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Richard Sadlier: Dark arts thrive where there's pressure to succeed

Investigations have begun in the past week into allegations of biting during last weekend's Football League Division 1 game between Dublin and Donegal. It's easy to dismiss such behaviour as the wayward actions of a thuggish minority, and I'm sure that's true in this case, but everyone reacts differently to the pressures of competition. I stepped way over the mark many times throughout my career, but there were days when I saw it as part of the job.

Midway through the first half of one game I remember, I deliberately threw an elbow to the face of the defender marking me. He had been repeatedly kicking and fouling me off the ball so I figured it was time to give a little back. His plan was obviously to intimidate me from the start and dominate me throughout the game, but there was no way I was going to just accept it. I decided the next aerial challenge between us would be my opportunity to respond.

He left the field for treatment immediately after the incident and did not return. I met him in the medical room an hour later where he was getting treatment for a broken nose. I apologised and assured him it was accidental but I knew it was a job well done. I scored both goals in his absence in a 2-0 win, putting us through to the next round of the cup.

In that environment at that moment, swinging an elbow while jumping for a ball was what I had been taught to do. Not explicitly – I was never given pointers on how to elbow anyone – but I learned the importance of imposing myself on an opponent if the situation demanded it.

I had spent the previous couple of years being outfought, outjumped and outsmarted by players of more experience. I knew the consequences of doing nothing and the benefits of getting involved. Win the battle, earn the right to play. Make sure he knows early on that he's in for a tough afternoon. There are several other euphemisms that fit, but they all mean the same thing. And it's certainly not confined to professional football.

It's unpopular to discuss the dark arts of competitive sport in public, but gaining the edge over opponents can be done in many ways. For example, I was told as a kid to deliberately foul the 'keeper the first time he came to catch a ball. Shoulder-charge him on the first corner kick. It may lead to a moment of hesitancy later in the game that would make all the difference. I would pick up many more tricks along the way.

That game doesn't stick out in my mind because I deliberately hurt an opponent. I only remember it because the player broke his nose. It never occurred to me to take a moral stance on what I was doing. My job was to get the better of my opponent, and that day I did it very well. Moralising about that behaviour is for people on the outside looking in.

Pressure to succeed comes from many different directions in professional sport – coaches, team-mates, crowds, media, supporters, family and friends – and there were several instances where I did things that I knew were out of character. My outlook now is as it was then, that I was adapting to the environment in which I found myself. But one of the most vivid memories I have of all my years in competitive sport is of what happened one Saturday afternoon

playing Gaelic football as a teenager in Marley Park in Dublin. The allegations of biting from the game in Ballybofey last weekend brought it back to my mind once again.

I was playing as full-back for the local club when the umpire behind the goal made a decision one of the opposition players disagreed with. The player hurled abuse at the umpire who was in no mood to just stand there and take it. A gentle clip on the ear was administered to the lad, which was the cue for his father to sprint to the scene and get involved.

Moments later, the umpire and the player's father – both of whom trained each team – were brawling in the mud on the ground. A melee ensued between both sets of players, the low point of it all being the spitting that went from their players onto the back of our manager as he rolled on the ground trading digs with his counterpart.

Funnily enough, I decided to concentrate solely on football after that.


Irish Independent