with the subs and the county board official in question was there too. He passed away late in 2015 and out of respect for his family I have no desire to revisit in great detail an incident between us.

The key point I want to make is how the loyalty of two men in the wake of this incident has stayed with me for the rest of my life.

The board official was highly regarded within Dublin GAA and his club, but on a much wider level what happened showed how I was perceived by some people within the GAA family.

'My family and team-mates backed me to the hilt, took me off the floor and helped build me up again. Mickey Whelan (pictured) was there with them. '
'My family and team-mates backed me to the hilt, took me off the floor and helped build me up again. Mickey Whelan (pictured) was there with them. '

During the match passions ran high and I was hearing heavy criticism of the players. Eventually I went across to the official and the gist of what I said was, 'If you have nothing good to say, say nothing at all'.

Maybe that was, again, above my station, but I couldn't just stand there. The official didn't like what I said.

He spat at me.

Time stands still after something like that and I went into complete shock for the rest of the game.

The next day I made a formal complaint to the county board and the incident played out in various committee rooms over the following weeks with several twists and turns. It was a stressful time for a lot of people.

But I found the whole incident exceptionally hard to deal with and my lack of self- worth came to the fore again. I wondered if I somehow deserved what had happened. Maybe I was to blame for the whole fiasco.

I struggled to shake off the sense that it was all my fault. Why was I to blame? I was this high-profile star and yet I wasn't even playing for the U-21 team that needed me. I had challenged the county board man in the dugout when it could be argued that it wasn't my place to do so.

Was I getting too big for my boots? Was I starting to become more trouble than I was worth?

The county board came close to splitting over the whole thing. During the investigative process it was even recommended that I should be banned for six months for refusing to play with the Dublin U-21s in the first place.

Again, it just showed that not everyone was on my side. In fact, hearing that some people wanted to suspend me only raised the shrill of that inner voice in my ear: 'It's your fault, no one else's'.

When I look back now, there are only two things I take from that whole saga - Mickey Whelan's actions and John Costello's honour.

Bullying People who struggle at times - through bullying, abuse in school, racial abuse, whatever - they all need to bear in mind that there are others who can help: peers, teachers, managers. In my time of need I discovered that.

My family and team-mates backed me to the hilt, took me off the floor and helped build me up again.

Mickey Whelan was there with them. On the way out of the game Mickey pulled the car up beside me to ask what I thought of the match. He saw I was badly rattled and I explained why.

Mickey assured me it would be sorted out and meanwhile to call to his office at Bolton Street during the week.

During that meeting Mickey soared sky-high in my estimation, to stay there forever more. He offered to resign as Dublin manager if I felt it could help my case even in the slightest degree.

I couldn't believe he would do that for me and I left his office with a wholly positive impression of the man. As my complaint and the subsequent appeal hearings took their course, John Costello, the Dublin secretary and now Dublin CEO, told one crucial meeting that he had witnessed what happened.

Despite such tension around the whole affair and the huge pressure he must have come under to remain neutral, he backed up my version of events. The actions of John and Mickey will live with me forever. And despite all the worry and my feelings of low self- esteem, when I replay that whole affair in my mind, admiration for their character and honour is what I remember most.

Irish Independent

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