Saturday 18 January 2020

Tomás Ó Sé: 'Every time Diarmuid Connolly takes the bait, teams are going to load more and more on the hook'

Provocation is nothing new in our game, and nearly every team does it, so some of the moaning this week has been hard to stomach

Tomás Ó Sé, pictured centre during his playing days, was encouraged to get in players' faces. Photo: Sportsfile
Tomás Ó Sé, pictured centre during his playing days, was encouraged to get in players' faces. Photo: Sportsfile
Mayo's Aidan O'Shea fends off Tyrone's Ronan McNamee. Photo: Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

PáidÍ used to call it close continuous marking. It was a fairly simple concept. If you were given someone to track, your job was to keep him out of the game.

Get in his face and stay there for the 70 minutes. You'd want it that when he was packing his gear bag in the dressing-room after he'd be checking to make sure you weren't in there too.

Now a few people have had their say on this issue. But after last weekend, where we saw every side of the 'special attention' meted out to some of the game's biggest players, I think it's important enough to get another airing.

It's not a new thing. Not even close. There used to be a joke that Jimmy Barry-Murphy retired from football because Jimmy Deenihan had dogged him so much. And it predates them too. I'd say it's been there as long as football has been.

In Kerry we had lads who were good at the close continuous marking thing. Every good team does. Some of them relished it. Jesus you'd give Aidan O'Mahony that job and he'd nearly be smiling going out the door. Tom O'Sullivan was another. Killian Young too.

They'd be given a job and you'd just know they'd go and blot their man out of the game like Lee Keegan did last week to Cavanagh. And we loved them for that.

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You need those guys. And in my eyes, it's a compliment to get that sort of job. That role never came my way. I just couldn't do it for 70 minutes. I'd be too wound up trying to do what I was told that I'd forget to play my own game. And I'd end up doing neither and leave the whole side down.

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Cried foul

Last Saturday, Sean Cavanagh walked for two yellows and Mickey Harte cried foul. After that, Sean himself called for more protection. You could only laugh.

Tyrone are, to my mind, top of the line when it comes to dishing it out. And what I saw Keegan doing didn't amount to much more than close continuous marking.

He hopped off Cavanagh for every minute he was on the field. Cavanagh got caught eventually. And you know what? He shouldn't have. Not a man of his experience.

He's been around long enough to know that as a senior man and with the game on the line he needed to be on his best behaviour going into the last ten minutes. Deep down, Sean's biggest frustration from last Saturday night is with himself.

Lee Keegan got man of the match. Mayo had hammered the hammer and reaped the rewards. Job done. 

Diarmuid Connolly walked too. Diarmuid is a class footballer. But he is just going to have to learn to control himself.

You see it's a kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy, this getting targeted thing. People will try to goad you if they think they'll get joy.

So every time Connolly takes the bait, teams are going to load more and more on the hook. He has bitten a couple of times this year. And he'll be given the chance too again before the year is over too. That's just football.

Now like Mickey Harte, Jim Gavin came out after the game and was talking about players getting singled out. And he's right, it does happen. And you can say Jim was right to try and protect his player.

But I think Jim revealed something of himself and Dublin there too. He doesn't say much in interviews, so in making an issue of the attention Connolly gets, he has shown he is worried.

What happens if Diarmuid bites back too hard one day and suddenly his team are down to 14 men? A whole season's work could do down in flames.

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There have been flash points involving Connolly against Meath, Westmeath and now Donegal. He's on the referees' radar now as much as he has ever been. And you can be sure Kerry will try and get in his head when they meet. They'd be foolish not too.

Connolly would do well to look at the example of Aidan O'Shea. He gets some savage abuse. And he finds it harder to earn frees too given the size of him. I've said it here before that Mayo needed more from him. They got it last weekend. He took everything that came his way in a brilliant performance against Tyrone. My admiration for him was huge.

Effectively, O'Shea showed the other way of dealing with being targeted. Take everything that comes your way and ask for seconds.

As I say it's been around for a long time. I remember talking to Paul Galvin about it. I saw plenty of the abuse Galvin got while he played. Like Connolly, Galvin brought a certain amount of that on himself, particularly after the Paddy Russell incident.

He used to have awful running battles with Noel O'Leary. It'd be non-stop. The nipping, pulling, grabbing. Paul got that most days he went out. I remember speaking to him about it, asking him how he kept the head. I think he did well to control himself as much as he did. He got better at that as the years wore on.

The only difference now compared to a few years ago is that there is sometimes a more sinister edge to things. Teams are more calculated and targeted about what they are trying to do and who they are trying to stop.

I hate to see lads roaring in other fellas' faces when they win a free or something. Jesus it's cowardly. And it looks bad. I'd show a black card to someone straight away for that.

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There's plenty of verbals going on. Just once I had something personal said to me on the pitch that really got to me - if he had been close enough, I would have broken his jaw - but I've heard stories of lads doing what amounts of background checks on rival players. Looking for the little bit of personal information that might trigger a reaction. That's just not on.

I suppose the reality is that policing all of this is nigh on impossible. The umpires and linesmen could do much, much more, definitely. But it will still be part of the game even if they doubled the amount of the officials.

And if the referees aren't taking care of things on the field, well, players can take charge of it in a way too. We used to have a thing where we'd say 'Well they are not going to send five of us off'. And if we saw something going on that we didn't like, we'd get in among whoever was doling out the punishment.

Everyone would be clever enough to keep their hands down and there'd be a bit of bumping and charging. It would be made known that this would be a two-way street. The message was clear: if you were giving it out you'd better be prepared to take plenty of it back.

Look, keeping the head is easier said than done.

I know myself. In our All-Ireland club final against Caltra, I remember their centre-forward's only interest seemed to be in stopping me getting up the field to join the attack. I moaned to Darragh about it at half-time. And he told me 'I don't give a f**k what he's doing, just get into this game'.

He was right too. Moaning about it like Jim, Sean or Mickey this week will get you nowhere.

And it was a bit hypocritical. Off the top of my head I can remember Michael Murphy getting roughhoused by Tyrone in the championship a couple of years back. And that's not picking on Tyrone, because every team does it to some extent.

I just hope referees don't get swayed by those comments this week and start making a big deal of it. If you don't want this stuff, stick to playing matches on the challenge game circuit. 

Because this is what happens in championship football. And at least some of the time, the law of the jungle will prevail.

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