Monday 11 November 2019

Handy distraction shines some light into grey areas

Joe Canning's views were best kept private but they were blown out of all proportion, writes John O'Brien

Amid all the faux outrage over Joe Canning's remarks about Henry Shefflin, one word chimed louder than any other. It was a word Canning used himself as the questions were volleyed at him by a posse of journalists in Thurles on Wednesday evening. Cuteness. Shefflin and Kilkenny's incomparable record under Brian Cody may be built on several foundations, but that they are undisputed masters when it comes to cuteness is surely beyond doubt.

Although the coverage didn't reflect it, much of what Canning said was complimentary -- albeit in a back-handed manner -- and the hysterical reaction in some quarters felt like watching a Brass Eye special. Was Eddie Keher really "horrified" by Canning's suggestion that Shefflin was guilty of unsportsmanlike behaviour? Hard to know because that word didn't actually appear in any of the quotes Keher offered. It were merely insinuated that he was.

And did Eddie O'Connor genuinely believe it was "out of order" for Canning to call Shefflin's on-field behaviour into question? O'Connor seemed to suggest that Shefflin's record as a player and his status as one of the all-time hurling greats offered him diplomatic immunity against such scrutiny but the reality is, of course, that no player, however special, can ever be above the rules and spirit of the game. O'Connor himself was a little out of order to even hint at such a thing.

During a 12-minute interview, Canning referred to one specific incident in last week's All-Ireland final where Shefflin ran "30 or 40 yards" to remonstrate with referee Barry Kelly over the awarding of a free to Galway. At no point did he question Shefflin's greatness or impugn his reputation. He merely articulated a feeling about Shefflin that many would share but never dare to say so publicly. Whether you agreed with his sentiments or not, it was indisputably a brave thing to do.

But cute? That's another matter entirely. In response to a question fired at him, Canning agreed that Galway needed to take a leaf out of Kilkenny's book and become cuter but to find himself in such a situation, offering himself as a hostage to fortune, was proof of how far they have to travel. And true to form, Kilkenny had a loyal band of former players at hand to defend Shefflin's honour. From Cody and his players not a peep. Precisely as you'd expect.

It's hard to be too critical of Canning. He offered forthright and honest views to a series of questions, straying on delicate ground without being disrespectful or deliberately provocative. Before the final he was one of the few players to grant an in-depth interview and, as much as these things matter, that willingness to open up and put himself out there makes for a refreshing change in an era when managers seem ever more keen to keep their players under wraps, dispensing with those too maverick for their taste.

Canning had shown up in Thurles in his guise as an ambassador for Bord Gáis to publicise last night's All-Ireland under 21 final, an arrangement made at a time nobody knew the senior final would require a replay and it would have been entirely understandable given the circumstances if he'd chosen to cancel his appearance. That he chose to honour the engagement and then offer such candid thoughts is something he ought to be applauded for.

It's hard to believe, as some suggested, that Canning would have gone to Thurles and walked into an ambush.

It would be astonishing if he hadn't spoken to his manager before attending, even more astonishing if Anthony Cunningham hadn't just given his blessing but also handed Canning a few grenades to lob into the conversation, just to make a bang. It's an insult to Cunningham's intelligence to suggest he would operate in such a manner.

And yet, as young as Canning is, and still a virtual novice when it comes to the media, he could not have stumbled into such an arrangement without a mind as to the mini-storm his comments, however temperate, would unleash. He would surely have known that the newspapers would distil the interesting bits and inevitably strip the whole of any redeeming context. Because that's what newspapers do and there's little point complaining about it.

On one level, of course, the whole thing was a little bit silly, nothing more than a handy distraction that helped fill the elongated gap between draw and replay. Yet that isn't to say that none of it matters. At the zenith of their rivalry, Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger seemed locked in an eternal childish feud through the media, forever teasing and manipulating, and Cody, for all his studied disdain, appreciates how important the whole area of mind games can be.

Canning's supposed "outburst" won't have caused Cody any sleepless nights, but you can be sure he will have thought about it and his public response, if it comes at all, will be measured and effective. If it's a game Galway wish to play, you can imagine Cody thinking, then let's see what you've got. The value of mind games can't be measured like body fat or VO2 max, but you can be certain Cody knows their worth all the same.

On balance, Canning might have been wiser keeping his counsel, but let's not overstate it. It wasn't Kevin Cassidy revealing intimate details about his own set-up to an author or James McClean losing the run of himself and ridiculing his own manager on Twitter. It was a young exciting player offering honest answers to leading questions. Canning shouldn't be portrayed as the villain of the piece for that.

And maybe we should consider it another way. If you remove the incendiary headlines, strip the personalities away altogether, last week's exchanges usefully highlighted several issues that are blighting the game: players arguing with referees, diving to win frees and time-wasting, the widespread and not so recent tactic of managers seeking to influence referees in the build-up to games. The GAA needs to get serious about tackling these issues before they become ingrained cultural habits.

Of course, it wasn't Joe Canning's intention to hold a mirror up to hurling's problems, but if his comments were to kick-start such a timely debate, then he will have done his sport some service.

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