Wednesday 21 August 2019

Tomás O Se: 'If a physical game like rugby can be played in a sporting way, why can't Gaelic football?'

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Regrets, I’ve had a few: All alone with my thoughts in the dugout after being sent off during Kerry’s Munster SFC clash against Tipperary in 2011 –the culture of appealing every decision in the GAA has to change at club and county level. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile
Regrets, I’ve had a few: All alone with my thoughts in the dugout after being sent off during Kerry’s Munster SFC clash against Tipperary in 2011 –the culture of appealing every decision in the GAA has to change at club and county level. Photo: Diarmuid Greene/Sportsfile

Tomás O Se

I love that line from the old US golf pro, Mac O'Grady, likening the tunnel vision of high pressure competition to "either bleeding, haemorrhaging or painting Mona Lisas".

The big days own you to such an extent, it's sometimes hard to distinguish one condition from the other. So what's the most important thing? "Winning" is probably the reflex answer, but I was above in Cavan on Wednesday night, addressing all of the underage teams of St Patrick's club in Arvagh.

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And as often as I kept repeating myself, funny, it's a word I never felt inclined to use. The two I kept returning to were actually "practice" and "respect".

Now maybe I'm turning soft in my old age, but this is something that's been rattling around inside my head for a few weeks now. Or to be precise, ever since I sat down for a chat with Tom Cavanagh, the Fermoy businessman and noted philanthropist.

When I first heard he wanted to meet, the cute hoor inside me was thinking I might be able to wangle a set of jerseys for the school. That's how we're all programmed these days, isn't it? What's in it for me?

Anyway, I wasn't sitting down long with Tom when self-interest slipped out the door.

He got me thinking, you see. Thinking about how so much of what we take as everyday in the GAA now can be ugly, mean-spirited. The culture is win-at-all-costs, from the very top down. And I'm a product of that culture, a representation of it.

Tom actually had a bit of a go at me about that, about some criticism I made of a team recently being "not able to close out the game!"

‘Joe Brolly says he’s inundated with fellas ringing, looking to tap into his legal expertise for some kind of fire escape out of a suspension’
‘Joe Brolly says he’s inundated with fellas ringing, looking to tap into his legal expertise for some kind of fire escape out of a suspension’

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He wondered if I was encouraging them to be cynical, to commit tactical fouls. Initially, I nearly took offence, given I've genuinely never ever been part of a regime actually fostering an instinct to foul. My argument was that, if you've a game exactly where you want it, the good teams will kick on. Keep the scoreboard moving.

But Tom's smile told me what, deep down, I already suspected.

I mean, remember when 'Gooch' got that finger in the eye barely ten minutes into the 2005 All-Ireland final against Tyrone? Not one Kerryman went in to 'balance the books' - as we'd put it - and I was absolutely disgusted that they didn't.

Go back further, back to '02 when I was involved in a skirmish (isn't that a great GAA word) towards the end of the All-Ireland semi-final in which I hit a Cork lad a box in the face. Well, every wise head in the Kerry dressing-room was instantly called into conference to make sure I'd be free for the final.

They worked their magic too; I avoided a doubling-up of my one-month suspension, which ended the night before we played Armagh. I missed precisely nothing.

That's what I mean when I say I'm part of the culture; one in which we don't accept punishment; in which we're just programmed to look for loopholes.

Like I'm thinking now of the suspensions handed out recently to Turlough O'Brien, Stephen Poacher and Brendan Murphy because of their conduct towards the referee after Carlow's Division 3 league defeat to Down.

Carlow appealed the suspensions imposed on all three. They were never going to do anything else.

Now the last thing I want to do is demonise the three boys because the truth is they weren't doing anything too far out of the ordinary in GAA terms. Like I'm a teacher and I actually live in dread of going to schools matches when there's a lot of parents around for the simple reason that I know full well some will make a holy show of themselves on the line.

Everybody feels they have a licence to give the referee - good or bad - absolute dogs' abuse. It looks and sounds awful.

But when someone gets in trouble, the first question asked is, 'How do I get out of this?' Joe Brolly says he's inundated with fellas ringing, looking to tap into his legal expertise for some kind of fire escape out of a looming suspension. We're all products of that instinct.

Like I was at a big colleges match recently, a good game, deservedly won by the right team. But there was this lad from an Eastern European background playing in goals for one of the teams and a section of the other side's supporters abused him racially from the stand. I was about a hundred yards away, unaware at the time of what was being chanted.

But an official complaint has since gone in, some parents feeling the need to move their children away from whatever it was they were hearing.

Like, where in the name of God does that instinct to racially abuse somebody come from? I honestly can't rationalise it myself.

But everybody's getting themselves into a frenzy to win games. We all saw what Dublin did in the dying seconds of the 2017 All-Ireland final against Mayo, the systematic fouling to stop their opponents working the ball upfield. Is there even the tiniest shred of regret in any of the Dubs that those dying seconds may be remembered as being so incredibly cynical? Not a hope. So how do you stop it happening?

We can give out all we like about referees, umpires and linesmen being poor at their jobs but, if people don't self-police on these things, if people aren't willing to take long, hard looks at themselves in the mirror, talking about referees is surely immaterial.

I had a reputation for being a dirty player and, by Christ, I got involved in plenty. That said, hand on heart, I'd argue I never started a row. Pull my tail and rest assured, I'd try to finish one though. That's how I was reared. Stand up for yourself.

But how do you govern an environment in which everybody is just seeking out loopholes in the system for exploiting to their advantage? I see Tom Kavanagh's point. I mean nobody picks a row with a rugby referee. They might get up to all sorts on the field but, if the ref tells them to jump, the only response is, 'How high?' That has to come from underage. From education.

So I wonder what do we actually mean in the GAA now when we use that expression "the spirit of the game"? How often do we see some kind of schmozzle (another great GAA word) on the field, only to dismiss it afterwards as handbags? Remember the end of the Kerry-Dublin league game in Tralee?

Should we all not be embarrassed by that kind of spectacle? By the thought that Austin Stack Park was full of young fellas watching their heroes behave in that way?

The same thing happened between Kerry and Mayo and took about four minutes for everybody to cop on. An otherwise brilliant game of football ending with lads squaring up to one another like drunks outside a nightclub. Embarrassing.

Think of all the videos going up on YouTube of rows in club matches. Of supporters running in to get involved.

Listen, I was the ultimate win-at-all-costs merchant. I'd have done anything to win. Put it this way, if I was near Kevin McManamon in 2011, would I have rugby-tackled him to the ground?

You can write it down I would.

In fact, I'd still do it today. That's still there in me. But that's not healthy. It's a wrinkle in us all. When we're trying to win something, the last thing on our minds is whether or not we're doing it fairly, honourably, honestly.

I'm not saying everybody should be sent to some kind of Swiss finishing school before they're let pull on a jersey. But is it not worth asking the question of ourselves - what example are we setting? Are we honestly happy to let our sons and daughters see us conduct ourselves in this way? Is getting that piece of silver really the only point of what we do?

And I'll ask you this.

Who the hell would want to be a GAA referee today with the culture they encounter? Yes, the standard of officiating can be terrible sometimes, but maybe that's down to the self-fulfilling nature of all this. I mean, if most intelligent people see no appeal in being a referee, does it not stand to reason we'll end up with some bad ones?

I was sent off a number of times in my career, but '02 was the only time we fought our corner in the boardroom. You see, deep down, I knew after that one that I'd got away with something. That it had basically been sharp practice.

So I'm just putting the question out there. Can we do more to stop this culture of questioning everything, appealing everything, basically looking to get away with things? Or is all this a little too philosophical for you on the doorstep of another championship?

Because we are what we keep repeating.

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