Wednesday 21 February 2018

Leader stamps his authority by rising to the challenge

Tommy Conlon

It's a hard old station, right enough, when a man has to get up at six in the morning to do his day's work.

Especially when, as the GAA president admitted last week, he's "not a morning person".

Liam O'Neill's candour was so startling it almost woke me up. Like, it's alright for journalists and other layabouts to 'fess up to their slovenly sleeping habits. But the position of Uachtarán carries with it great responsibility.

He is not just the leader of Cumann Lúthchleas Gael. He is the symbol of Middle Ireland. He is an upstanding citizen, in a reliable jumper and sensible shoes. He is the Tidy Towns man, the Credit Union stalwart, a lifer on the Parish Council. A man like that is constitutionally obliged to get up early.

The president was the principal of a small rural primary school in his native Laois. One assumes therefore he was never a regular in Copper Face Jacks. But in fairness it probably should be said that a man is entitled to his lie-in, even if he's not a creature of the night.

O'Neill was talking about the draw for the second round of the football championship qualifiers, which took place live on TV3 last Monday morning. "I had to get up before six," he said. "I'm not a morning person, I had to go to the studios before 7.30 to prepare for it."

He may have missed a trick here. If he'd just left in the bit about getting up at six, and left out the other bit, he'd have had everyone thinking he was a great man for getting up in the mornings. And, as we all know, if a man gets a reputation as an early riser in this country, he can roll out of the cot in the middle of the day and no one will pass any remarks.

O'Neill comes across as a GAA archetype: conservative, not charismatic, but civic-minded and principled. Not smooth in front of the cameras, not egocentric either. A more spin-savvy operator would've sanded down his remarks before going public with them. But we doubt if he'd be much impressed by the temptations of spin either.

He wasn't in the mood for some PR flannel anyway. He was angry because a couple of current players had made some dumb remarks about the draw being fixed. O'Neill, along with Liam Hayes, had pulled the balls out of the bowls. Sixteen teams were in the mix. Cavan and Kildare were paired off, thereby adding a further twist to the number one controversy of the GAA summer. Sean Johnston's protracted transfer from Cavan to Kildare was back centre stage.

Now, it should be said, in the interests of parity, that Liam Hayes also had to be up at the crack to perform this sacred ceremony. And he is a journalist. Short of donning white gloves, the two gentlemen could not have been more scrupulous in the discharge of their solemn duties. Hayes in particular was especially conscientious when it came to twirling the balls in his bowl, as it were.

And not content with that, he would also stir the two balls that were placed in a third, empty bowl, before O'Neill picked one and he picked the other. Thus were the teams matched up in pairs. O'Neill all the while chastely averted his gaze while Hayes stirred with a vigour that would've delighted Rachel Allen.

The day before, his fellow pundits, Senan Connell and Darragh ó Sé, had been stirring the pot at his expense. It was during TV3's live broadcast of the Dublin-Wexford match at Croke Park. Unfortunately, he'd left himself wide open, with the latest in a long and glorious line of barmy pronouncements. This one concerned Kevin McManamon: "I think he's an average county footballer." The Dublin forward, sadly, went on to score 1-3 from play and receive the man of the match award. "Thought Kevin McManamon was very average there in that first half," remarked ó Sé, who managed to keep a straight face until Connell cracked up.

And now Hayes, in tandem with O'Neill, was on the receiving end of some mischievous pub talk, via Twitter. Seamus Kenny, the Meath footballer, and Pádraic Maher, the Tipperary hurler, tweeted that the Cavan-Kildare match-up meant the draw had been "a fix". This is stupid on so many levels it's not even worth

discussing. Kenny has since apologised and said the tweet was meant in jest.

It probably was, too, but O'Neill wasn't amused and he had every right not to be. There is a climate of heavy cynicism surrounding authority in this country at the moment, and with good reason.

But in such a climate casual allegations without any substance can quickly take root and mutate into fact. O'Neill showed leadership and moral authority in challenging the twits on Twitter. He called them out at his press conference on Tuesday and in doing so nipped the conspiracy theories in the bud.

"Those players put it on record," he said, "it was done for effect and done to suggest that in some way we would collude to be dishonest . . . There is a stage if people continue to slander you that you will have to take action. I want to put down a marker that it's not acceptable and it just shouldn't happen."

It was a good day's work, even if it probably meant another early start that morning.

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