Watching Aidan O’Shea in action last Saturday, it was astonishing just how much self-restraint he showed — and how much provocation football still allows.
For the second consecutive championship match facing Ulster opposition, O’Shea was constantly targeted. Just like against Tyrone in last year’s All-Ireland quarter-final, he was pulled, dragged, thumped. Even winning a free offered him no immunity. Opponents would still bump off him, or, when he’d been hauled to the ground, fall on top of him, their studs making contact with his face, all looking for him to lash out. But it didn’t work, just as it hasn’t worked against O’Shea for five years now. Prod this bear and you won’t get a reaction — at least not the one you’re looking for.
There was a time when it was different. Early on in Mayo’s third league game of the 2012 season, O’Shea, playing midfield, leapt up and grabbed a kickout. When he came back down to earth with the ball, a Down player hung off him, grabbing his arm. Even when a free was initially rewarded to O’Shea, the Down man continued to hang off him.
Not only did it prevent O’Shea taking a quick free; within seconds, O’Shea and Mayo had no free at all. He’d swung his elbow, partly to free himself, partly to have a swipe at his opponent. O’Shea was suspended for a month, leaving Mayo dicing with relegation.
It would be a lesson to not just O’Shea but the entire Mayo team. For the rest of the James Horan era, there would only be one further case of a Mayo player receiving a straight red card — Lee Keegan in the 2014 drawn All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry.
Their approach was best exemplified by O’Shea himself later in that 2012 season in the All Ireland semi-final win over Dublin. O’Shea stripped Denis Bastick off the ball and then in the process of picking it up and speeding away with the ball, he received a hit from Bastick into the rib carriage, both before and after Joe McQuillan blew for a free. Another player would have scowled and struck; O’Shea just shoved and smiled. Like Michael Jordan learned against his supremely-physical nemesis the Detroit Pistons, such hardship was going to be a fact of life for a top player. Instead of taking umbrage at any provocation, he took it as a compliment. When they hit me, it’s because either they can’t stop me by fair means or it’s because they’re rattled.
Numerous players could learn from the example of O’Shea. Diarmuid Connolly is an obvious one. So could a few of O’Shea’s teammates. With the dismissals of Keith Higgins and Paddy Durcan, Mayo have had as many players shown straight red cards in the last month as they had for the entire Horan era. Lashing out is always ultimately the choice of the player. But the GAA need to recognise there’s a lot more they could be doing to avoid — instead of just punish — such indiscipline.
According to psychologists, one of the most common causes of over-aggression is frustration. The frustration-aggression hypothesis, they call it. Essentially we all innately have an aggressive drive that can be triggered when a goal-directed behaviour is blocked.
Take Paul Galvin’s infamous row with Paddy Russell’s notebook nine years ago in Ennis, where O’Shea visits next Saturday. When recounting the incident in his autobiography, it’s telling that Galvin repeatedly used the term “frustration”. That day against Clare he went to make a run off the ball but had his arms pinned down by his marker. When he brought this violation to the attention of the linesman, the linesman’s response was to recommend to Russell that Galvin be shown his second yellow card of the day. When Galvin asked Russell why he was been carded, he claims he received no response.
In Galvin’s own words, what he subsequently did was an “impulsive reaction” out of “basic instinct” and, that word again, frustration. “Frustration at being on the receiving end of a bad decision. Frustration at Paddy Russell’s omerta.” Frustration that his run, a goal-directed behaviour, was literally blocked by his marker. “Pure frustration.” As Gavin would quickly add, “None of that offers any excuse, just a little context.” Those are words that the GAA’s rulemakers should closely observe. While it is their duty to act on and punish acts of indiscipline, they should also be on the lookout to reduce the causes and triggers for such indiscipline.
A couple of years earlier Galvin had been on the other side of a high-profile incident. In the drawn 2006 Munster final, Cork’s Anthony Lynch came out with a ball when he was fouled by Galvin and Kieran Donaghy. Joe McQuillan blew for a free but Galvin and Donaghy remained in Lynch’s realm. As Donaghy would admit in his own book, “To stop Lynch taking a quick free, I stood in front of him, poking at him, half-hoping he might react and the ref might throw the ball up.” Lynch duly reacted, swinging his elbow to free himself to take a free.
That Lynch later successfully appealed his suspension is a separate point. What’s of interest is Donaghy deliberately engaged in goal-blocking behaviour because it would likely provoke an aggressive act born out of frustration.
In Donaghy’s other sport, basketball, his own behaviour would not have been tolerated. Hanging off his man after the whistle had been blown would have automatically led to a technical foul on him and free-throws for the opposition. Donaghy himself maintains the GAA should advance the ball 50 yards a la Australian Rules, or reward a close-in free similar to basketball for an indiscretion like his own that time. But as things stand, what real deterrent is and was there to stop him hanging off a Lynch?
The GAA have made some strides. O’Shea’s aforementioned catch against Down in that 2012 league game would now result in a mark; he’d be able to take his quick free more easily. A more vigilant linesman than the one Galvin encountered in Ennis would have recommended a black or yellow card for his marker. But too many cues for aggression remain.
Take Diarmuid Connolly’s initial suspension after the 2015 All-Ireland drawn semi-final. He struck out because he was been man-held by Lee Keegan. How else was Connolly supposed to free himself? Ditto Kevin Keane earlier that month. He was admonished for appealing his suspension for striking Michael Murphy but no commentator pointed out that Murphy was hardly an innocent. He had Keane grabbed by the throat, compromising the Westport man’s capacity to breathe.
Gaelic football is generally in a good spot but a terrible eyesore on the game that has largely gone without comment or outrage is the regularity with which players grapple to the ground or grab each other by the jersey or throat. Body-check a man running off the ball and you’ll be given a black card. Strike him and you’ll be shown a red card. But haul him to the ground and wrestle with him there and the most you’ll be shown is a yellow card, while he might be shown a red by lashing out.
In his book, Donaghy categorised two sorts of players in any form of confrontation: the aggressor and the reactor. Ironically, he observed out, the aggressor usually gets away scot free because they don’t actually throw a punch. Invariably it’s the reactor — a Diarmuid Connolly, a Kevin Keane, an Anthony Lynch — who is censured and carded by the officials as they react out of frustration.
It is to Aidan O’Shea’s immense credit that in the face of constant provocation he has not succumbed to being a reactor.
But until the GAA do more to remove and reduce obvious cues for aggression, a lot more players and bears are going to be prodded into reacting.