Liam O’Neill’s stance against violence ages well

Sunday’s mass brawl in Austin Stack Park should at least set one record straight. Just as it becomes clearer that Brexit impacts the entire island and not just the North, the violence at GAA matches is not the preserve of Ulster as much as some would, for the sake of convenience but truly downright ignorance, like to sweep that problem towards the nine counties.

Liam O’Neill’s stance against violence ages well

Back in April, the same shapes and punches were thrown there in the intermediate championship game between John Mitchels and Ardfert.

Tyrone may have the name for it but Cork and Kerry — we mention again the row at the end of their U17 Munster final last year — are not without sin.

Former Tyrone captain Seán Cavanagh, the victim of a severe hit in a recent championship game, summed up matter on Twitter on Sunday: “Crazy scenes in Kerry, same in every county. Serious need to come down hard on the 3rd man into an incident & any non players who get involved. Culture change required.”

You’d hope that the individuals who clearly committed such outrageous acts are suitably embarrassed.

How did we get here? The matter, as Cavanagh says, is at its very essence about culture, but six years ago then GAA president Liam O’Neill made it his business to clean up the sidelines.

As in rugby, he felt it unnecessary that the boundary line is so populated.

At an Ulster club SFC game between Crossmaglen Rangers and St Eunan’s in Armagh that year — where the Donegal club’s manager was pushed over — O’Neill counted 45 people on the sideline.

But there had also been other flashpoints that season with incidents in the Clare minor hurling final and the All-Ireland SHC final when Brian Cody and Anthony Cunningham clashed.

“I see no advantage in people being on the sideline,” O’Neill said.

We have to come to a stage where the sideline is sacrosanct. Most of the people involved in those incidents are, in their normal lives, great people.

"But, whatever happens on the sideline, they don’t show themselves to be the great people they are.

“Let’s get them off the sideline. Put them in the stand. I am in a position now where I can at least suggest that we do it.”

O’Neill did more than that, encouraging the GAA’s management committee and Central Council to take heed of his advice. He had envisaged just one person per team being allowed on the sideline but the compromise met at inter-club and inter-county level was a reduction from eight (it had been 12) to five including three seats for a manager, the maor foirne, and a medic, with the rest of the management team sitting with the substitutes and other officials in a seated area.

Most teams, though, gave their medic’s sideline pass to their physio.

Doctors expressed concern that they were denied proper access to injured players before it was agreed there would be two medics permitted to be stationed alongside the manager and running selector.

Some counties adopted the same regulations for their own competitions but obviously they weren’t practical to come into force in some grounds.

Austin Stack Park, though, should be one stadium where such a control can be enforced.

O’Neill, at the time, was accused of trying to take too much of a leaf out of rugby’s book. As well as emptying sidelines, he wanted only captains to have the right to speak to referees. “I would like only one player per team having permission to speak to the referee.

It could be from that diamond of centre-back, midfield, centre-forward; it doesn’t have to be captain. It would cut down on communication.

Last week, this year’s All-Ireland SFC final referee Conor Lane spoke of how abuse continues to be dished out in underage matches, in contrast to rugby.

“You go to a juvenile game in the GAA and, Jesus, the parents. It’s just a different culture.”

What hope for the ‘Give Respect, Get Respect’ initiative with reports like that?

In 2012, we were one of those who suggested O’Neill was bordering on sanitising Gaelic games. In hindsight, he wasn’t.

All he was attempting to do was make the sport more about respect.

On the basis of what has happened in Cork, Derry, Down, Kerry, and Tyrone these last couple of months, there’s an argument to be made that he didn’t go far enough.

Will Cody’s warning be heeded?

If Brian Cody’s comments about how club players are being disenfranchised aren’t enough to jar with the GAA’s leading officials, then nothing will.

In fairness, GAA president John Horan had the foresight to include the great Kilkenny manager on a group to look at how a better balance can be struck between the club and the county scene.

Knowing Cody, his contribution to that body would have been similar to what he said in the Sunday Independent: a warning of “a real divide, a real disconnect”, club players being “isolated” and treated as “second-class citizens” and vacant pitches during the summer being “dangerous territory for the GAA”.

Brian Cody
Brian Cody

Like Monaghan, Kilkenny had a pretty good thing going before everything changed this year.

That the pair of them are predominantly one-code counties helped but you could set your watch by Kilkenny’s club schedule: after almost every one of the senior hurlers’ Championship games, a championship league fixture followed for the clubs in Kilkenny.

Cody mentioned the number of former Cats who have bemoaned the situation now where club matches are put on hold.

From JJ Delaney to Tommy Walsh, Cody’s old charges have aired their frustrations at the stop-start nature of the season.

“Every other year we played championship hurling in Kilkenny we always played four championship games,” said Delaney in March.

This year we have two games in April and then we don’t know when the rest of them are.

Walsh has even suggested the return of clubs hosting their own weekend tournaments in a bid to fill the yawning gaps between games at the height of summer. Several Ulster counties can report their club schedules for 2018 as having concluded this past weekend but there are plenty like Kilkenny who don’t feel so fortunate.

Could there be an alternative to tiers?

Battle lines are being drawn ahead of plans to vote on a tiered All-Ireland football championship and while Central Council’s support is significant, the power ultimately rests not with the representatives of counties, but the clubs.

Wicklow’s determination to bring in a secondary competition for Division 3 and Division 4 counties if they exit their respective provincial championships before the finals will be met with opposition from the likes of Carlow if their manager Turlough O’Brien has anything to do with it.

But might there be a happy medium? Could group stages permitted in each province appease and appeal enough to secure the required 60% support?

For example, Clare, Limerick, Tipperary, and Waterford might play a round robin with the top two advancing to semi-finals alongside Cork and Kerry. In Leinster, there could be two groups of four, again the top two in each going through to semi-finals with the previous year’s finalists?

In Connacht, Leitrim, London, New York, and Sligo could play off to see who joins Galway, Mayo, and Roscommon in the semi-finals. Three pools of three in Ulster, formed on league seedings or previous year’s Championship results, providing the four semi-finalists could be tasty.

Unless they progress to the finals, Division 3 and 4 teams’ summers would end in the provinces but then in all but Ulster, they would be guaranteed three matches, one more than at present, and more importantly three games facing teams of similar ability.

Offer them the option of a B championship with a nugget pertaining to the following season’s Championship for the winners but don’t make entry compulsory.


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