Tony Davis: 'The GAA is going to have to wake up to the fact the juggernaut has become too big'

Michael Moynihan speaks with Tony Davis about the state of play in the GAA today.

Tony Davis: 'The GAA is going to have to wake up to the fact the juggernaut has become too big'
Tony Davis, the former Cork and O'Donovan Rossa footballer pictured in Cork. Picture Denis Minihane.

The sports-nostalgia industrial complex has us all in its grasp right now, and no matter what your preference is there’s a TV channel somewhere that’ll cater to you.

Rugby, soccer, athletics, golf — all the classics are being reheated and served anew.

The same with Gaelic games, the back catalogue serving up plenty of past encounters. One rich lode is the late-eighties rivalry between Cork and Meath, which accounts for the frequent sightings on your television of Brian Stafford and Larry Tompkins, David Beggy and Niall Cahalane.

That doesn’t mean all the protagonists hunker down on the couch when those games come on, mind.

“To be honest, I wouldn’t be pushed about watching those games again,” says Tony Davis.

The Skibbereen man was a potent weapon on that Cork side, slashing upfield from wing-back to support his forwards, so it’s surprising to hear that a choice between Coronation Street and the drawn ’88 final isn’t a clear-cut decision.

“Well, I wouldn’t be too interested in Coronation Street either, but I certainly wouldn’t watch the old games. If one of them was on when I sat down I might watch some of it but I don’t really look at them. I’ve moved on.

“It can be frustrating to see those games again because we lost so much and could have won a lot more. I’m not in a position where I can have any influence over it any more, so I wouldn’t be that good at going back over the old games I played in.

“What I do remember is the craic and the people who were involved. The places we went and the good times we had. I’d often bump into people who’d say to me, ‘do you remember such and such an incident in such and such a game’, and I’d have to say, ‘not a clue’.

It’s like it happened to a different person, to be honest.

After he finished playing Davis gave years to The Sunday Game, of course. He’s still familiar with the modern game but he doesn’t miss the level of homework that punditry required.

“I watch quite a bit of football, but in fairness I wouldn’t as au fait as I used to be with all the players on the Antrim and Carlow panels, for instance.

“The games I’d find interesting I watch — the likes of Dublin, Kerry, Galway, Donegal, and if Cork were playing at home I’d head to watch them.

“But the days are gone when I’d be trying to keep tabs on who was injured, or who was on or off a panel. When I was with The Sunday Game it was very enjoyable, a great time, but there’s a lot of work goes into it as well, you’ve a fair bit of preparation.

“Most fellas would be able to name Dublin’s forwards, for instance, but knowing something about the fourth sub another county might bring on would be more of a challenge.

“And you can’t fool people. The GAA public is very knowledgeable on players, on the nuances of the game, and people can always tell immediately when you’re bluffing.”

Davis’s reference to the enjoyment he knocked out of intercounty life is significant, given a suggestion from one of his former teammates that an away league game was often an invitation to have some fun after the final whistle.

“We had some fun the night before a few games, too, but when we played we were serious.

“I’m involved with Skibbereen and a lot of them are young lads, and I’d be thinking sometimes they’d be as well off to head out for a pint, particularly when I saw The Last Dance there recently, the Michael Jordan documentary.

“I enjoyed it immensely, I thought it was fantastic. What struck me was the time when Dennis Rodman, one of the greatest rebounders ever, headed off with Hulk Hogan on the beer to Las Vegas after a play-off game — and then came back into the group, and the players just accepted it, ‘that’s Dennis, he needs to do that to clear his head’.

“If that were to happen with a GAA team they’d be hung out to dry, the family would be shamed. There’d nearly be an X hung over the front door of the house.”

Davis’s unhappiness with the current inter county scene is nuanced: he points to the scale of the enterprise as the issue: “I think it’s become too serious in that the entire juggernaut is just too big.

“Too big for the county boards to support and for players, as amateurs, to be normal, decent, functioning adults as well as an intercounty hurler or footballer.

“Sometimes I think it’s impossible for them because they don’t know, at their core, who they are — their identity is wrapped up in being a footballer or a hurler. Their whole being can be wrapped up in that rather than the person they are, but if anything goes wrong — you get a bad injury or you’re dropped — then what?

You’re gone from the WhatsApp group you were in for five or six years and where are you then? Gone from the bubble, that bubble where every waking moment is given over to preparation.

“I’d be worried about them, the way the whole scene is just too big. I don’t know if they really enjoy it, even if they won’t admit that.

“Maybe it’s because I’m too old-fashioned — or I’ve seen too much of life - but I’d be worried about them. It’s like the first group of first professional players in rugby — speaking as an outside observer, these intercounty players are giving up too much of themselves.” The post-pandemic downturn is expected to affect all sectors, and Davis feels that the GAA will have to adjust itself accordingly.

“Expectation is going to have to come down. Nowadays when the All-Ireland is won the captain’s speech goes on for fifteen minutes, because he has to thank so many support staff. You’re practically bringing a second bus to Croke Park just for those people.

“I don’t think that can be sustainable in an amateur sport. During the week there were reports of lads being left go in Australian Rules, the Australian Rugby Union is broke, all due to the pandemic.

“Those are professional sports, but they’ve had to draw their horns in to a huge extent.

“Yet here we are in Cork with Páirc Uí Chaoimh — and whether we like it or not that’s part of the county board — there are intercounty hurling and football teams to be sustained from senior all the way down ... there has to be a reckoning. Do you need all these people? I’m not sure you do.

Then you tie that to the commitment these guys are putting in at intercounty level — when six or eight weeks lead-in and preparation for a game, to me, is enough for anyone.

Davis admires the physical conditioning of the modern GAA player: “Don’t get me wrong, these players are supreme athletes.

“But you have to look at the injuries. These aren’t collision sports like rugby, but when intercounty players slam into each other the collisions are huge.

“I was down in Páirc Uí Chaoimh at one stage last year and the Tipperary hurling team walked past me, and I was asking myself, ‘are these guys genetically modified?’ — I’m six feet tall but I was looking up at most of them.

“They’re phenomenal athletes, and it’s the same for every county, in football and hurling.

“So when they hit each other you see shoulder injuries, all sorts of injuries you wouldn’t have seen as much long ago.

“Looking at pictures of us playing in our own time, we all look skinny — we were probably trained for running rather than physical contact.”

Jamesie O’Connor recently echoed Davis’s comments, remarking in this paper that players in footage from the nineties don’t fill out the jerseys in the same way modern players do.

“He’s right, the tight jerseys came in with Armagh to make sure lads couldn’t grab hold of them, and then their players really bulked up, they were big boys.

“We had bigger jerseys, but we also weren’t as built up, whereas now even at club level the ratio of matches to gym and physical preparation is ridiculous.

“I don’t know if that gym culture serves a psychological need, but the GAA is going to have to wake up to the fact that the juggernaut has become too big.

“It’s too big a price to pay in the lives of those who are playing — they might disagree, and their managers might disagree, because there’s a whole industry there to support all of that.”

As for his own county, he’s optimistic about Cork’s chances of progress when the lockdown finally ends.

“I’d be hopeful, definitely. They’ve done well in Division Three and I don’t see anything wrong with being in Division Three — they learn to win games, they get their playing system right, all of that.

“To win an All-Ireland you have to be operating at the very highest level, but Cork aren’t at that level yet. It’s an ideal time for them to be getting into Division Two — the younger players are getting experience, the U20s who won the All-Ireland are a year older and they’ll be 21 when the games come back.

“What they have in particular is some good forwards. That’s what gives me hope, a forward 30 or 40 yards from goal making the right decision under pressure because he has options inside him.

“Colm O’Neill is gone now, but when he was available, if he were missing or if the Hurleys were injured, then you’d be struggling in the inside line.

“I hope they stick with these young lads and give them a go, and that’ll be positive for Cork.”

And elsewhere?

“The lockdown’s been a disaster for Dublin and for Dessie (Farrell, manager) in particular.

“Jim Gavin walks away with five in a row, the coronavirus strikes and Dessie is left in the lurch. God knows how Dublin will be when they come back.

“I think the break may help Kerry, though, because their young lads will be a year older, a year stronger. The likes of David Clifford and Sean O’Shea are very good, obviously, but they’ll be stronger again. They’ll be hard to beat.

“It’s good for some and bad for others, but one thing it may do is even things out at inter county level.”

He’ll be busy until then. Scheduled to retire from An Garda Síochána a few weeks ago, he stayed put: “I didn’t actually retire in the end — I had a date for it, April 1st, and at the start of March it didn’t appear to be that much of a deal, but the situation changed pretty fast.

“When I was supposed to go was when things started to change, and you couldn’t very well sit at home if there was something you could do to help.

“We didn’t know what the future held in early April, but everyone was worried that we were facing an out and out pandemic — we didn’t know if there’d be a lot of lads out sick that would have to be covered for. I said I’d stay on a couple of months. Hopefully it’ll get better - it seems to be, anyway - but until then it’s a matter of 12-hour shifts.

“So much for retirement!”

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