PADDY HEANEY: Supporters the real losers as players cast in shadows

In July, my wife fell victim to a serious and chronic addiction. It is said to affect a lot of unsuspecting women at that time of the year.

Fortunately, Wimbledon only lasts two weeks so the obsession was a relatively short-lived affair. But during that fortnight, the compulsion to watchtennis became quite severe.

The last day of mainlining all the action from SW19 was a memorable one. On July 12, Centre Court played host to the men’s final between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. Shortly before leaving the house to cover a game, I asked Mrs Heaney who she wanted to win.

‘Djokovic,” came the firm and instant response.

A fan of the silky Federer, but too timid to venture any strong opinions, I asked for the reasons behind the preference for Djokovic.

I was duly supplied with a condensed biography of the man. I was informed about how the Serbian was identified as an extraordinary talent at six, and how he left home to train with a coach when he was only 12 years old. Those details were only the first course.

Bear in mind my wife has virtually zero interest in sport. But did I know Djokovic was a linguist? Apparently he speaks five languages and tries to pick up new words and phrases from any country he visits.

I also didn’t know Djokovic was religious and during his time at Wimbledon, he rises early in the morning to visit a Buddhist Temple where he meditates.

Listening to my wife, it struck me she knew a lot more about a professional tennis player from Serbia than what I know about the Gaelic footballers and hurlers whom I’m paid to write about.

That was a fairly shocking realisation. Yet, it’s absolutely true.

Think about Sunday’s All-Ireland semi-final between Kerry and Tyrone, a game broadcast on live television and watched by 53,044 spectators. What do you know about Anthony Maher, one of the best midfielders in the game, or Donnchadh Walsh, a three-time All-Ireland medallist?

Moving closer to home, Aidan McCrory has played 68 games for Tyrone. Ronan McNamee (43), Ronan McNabb, (44), and Matthew Donnelly (64) have made a total of 151 appearances for their county. These are seasoned footballers, yet they are virtually anonymous.

In an era of Facebook, Twitter and 24-hour media, we have never known less about our players.

Understandably, some people might dismiss this complaint as the self-centred moan of a journalist who just wants good copy for his newspaper.

Yes, of course, there is plenty of truth in that observation. But a recent column by Tony McEntee made me realise it’s not just journalists who feel betrayed by the manner in which players are being locked away from us.

In a column for The Irish Examiner, McEntee wrote: “It strikes me despite having played football at a high level and having managed since I out-lasted my usefulness, and despite being a keen and interested supporter of football matches and of the individuals playing them, I know little about the sports people playing our national games today.

Who is Paul Flynn, the best athlete playing Gaelic games? What makes Aidan O’Mahony tick? What struggles does Seán Cavanagh overcome to play consistently at the top level?” Keen to know as much about our GAA stars as what my wife knows about Novak Djokovic, the former Armagh player added: “Who are these young lads playing our sport? Tell me more about them.

Bring me into their lives and let me build a connection so that I can see them as people and not robots carrying out functions designed by men in blackened- out computer rooms.” Why have the players being muzzled? The desire for absolute control lies at the heart of the problem. Treated like serfs by all-powerful managers, players are not only told when they can speak to the media, they are instructed what to say to the press.

It has reached the point where journalists are now dreading press nights as much as the players.

At a typical press event, the players rarely engage in the process because they can’t. Under orders to say nothing of any interest about the game, they duly oblige. That’s fully understandable.

But in terms of talking about themselves and their lives, the process simply doesn’t encourage disclosure. There are too many people. It’s too formal.

Sadly, the days of lifting the phone and talking to a player, or organising a one-to-one interview are rapidly slipping into the rear view mirror. Most players are forbidden from talking to journalists. They require permission. It’s just a pity the players weren’t more assertive. Managers should be forced to uphold the same rules as the players.

If the players can’t speak to the media and develop their profiles, then managers should also agree to turn down all the media work, book deals and paid public appearances which come their way before and after their involvement with the county. Given that most players are forgotten the day they retire, that’s only fair.

Yes, I have a problem with managers who tell their players to say nothing while they pocket cheques for various deals. But there are other reasons why it’s a shame players are being systematically gagged.

Last week, I had the privilege of being a guest at a talk night that was organised by Club Tyrone. The discussion was largely driven by the audience. Consequently, the bulk of the evening was spent talking about RTÉ’s alleged witch-hunt against Tyrone, and the sins and failures of modern punditry.

The game was barely mentioned. Apart from Tiernan McCann, the players didn’t feature at all. It should be stressed the topics in Garvaghey merely reflected the tenor of what was being talked about across the country.

Surely, that can’t be right? But that’s possibly the knock-on effect of being so divorced from our players. Maybe we have stopped thinking about them as people.

Barring the odd star like Bernard Brogan or Colm Cooper, the vast majority of players are being forced to live under the radar. Some are quite happy with that situation. But there are plenty who would enjoy more recognition. They deserve it. And their families deserve it.

It’s a problem which Croke Park needs to tackle. We are repeatedly informed that the strength of the GAA stems from the facts that our heroes live and work among us.

But in modern society dominated by Twitter and Facebook and Whatsapp, communities are no longer as tightly knit. More than ever, we rely on media (press, broadcast, online and social) for information.

For the games to truly flourish, the supporters must be able to engage with the players.

Pundits and the managers are dominating the headlines. That can’t be healthy.

Our footballers and hurlers should be the real stars. Unless managers stop treating them like servants, it’s the men in the banisteoir bibs who will continue to hog the limelight — and all the other benefits which come with that.

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