Discipline on the pitch must match that practised off it

Tyrone’s Tiernan McCann’s unsavoury tackle on Donegal’s Stephen McMenamin last weekend was greeted with outrage. Picture: Inpho/Tommy Dickson.

Discipline is a big buzz word you hear bandied about in most sporting codes.

In a GAA context, when players and managers talk about it, they are usually referring to their foul count in a big game. The number of scoreable frees they concede to the opposition is usually the barometer of their discipline.

Dressing rooms up and down the country will have signs on their walls to remind players of their responsibility to their teammates. But starting and finishing with 15 players should be the very baseline requirement for good discipline in Gaelic games.

That of course is a verynarrow view of a hugely broad construct.

Take Tiernan McCann as a case in point. The guy is taking a hell of a shellacking for an incident in last Saturday evening’s Ulster semi-final between Tyrone and Donegal in which he appeared to intentionally put his hand into the mouth of Donegal’s Steven McMenanin as he lay on the ground, and followed it up by dragging his boot across his face for good measure.

It was an outrageous act that just makes absolutely no sense to me. What was he trying to achieve by putting his hand in his mouth and grabbing at his gum shield? What good was going to come by raking his boot over his head?

While I’m conscious that these incidents can lead to somewhat of a modern-day public stoning, the whole incident was an act of bewildering stupidity and contradiction.

If you have never been there, try to imagine for a moment the type of discipline it requires in every aspect of your life to get to the inter-county level of football or hurling. Just start with their skills and game play. You don’t get close without the diligence to relentlessly practice and improve aspects of your game and body to make yourself a player of consequence.

That kind of dedication to work on your craft is what separates the club from the county, the good from the great.

If training starts at 7pm, the vast majority of inter-county players are there before 6 to get in treatment, do their foam rolling, some activation work and stretching to give their bodies every chance to perform at the optimal levels before getting out for some kicking long before ever the first whistle is blown.

Getting to training or the gym sessions early means fulfilling work or college commitments to ensure the juggler is keeping every ball in the air.

If a player picks up an injury, the club guy goes for pints after the game and worries about it the next day.

While his inter-county buddy must have the single-minded discipline to choose the mi-wadi and middle of the night alarms to get up and ice the injury every few hours to help expediate the healing process as opposed to the nightclub.

Take diet and nutrition. These players are old-school religious about what they put into their bodies, between calculating their macros and consuming so many litres of water and to give themselves every chance of being in peak condition.

I’m only scratching the surface of what is involved, but there’s an incredible amount of self-control demanded of players to be as prepared as possible to meet the unenviable challenge of balancing work and GAA at the inter-county level. Every aspect of their life is factored into the performance conundrum and there are no shortcuts to success in modern GAA.

The training, the diet, the recovery, the sacrifice, everything is geared towards delivering the very best of yourself in high-stakes competition with such measured and disciplined preparation.

And yet, therein lies the colossal contradiction for many GAA players; the actual competitive game itself is where they show the least amount of discipline and self-control in their lives.

You do all that foam rolling and lifting weights, countless hours working on your kicking, catching, and tackling, go on team building weekends instead of weddings, and for what? To stick your fingers into somebody’s face, eyes, or mouth to try to inflict some damage? Where is the logic?

Where is the discipline that governs every other aspect of your life?

There are plenty of other scuffles that are commonplace in Gaelic football with players grabbing each other by the throat being the latest and most fashionable trend of exerting physical dominance over an opponent without actually punching somebody. Some of the pictures look like a kind of wrestling chokehold as opposed to something you’d associate with GAA.

Eoin McHugh of Donegal in action against Tiernan McCann of Tyrone during the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship semi-final match between Donegal and Tyrone at Kingspan Breffni Park in Cavan. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile.
Eoin McHugh of Donegal in action against Tiernan McCann of Tyrone during the Ulster GAA Football Senior Championship semi-final match between Donegal and Tyrone at Kingspan Breffni Park in Cavan. Photo: Daire Brennan/Sportsfile.

Again, they can show discipline to not eat a dessert for nine months, but can’t stop themselves from trying to choke a guy out in front of a few thousand spectators and on live TV.

The GAA have had a few opportunities in the recent past to take a hard line on these types of issues and have failed to do so.

Think of Philly McMahon and Kieran Donaghy from the All-Ireland final of 2015 when the then Kerry captain was picked up on the referee’s mic telling referee David Goldrick “he gouged my eye on the ground David”, as part of a documentary which aired later that year on RTÉ. The pictures told their own compelling story.

The GAA proposed a one-match suspension for the Dublin defender, which was appealed by Dublin County Board at the time. He eventually missed the first round of the 2016 National League campaign. But it was hardly a strong stance from the GAA, or from Dublin for that matter to have the temerity to even contest the proposed suspension for such an offence.

During the first round of this year’s league, we saw Donie Smith get involved with Keith Higgins in a similarly ugly fashion.

The Roscommon player seemed to make deliberate and prolonged contact with Higgins’ eye as they grappled for possession and Smith was subsequently suspended for one game.

There have been other vaguely similar incidents, but the most common thread running through each of them has been the inadequacy of the punishment to match the crime.

Gouging is not covered by GAA rule, but these incidents have been deemed as category 3 offences which are defined as “behaviour considered dangerous to an opponent” and carry a one-game ban.

But how can Diarmuid Connolly get a 12-week suspension for minor interference with a linesman and somebody else receives a one-week suspension for endangering somebody’s sight?

Now, there’s no way to eradicate something out of the game completely, there will always be players who succumb to the ‘red mist’ and do stupid things no matter the potential repercussions.

But I’m suggesting that the GAA need to write a rule to come into effect at the beginning of next season that carries a punishment more specific and appropriate to that type of offence.

Let’s not wait until somebody actually loses the sight in their eye after being gouged to legislate it out of the game.

Players must be challenged to show the same level of restrained discipline in the competitive game environment as they do in every other part of their life.

But if they fail to do so, a potential five to 10-game suspension would force every player in the country to think twice before acting so recklessly. The punishment should match the crime.

Dalo & Quirke GAA Pod: Do joint bosses work? Clucko's legacy. Gouging deterrents & Dalo in Speedos

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