Saturday 17 March 2018

Eamonn Sweeney: It's time to fight ire with fire

Hold the Back Page

Eamonn Sweeney

On Saturday of last week, the hottest day of the great heatwave, I went to Pearse Stadium to see Galway play Armagh in the football qualifiers. It was 5.0 in the evening but the temperature was still up around the 30 degree mark.

Men who'd given their all poured with sweat, their limbs contorted into various attitudes of exhaustion as they steeled themselves to try and last the whole 70 minutes without collapsing from cramp or heatstroke.

That was the fans. The players were grand, they kept going at full tilt in conditions when even sitting still proved to be something of an endurance test for the average citizen. And the sight of them continuing to make energy-sapping runs in the closing stages really brought home to me how much we take for granted the extraordinary physical conditioning and mental fortitude of inter-county GAA players. They are, after all, amateur sportsmen with jobs to go to yet for the last couple of weeks as Irish temperatures rivalled those in the Bahamas, they whizzed up and down the pitches of the country with the blithe unconcern of athletes who hail from some high-altitude spot in the vicinity of the Equator.

Whatever you think about modern Gaelic football, and I think it's pretty good most of the time myself, you certainly can't fault the effort put in by modern Gaelic footballers.

Yet we're inclined to take that effort for granted. The same goes for another remarkable feature of our native games, the extreme good nature of the spectators. Because when you walked into Pearse Stadium, you didn't worry about whether the fans nearest you came from Armagh or Galway, you just plonked down in the handiest seat. And you did this because you knew that no matter what happened in the game there would be no trouble between the opposing fans.

There were flashpoints in the game; Clare referee Rory Hickey denying Galway some obvious frees early in the second half, a couple of off-the-ball incidents as the game wound to a close, yet even during these the opposing fans maintained their benign relationship towards each other. And when the game ended, they drifted down into Salthill together.

This fellow feeling between GAA fans which means there's never a question of segregration at matches is a great thing. And it's not inevitable. For example, as I write this I'm considering a trip to The Showgrounds to watch Sligo Rovers play Shamrock Rovers on Saturday night in the League of Ireland. Yet I'm doing so with a certain heaviness of heart. Because on their previous two visits to Sligo the Shams fans have damaged property, attacked a local pub, thrown bottles at players, landed flares on the pitch and generally gave a piss-poor impersonation of the kind of English soccer hooligan your wannabe Irish terrace hard man would run a mile from in real life. They acted the same way at Linfield earlier this season.

This is not unique to Shamrock Rovers, though a certain section of their support is a by-word for nastiness in the League. Earlier this season, some Drogheda United fans ran amok in The Showgrounds when they assaulted a handicapped fan and ventured on to the pitch to get into a row with a player. The League of Ireland's crowd numbers are minuscule compared to those at GAA matches yet this kind of stuff happens too often. So, while I'll have been in Sligo last night, I'll have been wary of my eight-year-old daughter witnessing anything untoward. And it goes without saying that there'll have been no repeat of the unsegregated crowd at Salthill or the heartening ambience they created. GAA fans are lucky that way.

Yet there is one notable exception to this universal generosity of spirit. Because a couple of hours after the game ended in Salthill, Joe McQuillan became the latest referee to be put in fear of his physical well-being when he needed a Garda escort after the qualifier in Newbridge between Tyrone and Kildare.

Escort notwithstanding, McQuillan was jostled by several Kildare fans as the GAA's reputation was once more dragged through the mud by a small boneheaded minority. When we state proudly that there is no hooliganism in the GAA, we're not telling the whole truth. The statement has to be amended. There is no hooliganism in the GAA, except towards referees.

Why is it that fans who behave so well towards each other display an entirely different attitude when it comes to refs? I'm not sure but I think there is still a certain ambivalence within the Association about such attacks. In certain quarters it's almost as though the bestowal of a Garda escort on a referee is a badge of honour for the fans involved, a proof of their passion. And occasionally it gets reported as though the escort is an indictment not of the fans but of the referee who has brought it upon himself by its decisions.

In the aftermath of such incidents there sometimes seems to be an eagerness to sweep the thing under the carpet and minimise the seriousness of what has happened. The result is that the chance of such incidents occurring in the future increases.

Attacks on referees seem almost to have become culturally acceptable within the GAA. And an attack, by the way, is what happened in Newbridge. Try forming a mob of your friends to shout at and jostle a man coming out of a pub so that he has to be escorted to his car by guards some weekend. Good luck with avoiding a conviction. The fact that Joe McQuillan wasn't punched or kicked is pretty much beside the point when he was put in fear that it might happen. Put in fear, by the way, solely because he was doing the job to which he had been appointed by the GAA.

It's time the silent majority of GAA fans made it clear that hounding referees after the final whistle simply isn't acceptable. One reason organised hooliganism towards other fans has never caught on in the GAA is that anyone trying it wouldn't just be given out to, they'd be laughed at. Violence towards refs has to become just as unthinkable. Because right now it's a blot on the Association.

The funny thing about the latest outbreak was that Joe McQuillan hadn't actually made any dramatic game-changing decisions in the Kildare-Tyrone game. As a neutral, I found it hard to see how he'd provoked so much ire. Kildare lost because of certain inadequacies in their own team and the superior

talent of the opposition. Logically speaking, a home fan eager to exact physical retribution for the defeat would have been better off assaulting the Kildare half-forward line or Tyrone man of the match Matthew Donnelly. Of course that would have been stupid. But no stupider than attacking Joe McQuillan.

I'm inclined to think that Newbridge should be closed for a while as an inter-county ground and Kildare forced to play their first couple of home league games next year at neutral venues. It might sound harsh but it's only by getting draconian that the GAA will stamp out this particular scourge. Club teams whose fans attack referees should be excluded from the following year's championship. If everyone knew penalties like this were forthcoming, county boards would be a lot more vigilant about protecting visiting referees and fans much quicker to self-police the activities of the lunatic fringe.

After all, in the League of Ireland, where the standard of refereeing is so abysmally low that the average GAA fan probably wouldn't believe his eyes if he witnessed it, the men in black go about their business without danger of assault from either players or fans.

It's easy to get onto League of Ireland pitches at the final whistle yet refs do fine without escorts. And that's because in the League of Ireland, attacking a ref seems as unthinkable as attacking a fellow supporter is in the GAA.

The strange thing is that both kinds of fan misbehaviour tend to get excused on the grounds of our old friend 'passion'. But if you're really passionate about your sport and your team, you should want to be a credit to it in the same way the players are.

Otherwise do the rest of us a favour and stay home.


Being able to dish it out is one thing

Around this time last year I was travelling home from the Connacht final when Radio One interrupted their sports coverage to bring us to Breffni Park, Cavan.

Kildare had already won their qualifier against the home side by a big margin and there were only a couple of minutes left so it was a puzzle as to why we were returning with such haste. Turned out it was because, as Brian Carthy told us like he was describing the second coming of Christ, "Seaaaawaaaawoooonie Johnston," was about to point a free. And some asshole in RTE felt it was important to place this epochal moment on record.

Apparently, it wasn't enough for Kildare to have poached the aforementioned Seaaawaaawooonie from Cavan, they also felt the need to exacerbate the offence by bringing him on with eight minutes left in a game they'd already won and giving him a last-minute free to kick. Given the bad feeling already generated by the transfer of the man who turned out to be the least successful glory hunter in history, Kildare didn't need to bring him on.

And that's why I don't have much sympathy when I hear Kieran McGeeney bewailing his harsh treatment by former players turned media pundits. Because if you rub it into others when you're up, you can't expect to be handled with kid gloves when you're down.

And when McGeeney described certain of his critics as "cowards," he didn't name the ex-player he was obviously bitching about. Which is somewhat cowardly of him. McGeeney's been a great footballer and a good manager. But last week was the least impressive of his career. Nobody looks their best when they're feeling sorry for themselves.


O'Rourke's boys shake up summer

Anyone who feels the provincial system is outmoded got their answer in Clones last Sunday.

Perhaps the Monaghan fans who greeted their Ulster final triumph with the kind of jubilation that made the average Brazilian World Cup victory celebrations look comparatively restrained would have reacted in the same way had their team just won an open draw match which put them into the All-Ireland quarters.

Or perhaps not. Because they know what it's like to be in an All-Ireland quarter-final. They reached one in 2007 when they came within a point of defeating eventual champions Kerry. That defeat put Monaghan on the national radar and over the next couple of years, most notably when going close against Kerry again in 2008, they looked to be on the verge of the big time.

Tipped to make the breakthrough in the 2010 Ulster final against Tyrone, they fell completely flat and got a hammering. Another hammering at the hands of Offaly in the 2011 qualifiers seemed to prove that Monaghan's hour in the limelight had come and gone. They'd played a lot of good football but smaller counties have to strike when the iron is hot or else be haunted forever by the thought of what might have been.

And Monaghan really is a small county. Only Carlow, Longford and Leitrim have fewer inhabitants. So it appeared unlikely that opportunity would knock again any time soon and likely that warriors like Paul Finlay, Tommy Freeman, Dick Clerkin, Vincent Corey, Owen Lennon, Dessie Mone and Stephen Gollogly would end sterling careers without concrete reward.

The belated reward for these terrific players was one reason why Monaghan's completely unexpected victory over Donegal in the Ulster final was such an emotionally moving experience. And so was the fact that the county's fans have had to wait 25 years for what is only their fifth provincial victory in the last 75.

Before Sunday, it seemed as though the football championship had missed out on the magic dust sprinkled by the gods on the hurling championship and that we would end up with the predictable quartet of Dublin, Kerry, Mayo and Donegal as provincial champs. Instead football has now provided an emotional highlight to rival Dublin's Leinster and Limerick's Munster hurling victories. Thank you Monaghan.

When Eamon McEneaney resigned as Monaghan boss last year the county toyed with the idea of reappointing Seamus McEnaney to the job. McEnaney owes his high reputation to the notion that no one else could have coaxed from Monaghan the kind of performances he oversaw in 2007 and 2008. Yet in the end they went for Malachy O'Rourke, a manager whose profile is as low as McEnaney's is high.

It has proved a masterstroke and O'Rourke won't be flying under the radar anymore. Yet his obscurity was puzzling. This, after all, is a boss who took his native Fermanagh to the very edge of a first ever provincial title when they drew the 2008 Ulster final with Armagh before losing the replay, an achievement which went largely, and strangely, overlooked. In an age where a few decent results can earn a manager instant guru status, O'Rourke doesn't even have his own Wikipedia entry.

Yet last Sunday it was obvious that the Derrylin man has instilled new fire in the likes of Corey, Mone and Lennon, got the best out of the sublimely talented attacking duo of Kieran Hughes and Conor McManus and significantly brought on Drew Wylie and Colin Walshe, largely unknown before this year's championship but two of its defensive stars so far.

Monaghan Abú.

Sunday Independent

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