Cynicism takes firm hold as players cross the line to get over the line

Much of the discourse around last Sunday’s final has left me cold, writes Dara Ó Cinnéide.
Cynicism takes firm hold as players cross the line to get over the line

As enthralled as I was by the All-Ireland final — the contest, the physicality from start to finish — I simply can’t abide much of the commentary over the past six days from those directly involved in the game, those on its peripherary and those tasked with analysing it.

Nobody knows why the Dublin forwards chose to drag their men to the ground on David Clarke’s last kickout, and yet everybody knows.

Nobody knows why Lee Keegan or Cormac Costelloe did what they did in those closing moments, and yet everybody knows.

The insights we’ve been given into players’ mindsets, most especially those who’ve been interviewed at events organised this week by the GAA’s corporate partners, have only added to the confusion.

Ciarán Kilkenny, whom I know to be a good and honourable man, spoke this week of “doing what you can to win” and “getting over the line” when asked of Lee Keegan’s antics with the GPS device.

Paul Geaney, as talented and as pure a forward as you could find in the country right now, said of Costelloe’s and Kilkenny’s cynicism that he “would expect it from anyone who has ambitions of winning an All-Ireland.”

In one of the more memorable games I witnessed this year, the Kerry v Dublin league clash in Tralee on St Patrick’s weekend, Geaney himself engaged in a bit of a set-to with Stephen Cluxton after he kicked away the spare football Cluxton had stashed next to the goal in an attempt to slow down the Dublin restart. Truth be told, I didn’t despair at Geaney getting involved in these antics as it told me he was wising up to the realities of football at the elite level.

When both sides met a few weeks later in the league final, Éamon Fitzmaurice was at pains to point out ahead of the game that all serious inter-county teams have a hard edge. What was seen as an attempt by Fitzmaurice to influence the narrative ahead of the league final was, in reality, a tacit acknowledgement by the Kerry manager that the game as it is now played has become ungovernable.

Indeed, following the summer, one of the major criticisms from terraces and barstools in Kerry is that the Kerry defenders’ fouls are too obvious and too easy to punish. In other words, they need to improve their tackling or else improve upon the darker arts!

In the words of Vito Corleone at the meeting of the five families in The Godfather, “how did things ever get so far? It’s so unfortunate and so unnecessary.”

Years ago, in my last game as a Kerry footballer, I watched Peter Canavan pin Colm Cooper to the ground in order to ensure Kerry’s greatest scoring threat was taken out of the attack, thus increasing Tyrone’s chances of getting their hands on Sam Maguire.

As much as we resented it then and rail against it to this day, such stuff is routine now. You become inured to it.

And so when the autopsy begins games like last Sunday’s reveal their secrets, you just shrug your shoulders and tell yourself ‘live and let live’ or ‘game over, move on and leave it all on the pitch’.

As I player, I always found that the end of every big game was an anti-climax. What you thought you might feel, you rarely did. After a while I got to know that it was the game itself that was the important thing — sé an cluiche an máistir — and all that followed was superfluous.

When you watch serious inter-county football in 2017 you recognise that for the players there is no other world outside the bubble they inhabit and you sense that they create their own moral universe within those confines. In this new world, old values are inverted and the cart draws the horse.

In Kerry Mick O’Connell has consistently expressed the hope that sporting honour within the playing culture would act as a shield against the plundering and the depredation of the game of Gaelic football. Such hopes seem so naive now and have done for some time.

It is pointless nowadays to cling to core values about the way game is played at the top-level now. Best to let the teams get on with the game, for us to enjoy the spectacle and to leave the bellyaching to the few who believe the whinging to be worthwhile.

In fairness to the authorities, things have moved on a great deal from this time ten years ago when then Uachtarán Nickey Brennan felt the need to take the radical step of addressing a special congress on the subject of indiscipline.

Two years later, future GAA president Liam O’Neill, then chair of the Disciplinary Task Force, proposed a number of measures, including a version of the current black card, to combat cynicism. “You can go back to the clubs and schools, look into the eyes of children and tell them that if they work hard and learn these skills, we will protect you,” said O’Neill.

It’s all very well lining up teams of kids, togged out in their club jerseys, to exchange handshakes and evoke the spirit of respect. It happened in Croke Park last Sunday, but by the time the unseemly endgame of the final played itself out the antics of the grown-ups had made the earlier pageant feel like a bad joke.

Anyone who watches the Cumann na mBunscol games will know that at primary school level, most kids just play and don’t think to question the calls or try to gain unfair advantages.

The change happens sometime during the subsequent years playing underage at club and school level.

In summary, they are heavily influenced by what they see at senior level and what they learn from coaches, supporters and, most critically, from the players they look up to. Although greatly improved in many respects, senior intercounty championship football is still not an entirely healthy environment.

It is into this environment that the latest wunderkind, David Clifford, is about to step next year. I’ve no doubt he is more than capable of holding his own but wouldn’t it be ironic, after all the talk of creating a healthy environment for Clifford in Kerry with scholarships, personal development and career options to bolster his earning potential, if it was the cynical play, so prevalent in our game, that made it less attractive for Clifford and others to stay?

The introduction of the mark, despite initial scepticism, has worked as a means of making the game more attractive.

The top two teams, Dublin and Mayo with their attack-minded styles did a lot for the game this year too, but it wouldn’t be great if the casual acceptance of indiscipline and cynical play was halted altogether?

Despite all I’ve said up to now, the 2017 GAA year wasn’t without its virtues.

While Dean Rock’s nerve in taking the late free last Sunday will rightly live in the memory, it must be acknowledged that such sang froid is nothing new with Rock and these Dublin lads. They came from six points down with 20 minutes left against Tyrone in Croke Park in February, with Rock’s equaliser coming on 76 minutes.

They went to the well two weeks later against Donegal in Ballybofey and on a night of feral intensity in Tralee on St Patrick’s weekend, Rock and Paul Mannion struck late to break records and Kerry hearts, as, like last Sunday, Ciarán Kilkenny was dismissed late on.

In the last round of the league against Monaghan, Rock brought the teams level 1-14 apiece in the 67th minute, Diarmuid Connolly got a black card and Jack McCaffrey got injured in rescuing the game for Dublin with a goal in the 72nd minute.

It’s been that kind of a year for Rock, Connolly and McCaffrey.

Next year the round robin series of eight teams will replace the quarter-finals. We’ll have Dublin travelling outside Croke Park more and after their June Bank Holiday joust with Carlow in Portlaoise, that is to be welcomed.

We look forward to seeing how much better Con O’Callaghan can become, to latest tactics devised to counter the influence of Stephen Cluxton and to Mayo bouncing back again and again and again.

Karl Lacey won’t be back. Neither will Seán Cavanagh nor Niall McNamee and perhaps even Donncha O’Connor, 37 next April, might decide that there’s only so many times a fella can bail his team out.

We look forward to football games in the glorious Páirc Uí Chaoimh, to Kildare and Galway back in Division 1 and to the likes of Carlow, Armagh and Down building on the hidden promise of 2017.

You see, it’s not all bad. It’s just that it could be a whole lot better.

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