KIERAN SHANNON: Only in Gaelic football is smart, cynical fouling a KPI

The GAA needs to acknowledge that, along with its much-heralded community and amateur status, there is a pervasive cynicism that is ‘unique to our games’, writes Kieran Shannon

Mayo's Cillian O'Connor and Galway's Eoghan Kerin tussle off the ball last weekend at Pearse Stadium. Picture: Diarmuid Greene

On the same morning of the sometimes — and far too often — farcical Galway-Mayo clash in Salthill, Marc Ó Sé, prompted by the flashpoints in another Mayo game the previous weekend, wrote a column in a national newspaper posing the question: ‘Yes, Kerry are cynical, but what county isn’t?’

The former Kerry great outlined how nearly all the best teams had players and an attitude of never hesitating “to do what was required”.

Examples: The Meath team that battered a naïve Tyrone team in 1996; a much more streetwise Tyrone team in 2003; the Donegal team of 2012; the Mayo team that “bullied” Kerry last year; and the brilliant Kerry team that he and his brothers played on.

“I have never denied that we were cynical… This is the way it has always been. There is not a team out there that, certainly not one that has enjoyed any kind of success, that does not have those players or that attitude.”

While in many ways Ó Sé’s column was refreshing for its unashamed candour, its sentiment, combined with the outright bolloxology that was so pervasive in Salthill, made us pose and ponder another question: Yes, all the leading teams in Gaelic football feel the need to be cynical, but why don’t champions in other sports have to think and act that way?

Did you ever hear anyone say last summer that the Philadelphia Eagles would have to become more cynical if they were to challenge for a Super Bowl? That if the Pep Guardiola project at Manchester City was to be realised, his team would have to become more cynical? That the reason why the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers had contested the previous three NBA finals was that the likes of Steph Curry, LeBron James, and Kevin
Durant were willing to resort to whatever it takes?

LeBron James

Of course you didn’t. You might have heard alright that City and the Cavs would have to substantially improve their defence, that their intensity, focus and even aggression in that department would have to significantly increase, but not their level of cynicism.

In fact, the pervasiveness of cynicism in Gaelic football, both between the lines and in its general discourse, is unrivalled in any other team sport.

It was something that struck us watching the Super Bowl the other week. How after every play — say, a running back gains three yards — there were no sneaky afters, no lousy cheap shots. After being fairly, if violently, tackled and stopped by his opponent, he was able to get back up unimpeded, with no member of the opposing defence accidentally-on-purpose falling on top of him, digging him. Once that ball was snapped, the Eagles defence was out to smash Tom Brady, but once the play was complete, they left him untouched. A game loaded with aggression, but devoid of cynicism, which helped make it a brilliant spectacle. 

Switch to rugby, another collision sport. So far we’ve had six games in the Six Nations and, outside of the French trying it on with the HIA protocol, there’s been hardly one act of cynicism.

Flick on any soccer match on the box. In the odd game there might be the odd contentious dive, but for the most part the sport is played in a sporting spirit, the nadir of the 1990 World Cup a distant memory. Its best players — the likes of Messi, De Bruyne, Kane — don’t have to stoop to niggling or wrestling an opponent to thrive and win. 

In Gaelic football, though, it seems our best players feel they do. Just take the last three Mayo games that have been televised live.

As brilliant as the 2017 All-Ireland final was, it was somewhat marred by the outrageous and cynical acts carried out in the closing minutes. Picture a Messi or Steph wrestling an opponent to the ground to prevent an entry pass, or hurling a GPS or some equivalent of a kicking tee.

Ten days ago in Castlebar, they played Kerry in a desperately tetchy affair. The Ronan Shanahan challenge on Evan Regan has been by now well-scrutinised; less so the running battles off the ball in which men repeatedly dragged and pinned their markers to the ground.

Then there was Salthill last Sunday. More of the same. In fact, worse, which prompted me to tweet: “The amount of bolloxology that Gaelic football — wrestling, dragging, sneaky afters — tolerates is pitiful. Is that what you’d want your young fella at?’

That’s what it comes down to. The GAA has so much going for it. A game from the gods in hurling and, in football, potentially one of the best known to, and made by, man. All played for the love of those games and community, which we are reminded of by almost every corporate brand these days. The latest of those ads is brought to us by Allianz, in conjunction with Micheál Ó Muircheartaigh joyously revelling in the wonder and innocence of kids playing the native games.

In time, though, playing hurling and especially football won’t be so innocent. Some of those kids waved at by Micheál will either resort to or be subjected to acts that their classmates who opted for the cispheil nó rugbaí won’t.

There is something sad that Peter Canavan, the best ball-player of his generation, won his two All-Irelands with his last act seeing him jump on the back of an opponent and hauling him to the ground. Likewise, the abiding image of Lee Keegan, arguably the best wing-back to ever play the game, and Diarmuid Connolly, definitely the best wing-forward of his generation, will be of them wrestling on the ground when they weren’t throwing GPS devices at each other. LeBron and Durant never had to resort to such antics in their finals face-offs.

We know of clubs and teams that have as a key performance indicator (KPI) the number of smart fouls they commit: Instead of fouling the man in possession, they’re out to spoil the runner before he ever appears on the shoulder; it’s not like the linesman is going to notice.

However, in doing so, for the glory of the parish or the county, a little bit of the human spirit is corroded.

Again, is that what you’d want your kids to resort to? Is it what you’d want them to be subjected to? The kind of insidious, underhand tactics that someone like Aidan O’Shea — a model of discipline, to his credit — is constantly exposed to in a sport that is woefully policed?

Rules and regulations can help. A black ball. Empowering linesmen and umpires more. Having a second ref on the field. Harsher, longer suspensions.

However, it starts firstly with recognising the existing culture and reality.

In its self-congratulation, the GAA often refers to its community and amateur status as “unique to our games”, but it also needs to recognise and address that its pervasive cynicism is also “unique to our games”.


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