Vincent Hogan: Donal Og looking in wrong place for origin of paranoia
Former players not harmless innocents amid the growing 'undercurrent of malice'
One day, perhaps two years ago, this column telephoned a prominent inter-county man, enquiring about the possibility of an interview.
The silly idea was met, initially, by a slightly hopeful tone. "Which one is it?" he asked, before reciting his portfolio of commercial 'friends'. "None of them," I replied, suddenly feeling as intelligent as a root vegetable.
The man was speechless. It was as if he'd been invited to give a two-hour lecture on 16th century Elizabethan history at some upcoming literary festival. "Ah God no," he eventually replied with a sympathetic chuckle.
"I couldn't be doing that!"
Donal Og Cusack declared this week that alarm bells were ringing loudly in the relationship between GAA media and "those who cross the sideline." There was a good deal of truth in what the GPA chairman wrote. Short of being sprayed with insecticide on entering dressing-room tunnels, GAA journalists today couldn't really feel much lower down the communications food chain.
But Donal got his lines a little crossed in seeking to identify the genesis of this "distrust."
For starters, he fixated on recent happenings in his own county where modern history is bullet-holed with civil war spites and tensions. In particular, he referenced a Sean Og O hAilpin interview that appeared in a number of Sunday newspapers the day Cork's hurlers played Clare in Limerick.
Now to any objective eye, Sean Og's words were hostile towards Jimmy Barry-Murphy. Describing John Gardiner's omission from the Cork panel as "ridiculous," O hAilpin was quoted thus: "There's guys there being called in from places I've never even heard of. John has been playing club senior hurling for years. There must be other reasons."
Now Sean Og has long been one of the Association's most admirable and dignified men, but – by any inter-pretation – this was mean-spirited stuff.
That some GAA commentators should accordingly read it as (1) a veiled criticism of the likes of Seamus Harnedy, who plays for a junior club St Ita's, but happens to have been a revelation in Cork's two championship outings to date and (2) a questioning of Barry-Murphy's motives, scarcely seemed unreasonable.
But Donal Og writes that his friend was left "twisting in the wind" by the commotion subsequently triggered.
He cited O hAilpin's well-known generosity in presenting medals or taking coaching sessions in the remotest corners of rural Ireland. Cusack said that he'd actually laughed when he read the offending passage.
"Anyone who knows the man would know that this was a little joke and not a little bitterness," he wrote.
Trouble is, it didn't read that way then and it still doesn't now. In fact, I very much doubt O hAilpin doesn't regret the tone of his interview, which, appearing on the day of Cork's opening championship game, seemed – at best – sour towards Barry-Murphy and the team.
Unless Sean Og was mis-quoted (and no such claim has been articulated), Cusack's depiction of the media as having some kind of guilt on their hands with the story is thus, frankly, odd. He is right to pour scorn on the practice of faceless quotes being used to denigrate as, apparently, happened in one newspaper last week. Quoting unnamed sources is cartoon journalism and, frankly, unworthy of adult behaviour, let alone a serious media outlet.
But Donal Og also chose to round on those who participated in what he terms a contrived "blood feud" between Joe Canning and Henry Shefflin after last year's drawn All-Ireland final. This story was built upon Canning's observation to a group of journalists that Shefflin's behaviour for one particular incident was "not sportsmanlike."
True, this wasn't exactly a napalm attack on Shefflin's character, but it is hard to believe that Joe wasn't at least mildly aware of the bushfire it would ignite.
In the intimacy of a one-to-one interview, this kind of line often passes in the body of the copy as gentle candour. But Joe was at a commercial event, speaking to a broad audience.
In other words, he would have known that one juicy line could be interpreted in a multitude of ways.
He is in the small handful of GAA players perpetually in demand for such gatherings and, as such, one of the most experienced media practitioners around. In fact, at 24, Joe has done more interviews than most players do in a lifetime.
Perhaps the reaction was extreme and, in some instances, over-dramatised, but to depict Canning as some kind of harmless innocent caught up in the maws of a voracious media was absurd. An insult to his intelligence as much as ours.
GAA writers are, almost universally, GAA people. They don't represent some kind of snarling sub-culture, intent upon blackening reputations. But an environment now exists in which ex-players feel compelled to grow claws for their punditry and that, more than any act of conventional journalism, is responsible for the "undercurrent of malice" Cusack referenced this week.
Donal Og is right when he says the paranoia is growing. He's just looking in the wrong direction for a culprit.