KIERAN SHANNON: Less a ‘GAA thing’ and more a football thing

In the ever-improving as well as ever-expanding genre that is the GAA autobiography, every new entry tends to have a hook to draw the floating reader in.

Oisín McConville and Cathal McCarron wrote vividly about their gambling problems; former Dublin sub goalkeeper John Leonard about his alcohol and drug issues in the wake of being the victim of clerical abuse. 

Kieran Donaghy opened up about his troubled father; Philly McMahon his troubled brother; Jason Sherlock on his crisis of identity growing up in a homogenous Ireland, and later the private torment of never winning a second All-Ireland medal as a player.

This autumn Seán Cavanagh, a seemingly unaffected and inoffensive personality as he was a brilliant footballer, has revealed that like Sherlock, his quest — obsession — to add to his All-Ireland haul led him to some dark places, to the point he resorted to some dark arts at total odds to his true nature.

Although there is much more to Cavanagh and his terrific book, it is that angle that many interviewers have zoned in during his publicity circuit and which the Tyrone great has had no hesitation in articulating so well and so frankly.

If Jackie Tyrrell, who displayed similar candour, was unapologetic about his win-at-all-costs mentality, Cavanagh is more regretful. Even on the very last page of his book, he brings it back up.

Like Elliott Ness in The Untouchables realising he has broken every law he swore to uphold, Cavanagh is aware he became what he beheld.

“I’m not proud of some of my actions towards the latter end of my Tyrone career, mouthing to referees and opponents, sledging decent lads like Michael Murphy,” he writes. 

“I let myself down believing it was for the greater good of helping Tyrone win. At the start of my career certain players abused me and I detested them for it. Yet when I got older, I became one of them.”

“I will apologise to these lads whenever I see them, and I hope they will accept. Fionnuala [Cavanagh’s wife] hated the cynicism of my later career but I was desperate to win one last time and I couldn’t see what she was getting at. Now I see things more clearly. She was right.”

Within days of his book being published, Cavanagh sustained a horrific blow to his face while playing for his club last weekend. 

It has yet to be verified if the blow was malicious, Cavanagh offered no comment upon posting an image of his battered face and broken nose, though would he have posted such an image if he felt the collision was innocuous, especially in light of his recent public utterances on unsporting behaviour in football?

But just as Tyrone GAA needs to thoroughly examine that incident — and others that occurred within the county last weekend — the wider echelons of GAA officialdom need to study and act upon his comments, both in the book itself and the interviews it has spawned. Most tellingly the question Fionnuala has more than once put to him. “Do you want our son going through what you went through on the football field? Because I don’t.”

Yet in their quest to clean up and improve the game, the GAA authorities would be advised to observe one crucial subtlety.

In several of Cavanagh’s interviews, the five-time All Star has spoken about how it is a “cultural” thing, usually after the presenter has put it to him that it is a “GAA” thing.

But this problem is now less a GAA thing as a football thing.

Not so long ago hurling could be just as lawless and brutish as football. 

A few months after Shane Curran recalled the killing fields that were Roscommon GAA in the early 1990s where he witnessed team-mates have their jaw broken and teeth lost, I interviewed Conor Cusack where over the course of conversation he recalled when he was a teenager playing adult hurling when an older player pulled right across his mouth and sliced his mouth in half. Blood and teeth went flying everywhere. 

He had to have his mouth and teeth reshaped. For three months he was sipping out of a straw.

To this day his speech is still slightly affected. The GAA’s insurance scheme covered his medical costs only to the tune of about €5,000. The other €25,000 came out of his own pocket, leaving the young apprentice with nothing left in that pocket.

And what happened to the perpetrator of the assault? “The referee came in,” Cusack recalled, “and his words to your man was ‘that was a bit dangerous there now, Pat’ and gave him a yellow card.”

There is no chance any of that would be repeated now. Cusack for one would be wearing a helmet, the referee would show a straight red and above all, the defender would hardly resort to such savagery.

Three years ago this column sat down with Paudie Butler, the former national hurling director, who reflected on how hurling had cleaned its act up.

“Ten years or so the game was under pressure. Society was changing and hurling had to get sophisticated. Any crudeness or ugliness had to be taken out of it. It had to become the game it was always meant to be which is elegant, fast, mysterious. If there was any more blood or violence the young mothers of Ireland were going to reject the game for their children.

“That was overcome by such things as cleaning up the rules at adult level. All the good stats have gone up — the speed levels, the scoring rate, the time the ball is in play — and all the bad stats have gone down — fellas going off with bandaged heads and broken fingers.

“Before the fella who gave a callous chop could be heroes in his own place. He’s no hero or warrior anymore.”

Football has come a long way since the days Curran would search the fields looking for the teeth of a team-mate but it still hasn’t come as far as hurling has since Cusack’s team-mates were looking for his.

Take an incident described in Cavanagh’s book, brilliantly ghosted by Damian Lawlor. During the same 2016 All-Ireland quarter-final that would prompt Cavanagh to worryingly wander around the Tyrone countryside later that night, Cavanagh was taken up by Lee Keegan.

“He [Keegan] came over and started pulling and dragging out of me. I grabbed his thumb, jerked it back and told him that, next time, I would break it. By the final innings I was doing whatever it took. For years I used the discipline and tools that were given to me through basketball to ignore and overcome the thuggery, almost. In my latter years I had succumbed to it.”

In that same interview with Butler, the Tipperary native talked about how he had recently read an American basketball coach talk to his players about how the sport was bigger than any of them.

“‘Will we honour the game today?’ Well, hurlers are honouring the game a good while now,” argued Butler. “To me, the Brendan Mahers, Henry Shefflins, Conor McGraths, every time they take to the field, they honour the game. That’s a lovely thing to be able to say.”

Unfortunately, football can’t say the same thing. Players like Cavanagh and Keegan have frequently adorned it — the Mayo man is probably the most complete back to ever play the sport while Cavanagh would rival his childhood hero Anthony Tohill as the best non-Kerryman to ever play midfield. Off that same field that they’ve adorned, they are gentlemen, ambassadors. But on that field have they always honoured the game the same way a Maher perpetually has in hurling? Now that Tyrrell and Lar have finally shaken hands and retreated to whatever 19th hole hurling has, would the hurling championship just past have had many moments like that exchange Cavanagh and Keegan had in 2016? Or Keegan had with Diarmuid Connolly in 2015? Or a Keegan had with Dean Rock in 2017? Or the hit Keegan was subjected to in the league by a former team-mate of Cavanagh’s in 2018?

Hurling is still not flawless on matters of sportsmanship and gamesmanship. Too often its defenders are still willing and able to get away with doing a Cavanagh on a Conor McManus as the sport’s rulemakers still fail to introduce a black card or show a red one for a goal-stopping foul; if it wants more goals, it’s going to need more cards. But as Butler acknowledged and celebrated, it has made massive strides.

Rules have a way of shaping the culture and thus shaping behaviour. Last year when Jason Sherlock was doing rounds of interviews for his fine book and was quizzed about the conclusion of the 2017 All-Ireland final won by the Dublin team that he coaches, he said that it was up to the sport’s legislators to duly punish such behaviour.

In other words, he and his team were merely exploiting a gap or inefficiency within the rules, a loophole a sport like his first love, basketball, would have closed off.

Cavanagh shares a similar love for the sport Michael Jordan once ruled and has called for similar sanctions to improve the other sporting love of his life.

Have a second referee out there who can pick up more on the sledging and threats to break fingers and duly send people off. “In basketball if you come out with silly stuff like that or commit a cynical foul, you’re kicked out of the game; it’s black and white,” he told Matt Cooper on The Last Word last week. 

If Dublin forwards haul down Mayo backs before David Clarke kicks it out, bring the ball forward, possibly to their own penalty spot if needs be.

In highlighting the dishonour in the game, Cavanagh has honoured it.


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