Sunday 8 December 2019

Sinead Kissane: All sides must accept a degree of responsibility but LGFA failing to show leadership

For just over an hour last week, the departed Mayo players gave their side of the story with a selected group of media.
For just over an hour last week, the departed Mayo players gave their side of the story with a selected group of media.
Sinead Kissane

Sinead Kissane

It was around 9.15pm in a meeting room on the second floor of the McWilliam Park Hotel in Claremorris, Co Mayo last Monday night when one of the youngest players in the room took the microphone in her hand.

Shauna Howley had stood alongside eight other players while three players and a former selector sat at a table in front of them and spoke publicly for the first time about why they decided to walk away from the Mayo ladies senior football panel.

This was a press conference like no other I've attended. I use the term 'press conference' loosely because there were only two reporters invited - RTÉ's Jacqui Hurley and myself (there was also a reporter from a local radio station present but he did not partake directly in the press conference.)

For 71 minutes and 57 seconds, former captain Sarah Tierney, former vice-captain Fiona McHale, Cora Staunton and former selector Denise McDonagh spoke about their issues and expanded on the vague "player welfare issues that are personal and sensitive to the players involved" which was included in a statement released through the Women's Gaelic Players Association (WGPA) 69 days previously.

Even before the press conference started, it was clear the players were nervous.

They didn't want to be seen together downstairs in the hotel beforehand and didn't want word getting out that this press conference was taking place.

When McHale - a highly-experienced player, and secretary of the WGPA - put her hand on the table to pick up a clip-mic near the start of the press conference, her hand was shaking.

Crying

When Tierney broke down crying at one stage, others behind her began to cry too, including Fiona's dad, Michael, who used to be the kitman for the team.

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After Tierney, McHale, Staunton and McDonagh spoke and answered questions, Howley wanted to clear something up. She didn't have notes in front of her.

"It was portrayed in the media that I was pressurised and influenced to leave the panel. I can safely say that is 100pc not true," Howley said.

"I'd like to think I'm my own person, I can stand on my own two feet and make decisions for myself.

"The last two and a half years, I've looked up to that girl (Tierney). She's everything I ever want to be: a great leader, an amazing friend and she's been there in the good times and the bad times for me.

"So, sitting in a room listening to how she was treated and the emotion she shared, that was enough for me.

"I respect each and every girl for leaving the panel. Also, I respect the girls that decided to stay. Any opportunity to represent your county is an absolute honour and privilege.

"For me, I just couldn't do it. I'd be lying to myself and everyone if I was to put on that Mayo jersey and represent and give an honest effort. It wasn't for me. I stood for what I believed was right. And basically, if you don't stand for anything, you'll fall for everything."

Howley is only 20 years of age and spoke with an articulacy which could mark her out as a future inter-county captain.

She played for Mayo at all levels growing up, was captain of the minor team in 2015 at the age of 17 and made her senior debut three years ago.

To stand by a friend and someone who you look up to is noble. To sacrifice playing for your county because of the way Tierney said she was treated takes it to another level again.

As the press conference went on it became clear that Tierney felt that she had "endured an extremely difficult relationship" with the manager, Peter Leahy.

"Ultimately our issues related to a lack of communication, being undermined, intimidated, feeling isolated and eventually helpless in the entire situation," a statement from the players, released the following morning, said.

Last year when the Republic of Ireland women's team spoke at a press conference about their grievances with the FAI, it was about tangible things like tracksuits, gym membership, match fees, individual strength-and-conditioning programmes - stuff we can all understand and grasp.

However, this situation with Mayo is far different, far from straightforward because of the nature of the claims involved.

"The issues are much more sensitive, much more complex, less understood. If we were sitting here complaining about not having a chartered physio or not having a strength-and-conditioning coach, the whole country would be behind us," Tierney said on Monday night.

"But it's because it's issues that have affected us personally that no one understands it, no one gets it."

Sitting right in front of her, it was easy to feel for Tierney.

But, equally, because of the sensitivity of these issues, the same kind of sensitivity should have been employed and extended when it came to how life under Leahy was dangerously described earlier this month.

Staunton's claim that they did not feel the Mayo set-up was "a safe environment" was later discounted by Leahy as "close to slanderous".

The repercussion of that claim and all the speculation it fuelled meant instead of this press conference being a way to solely understand their player-welfare issues, they also brought on themselves an extra burden to provide evidence to back-up Staunton's serious claim.

While Staunton acknowledged the language involved, she stood by her initial description last Monday night.

All sides in this mess have been let down by questionable decisions. In their statement on Tuesday, the Mayo LGFA county board executive's endorsement of Leahy "for the upcoming season and beyond" came as early as the second line.

It also stated that after three members of the executive met with players who left the panel and representatives of Carnacon back in July, they felt "extremely comfortable" with their decision to endorse Leahy at a training session just 48 hours later.

How did it only take 48 hours? As previously questioned about the club delegates' decision to rush to punish Carnacon, how can the county board executive possibly have all the facts before they made this endorsement at such a sensitive moment?

It is completely understandable why players would feel frustrated by this quick decision without a full investigation taking place or after independent arbitration.

The same statement also included the line that "we respected the players' right to leave the panel".

Respected

If they respected the players right to leave the panel, then why was Rule 193 (which gives county boards the right to "suspend for a period of six months any player who refuses to travel or play for the county") even discussed in the county board meeting on August 21 as a way to punish the Carnacon players?

What led to Carnacon originally being kicked out of the county and league championship was the enforcement of Rule 288 which was "conduct calculated to bring the Association into disrepute".

Now there is clarity for the county board that all players and two members of management left the panel for the same reasons (all 14 signed their names at the end of the statement which was released on Tuesday morning), will the other players, besides those from Carnacon, also be found guilty of bringing the Association into disrepute? Will they be seen as being "complicit in the whole event" which was how the statement last Tuesday described Carnacon?

All summer there's been the sound of silence from the organisation these people are members of: the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA). At the media day last week before the All-Ireland finals day, I asked LGFA President Marie Hickey about Carnacon's situation and she shrugged it off by saying it was still in the appeals process stage, which it was.

But there has been a notable lack of leadership from the LGFA on this. It's all fine to make a worthy fuss about a record attendance for All-Ireland football finals day last Sunday but the biggest controversy in the history of Ladies Gaelic football has raged all summer and it has not been given the public direction and support required by those at the top of the association.

When it became clear this wasn't going to be resolved at county board level, the LGFA should have got directly involved to find a resolution.

On page 13 of the LGFA's Strategic Roadmap 2017-2022 are a list of nine values. They are: integrity, inclusiveness, encouragement, respect, pride, leadership, innovation, fairness and dynamism.

In a story with many faces, these values could have helped sort out this mess. Because if you stand for nothing, you'll fall for everything.

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