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Cats whipped into frenzy over phantom controversy

Judging by the reaction, Joe Canning may well be wondering if instead of criticising Henry Shefflin, he might've been better off slagging the Prophet Muhammad.

Peace be upon him. The Prophet, that is, not Joe. Scratch that. The Prophet and Joe. Actually, the Prophet and Joe and Henry too. Peace be upon them all.

But unfortunately it might be a bit late for peace. There are unconfirmed reports this weekend that the citizens of Kilkenny have taken any photo they could find of Canning and are batin' it to a pulp with their shoes. Anger is rising. Effigies are being burned. Armed uprisings are spreading like wildfire across the middle east, from Ballyragget to Mullinavat. Fears are mounting that they are getting ready to march on Eyre Square. Galway people intending to visit the Marble City for stag parties, or indeed hen nights, are being strongly advised not to travel. Or, if they must, to pretend they're from Mayo.

The Government, meanwhile, is putting emergency plans in place. Diplomatic manoeuvres are under way. The FCA is said to be on standby. Mary Robinson is organising a high-powered delegation. She will, if necessary, conduct truce talks with Kilkenny's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei Cody. Peace be upon him too.

Dear, oh dear, oh dear. Sigh. Deep sigh. The reaction has been so far over the top it has come down the other side and met itself coming back. Eddie Keher reportedly pronounced himself "horrified" by the remarks. Now, Eddie must have led a fairly sheltered life if Canning's comments were enough to horrify him. What word would he use then to describe the Rwandan genocide?

Calling the lost luggage department: a suitcase of perspective has gone missing, and a bag of proportion too. In fairness, several media outlets also lost both items in their coverage. The headlines and reportage grotesquely exaggerated the content of Canning's remarks, and their putative consequences. And reporters then wonder why players routinely serve up useless platitudes whenever they're interviewed. It's for precisely this reason.

The Irish Independent misquoted Canning with their front- page splash. It was done for maximum effect, right under the masthead: YOU'RE 'UNSPORTING' CANNING TELLS SHEFFLIN. Canning said nothing of the sort. Rather, he'd complained at a press promotion on Wednesday about one specific incident from the game last Sunday. Referee Barry Kelly had awarded Galway a free for a foul on Damien Hayes. Shefflin, explained Canning, ran 30 or 40 yards to remonstrate with Kelly and Hayes. "That's not sportsmanlike," he added.

To repeat: Canning was criticising Shefflin for one specific incident. He wasn't saying that Shefflin was an unsporting player. This isn't some abstract matter of semantics. The difference is important. One is about an incident, a single moment. The other is about a player's character; it suggests that the player's behaviour on the field is habitually unsporting. Canning did not say this about Shefflin. No one in their right mind would say it about a man of Shefflin's class. He is obviously a thoroughly honourable sportsman.

But Henry is not a saint either. He is a flesh-and-blood mortal. He is not beyond criticism. Even the most decent and disciplined of players can lose themselves momentarily in the heat of battle. Given the reaction in Kilkenny, however, Canning could be forgiven for thinking that he's insulted the Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela, rolled into one.

It should be said that Shefflin's supporters have reason to defend their man here. Because Canning was wrong to criticise him on this score. A player giving out to a referee and an opponent isn't news. There was nothing exceptional or objectionable about it whatsoever. The example he gave concerning Shefflin was made in a broader context. Kilkenny, he said, were "a bit cuter" at manipulating the referee; they "influenced" frees. It was if anything a backhanded compliment. And if he's right, you'd expect nothing less from multiple champions anyway.

Perhaps he was suggesting that Shefflin uses his aura -- his halo, so to speak -- to pressurise referees. But presumably that's one of the perks of being a legend. It'd be an awful waste of an aura if he didn't. Joe might one day try shining his own halo in front of a referee, to see if it works.

But he had no grounds for complaint on this occasion. And Shefflin was entitled to the defence advanced by his many spokesmen in Kilkenny; they just didn't have to start slapping their heads and tearing their garments.

Canning also revealed that his marker, JJ Delaney, wasn't best pleased when Shefflin opted to point the late penalty rather than go for goal. He obviously heard Delaney's reaction. The gist of it was that "JJ wasn't too impressed!" This was clearly said in a joking manner. No offence was intended at all. But again it was jumped on by the media and inflated into a phantom controversy.

One would guess that what Canning implied here, but didn't say, was that Delaney probably fucked the head off Shefflin for not winning them the match there and then. He wouldn't be the first member of a full-back line to swear at his forwards for missing a vital score. There was no more to it than that.

On Thursday morning, Shefflin woke up to some unflattering headlines. But Canning woke up to them too. And ultimately it was he, not Henry, who'd been screwed.

thecouch@independent.ie

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