Take note GAA! We want our pen pics back

I was at a function recently with a few people and we bumped into Anthony Tohill, the four-time All Star and All-Ireland medallist. Tohill stands 6ft 4ins tall.

When we parted company, my friends spent the next five minutes talking with wonder and awe about Tohill’s height.

Bear in mind that Tohill had an accident with a chainsaw earlier in the summer. But that mishap never got a mention. Like men staring at a starry sky, they marvelled at Tohill’s towering physique.

The incident reminded me that supporters are fascinated by the size of players.

The GAA should take note of this fact because far too many match programmes are missing the one essential feature that makes them worth buying — the pen pics.

In my book, a match programme that doesn’t include a dossier on the age, height and weight of every player isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. And I am not alone in this regard.

Before penning this column, I consulted widely on this issue. The verdict was unanimous. The consensus was that selling match programmes without pen pics was like selling hotdogs that had no sausages.

One friend went further. A keen student of heights and weights, he feels short-changed when occupations aren’t listed in the details. Luckily for him, he didn’t attend the fourth round qualifiers that took place in Croke Park on July 27. The programme cost €4. That’s a scandalous amount of money to charge for a publication that provided a full page of coverage on the referees, but didn’t offer a paragraph about the actual players.

Thankfully, it wasn’t always like this. In 1989, I sat on a grass bank in Irvinestown and watched Derry play Fermanagh in the first round of the Ulster championship.

I still have the programme. It cost 50p. It’s still a treasure trove of information.

Two pages of pen pics were allocated to each team. Apart from outlining each player’s age, height, weight, club and occupation, there was also a short summary of their career.

In 1989, Derry’s Kieran McKeever was 21-years-old. His height was listed as 5ft 7ins and he weighed 10st 7lbs. With that snippet of information one of the benefits of pen pics is already obvious.

They allow you to compare and contrast with modern day players. Philly McMahon and Johnny Cooper, the two Dublin corner-backs in this year’s All-Ireland final, are both 6ft tall. McMahon is 13st and Cooper is 11st 11lbs.

While McKeever was Derry’s lightest player, the team’s heaviest man also hailed from Dungiven. By 1989, the 26-year-old Brian McGilligan had won the first of his two All Stars. Yet, the pen picsinformed us that he was a “late developer” who only made his debut in 1985.

More intriguingly again, McGilligan’s weight is recorded at a jaw-dropping 16st 5lbs.

Of course, seasoned supporters will realise that GAA match programmes are notoriously unreliable. That’s another part of their joy. Former Antrim goalkeeper Sean McGreevy was once listed as being 40 years old. McGreevy was 37 at the time. He subsequently became the Dorian Gray of Ulster as he got younger as years rolled by.

One of the major problems for the organisations charged with producing programmes is that Irish people delight in giving misleading or mischievous information.

The inaccuracy of pen pics doesn’t strengthen the argument for their omission. In fact, I would argue the opposite as the confusion can generate valuable discussion.

Take the example of McGilligan. In 1989 we were informed that he weighed 16st 5lbs. But three years later when Derry met Tyrone in the first round in Ulster, the pen pics tell us that McGilligan was 14st 10lbs. Was the information in the ’89 programme wrong? Or did Eamon Coleman’s training regime force McGilligan to lose a whopping 19lbs? Furthermore, don’t think for a second that players would no longer be allowed to tip the scales at more than 16st.

For the 2008 All-Ireland final, Kerry’s Tommy Walsh weighed precisely 104.5kg. In old money that’s 16st 7lbs.

It would also be a mistake to believe that protein shakes and weight-training has robbed us of 10-and-a-half-stone corner-backs.

For the 2002 All-Ireland final, the programme stated Armagh’s Enda McNulty weighed 10st 8lbs. For the following year’s final, McNulty had dropped a pound.

It’s the height of players that intrigues me. In the GAA, there is a phenomenon which occurs when certain players put on their kit and walk onto a football pitch. In everyday parlance we say that these men “tog out very big”.

A prime example is Tyrone midfielder Plunkett Donaghy. The former All Star regularly entered jousts with giants of men like McGilligan and Armagh’s Mark Grimley. Yet, a cursory scan through the old programmes tells us that Donaghy was just 6ft tall and weighed a modest 12st 10lbs. To put that in context, Donaghy is smaller than Dublin’s wing-forward Paul Flynn, who is 6ft 1in and weighs 14st 1lb.

Also, consider this question. Who is the tallest, Marc, Tomás or Darragh Ó Sé? The obvious answer is master fielder Darragh. But it’s a trick question. The answer is Darragh and Marc. At 6ft, both brothers are the same height.

Unlike Anthony Tohill, most people who meet Darragh Ó Sé walk away amazed at how ‘small’ he is. At 6ft, he’s the same height as Oisín McConville, Benny Coulter and Colm McFadden.

Croke Park should note that the supporters who shell out €4 for programmes are actually interested in these type of facts and figures.

So, instead of health and safety notices and long-winded addresses from officials, the GAA should include the one thing in a match programme which people actually read — and that’s the pen pics.

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