Friday 23 February 2018

Vincent Hogan: GAA may need more than silent heroes this summer

Kilkenny manager Brian Cody Photo:Sportsfile
Kilkenny manager Brian Cody Photo:Sportsfile
Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

Brian Cody did not make the All Stars trip to Texas last month, but I doubt he spent the duration crumpled under a Sacred Heart lamp praying there'd be no Kilkenny fallers on the streets of Austin.

The Cats are so well-travelled now, they'd make Michael Palin look a homebird. Of course, we never let on to this with straight faces when addressing them from the ink-stained seats. "No boss with ye this year?" we chortled to a few across the zig-zag check-in line at Dublin Airport on December 10. "There'll be carnage!"

And, if they were of a mind, there could have been.

There are few chain-link formalities to an All Stars tour beyond players making the commitment to present themselves for an exhibition game while still in control of most of their own faculties. By and large, the rest of the itinerary is open. With the tours being fundamentally about reward, players are invited to fill their days largely as they please.

For some, this has long been a source of worry. They fear that young men who might as well have been living in monasteries for most of the year could come unstuck when released to the casino of personal choice. What if drink takes a hold of someone? If it makes an ordinarily model citizen turn rowdy?

Imagine the mortification if an All Star ever ended up in hand-cuffs?

The very notion probably seems far-fetched given the obligation of inter-county hurlers and footballers today to adopt such germ-free lifestyles, their idea of 'carnage' can't logically extend too far beyond a mid-morning chicken fillet roll. But it would be naive to think it couldn't happen.

In Texas mind, as with just about every previous All Star tour, the behaviour of the tourists was exemplary.

But it's a curious thing to travel with household names who remain largely ghosts to their public. True, one of the beauties of the GAA is that it isn't just a creation of some muscular marketing arm, fist-thumping its corporate message into our heads to tart up hype as history. But then the GAA doesn't really do marketing at all.

Is there not a bewildering paradox to the programmes being run by the Gaelic Players' Association that focus on development of the individual for a world beyond the playing-field when set against the virtual suppression of personality inherent in life today for an inter-county hurler or footballer?

Why are so many intelligent young men vacuum-sealed against anything but the most clipped, banal interaction with the outside world?

This is an old drum to be beating I know, but one of the consistent delights of an All Stars tour is its adherence to the amiable, old-fashioned idea that responsible adult behaviour can be expected from the vast majority of, well, adults. It's called trust. Yet the extraordinary thing is that players who let their hair down on such tours without ever spoiling the occasion with as much as a loud burp then return home to automatic schoolroom constraints.

This isn't county-specific either. It is universal. The players may be the GAA's biggest resource, yet they exist in a climate of virtual thought-control.

Save the sporadic commercial opportunities open to a marquee name, the broad community of inter-county players today have all the recognition factor of bank tellers.

For hurling especially, this creates the invisible hero. Put it this way, in both Kilkenny and Galway there are men who played in last September's All-Ireland final who won't have signed an autograph since.


Because kids simply do not know them. They hear the name; on match-day, they recognise the helmet.

When it comes to an All-Ireland final, they might even be granted the indulgence of a programme pen pic. But, in hurling at least, you can play on the biggest stage there is and still be a virtual rumour.

Now there isn't an inter-county manager alive who will lose a minute's sleep over that, and why should they? Their bottom line is a winning team. To that end, the tighter the clenched fist of a squad in their care, the more comfortable they will feel.

And there can clearly be no contractual obligation placed on players to market a game from which they take no monetary gain.

But there are plenty who would be more than comfortable with a higher personal profile, who would back themselves to be engaging interviewees without leaking a single utterance that might be damaging to their group.

There are plenty who would, if anything, even absorb a deeper self-confidence from being treated more like adults. From being trusted more.

But the screen stays up because it has become a reflex culture now.

Hence Galway hurlers and Mayo footballers can effectively sack their own management teams with nobody outside their immediate group knowing exactly why.

So a team that led Kilkenny by three points at half-time in the hurling final and one that took the seemingly untouchable Dubs to a replay in the football semi-final can toss their respective managers out with the bins and the story is denied the natural punctuation mark of an explanation.

Anarchy might be good sometimes, but anarchy must have a point.

The perversity of managers fostering a code of omerta thus begets a monster of their own making. Nobody expects candour in any circumstance from inside any camp, so no storyline gets fully examined.

It's 'Move along folks, nothing to see here. . .'

To any objective eye, the sackings in Galway and Mayo have moved the GAA to new, potentially dangerous ground. What are the odds on copycat acts in 2016? If management teams that got so close to the mountain-top can be scythed down, what chance those operating at a more modest altitude? Particularly when nobody is expected to furnish a reason?

Gentlemen, good luck to you all.

Meantime, the Euro finals and Olympics loom this summer, certain to devour national attention between June and August, those epic hurling and football months when so many counties play the biggest games of their year.

In other words, it will be one of those years the GAA has to fight for attention. So how will it go about that?

With eyes glued to its shoes?

Irish Independent

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