We only hate the GAA hit men when they’re on the other team

Gaelic games have been infected by the man-made virus, Agent Machismo.


“Garda probe as teen’s leg is broken in ‘sickening GAA match attack’ ’’

“Garda investigation after hurler (13) hospitalised in ‘assault by adult male who ran onto pitch’ ” 

Two headline newspaper stories in just one week late last autumn.

Around the same time there were the pre-match busts ups and assorted off-the-ball bumps, thumps, and jersey shreddings in the showpiece All-Ireland football final and replay between Dublin and Mayo. 

And at any number of Gaelic football matches, big and small up and down the country there was plenty of guff and stuff going on. Even the youngsters — and their coaches — are at it, as any parent standing on a seething sideline will tell you.

Sure some of them are even joining in.

Hang on a second, I hear you say: how did we get from kids being attacked by crazed parents at club matches to the black-carding and blaggarding going on all the time in big games at Croke Park, and then throw in the routine shenanigans to be seen in hundreds of club matches up and down the county every week?

I believe they are all connected, and what’s more, we are all to blame: players, coaches, parents and all the rest.

They are all merely points on the spectrum of the bad behaviour  tolerated in Gaelic games. Especially football. Despite all the official admonishments and tut-tutting from concerned parents and the practised ire of Sunday Game pundits.

The truth is while we would officially profess to want the bad boys kicked out and sanctioned, we actually don’t. Publicly, it’s down with that sort of thing; off the record, well, it’s an altogether different story.

Gaelic football, in particular, has long been infected by a particularly virulent strain of the man-made virus, Agent Machismo. The symptoms are many and varied. Players infected usually display a reckless regard for authority and safety — their own and others — as they go about harassing, haranguing, intimidating and generally trying to stop an opponent from attempting to play positive football.

The virus is so infectious traces of it have been identified even in those looking on, be it coaches, parents or spectators. Again, the manifestations are diverse but usually include a compulsion to rage purple-faced at the players on rival teams — or your own on occasion — and referees and linesmen when they make decisions against one’s own team. There may also be the urgent need to heap loud and vulgar abuse on home players who let themselves be intimidated in any way. This is also known as projection. 

At its most pernicious, the virus attacks the victim’s cerebellum, giving him an irresistible urge to intervene directly in contentious matters on the pitch or the sideline. 

All that is needed for Agent Machismo to spread and thrive is that its use be tacitly condoned. 

As parents, coaches and fans, we are all susceptible, and some of us are even carriers. The question is do we continue to allow it to spread or do we look for a cure?

Coaches and players in every sport, at every level, want to win and will do just about anything to do so. It might not be within the rules, but so what if they get away with it seems to be the prevailing attitude — and we are not just talking about intercounty set-ups or big-name clubs at senior level.

Maybe it’s the extra physicality of Gaelic games, especially football, and all the tribal passions it stirs up, but, anecdotally, the rows, the pitch invasions and the aggro seems to happen more often here than in other sports.

So we read last September of the 17-year-old footballer who received a double leg break in an alleged assault during a juvenile football match in Co Meath. Conor Cribben-Hayes (17), was allegedly stamped on repeatedly by an opposition player in a 12-person melee during his team Clann na nGael’s match with Kells club Gael Colmcille, in Rathcairn. Paramedics took the teenager by stretcher to a neighbour’s home, and an ambulance arrived to take him to Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. Gardai are investigating the incident.

Barely weeks later a group of adults walked on to the field after a melee in the under-14 hurling game between Tullogher Rosbercon and Galmoy Windgap in Kilkenny city and one of them allegedly assaulted one of the players, aged 13. Simon Kennedy was knocked unconscious and treated by a nurse at the scene before being moved by ambulance to St Luke’s Hospital in Kilkenny. The game was called off and gardaí were called to the scene.

So what was your favourite off-the-ball scrap in the All-Ireland football final and replay at Croke Park? In the first game was it maybe Diarmuid Connolly and Lee Keegan letting rip as they tested the fabric of their respective county jerseys? Or maybe one of the full and frank exchanges between a rain-soaked Philly McMahon and various less-than-innocent Mayo boyos? 

Or it might have been the human roadblock Aidan O’Shea placed in the path of Jonny Cooper? Or Cillian O’Connor dragging a rampaging Darren Daly to the ground?

The post-match stories had O’Shea and O’Connor plowing into half of the Dublin team before the game had even begun. But sure isn’t O’Shea a fine beefy, Breaffy lad anyway, well able to give it and take it, so it’s only right that two or three guys should pummel the stuffing out of him on the field, and sure he might get done for holding on to the ball too long?

Okay, the conditions were awful and a lot of players seemed to have issues with their studs, but really, why does this Gaelic football game we love so often become some sort of mixed martial arts effort?

And on it dragged as the teams took to the field for the replay two weeks later. Yes, the actual contest was exciting, gripping even, right to the end as only one point eventual separated the victors, Dublin, and the vanquished Mayo, the ultimate so near and yet so far merchants.

But really, does it need all this grappling, sledging, whacking and wrestling to make it a proper man’s game?

And what about the kids? The players of today and tomorrow looking on and seeing for themselves what happens to nice guys who play by the rules in serious matches: they usually lose. Wimps!

We’re not talking about good, hard, man-to-man tackling here, the very essence of a contact sport. Football or hurling would be nothing without this proper physicality: you and your opponent going for the ball, shoulder to shoulder, will to will. Nothing like it.

But not the relentless off-the-ball hits, dragging, obstructing, reckless follow-throughs and minor assaults and affrays happening all over the Croke Park pitch.  And on GAA pitches all around the country. 

Every so often on Sunday one of these magnificent athletes would detach himself from the mullocking herd to grab the ball and demonstrate the prowess and skill that first marked them out for greatness when they donned an oversized shirt for their club’s under 10s. 

Suddenly one player would leave the herd to sweep like a champion colt over the shiny green sward on an exhilarating upfield dash, slaloming around despairing tackles, exchanging passes and return passes at break-neck speed and, if we were lucky, this magnificent stanza would finish in a wonderfully executed scoring flourish.  

More often these runs are brought to a shuddering halt, with either the runner himself taken out of it, or a potential pass recipient would find his support run terminated, ruthlessly and painfully. The terminator might get a black card, a yellow card, or no card at all as the gladiatorial combat continued unabated. 

Dessie Dolan, Tomås Ó Sé, Ciarán Whelan and all The Sunday Game pundits are right to point out the ridiculous inconsistencies relating to referee’s application of the black and yellow cards, but really, the problem starts long before that. 

For all its intrigue and endeavour last year’s Battle of the Sam trench warfare compared poorly with the year’s All-Ireland hurling final, or indeed many of the hurling finals of recent years.

Yes, yes, different games, different codes. Nonetheless, Tipp and Kilkenny went at it hammer, tongs, and sliotar; there were thundering tackles and shoulder-to-shoulder collisions aplenty, but these only added to the spectacle as the two counties played the ball, first, the man second. 

The result was a spectacle of skill, ambition and wit that dazzled and entranced, and was as elevating and enriching as any great work of art.

Ciarán Whelan has more than once raised the anomaly of the regular defender-forward scraps that usually end in a yellow card for each. As the former Dubs midfielder has noted, the defender is normally the instigator but the forward gets the same punishment.

Which brings us back to Connolly and Keegan. 

If ever a player encapsulated the ambivalence at the heart of our attitudes towards dealing with skilful players, and even towards sport itself, it’s Connolly.  

For a start, this will be rooted in whether or not you follow the Dubs, or his club, St Vincent’s. 

For the diehards on the Hill he’s Bruce Willis in football boots; a gliding amalgam of two-footed power, technique, balance, and control. Anyone lucky enough to have watched him playing for Vincent’s will know he is virtually unplayable. For the average club player. At county level, he is still a star, but up against a better class of defender. Ones often skilled in the darker arts of curbing the influence of a man of such extravagant gifts. 

This is Connolly the man sinned against and not protected by referees or officials. Loses the head now and again, but who wouldn’t when they are constantly being blackguarded and provoked?

For rival supporters it’s different. Never met him, so they know him by reputation and conspicuously petulant running battles with Keegan and other defenders. For this fan, he’s skillful, alright, but a bit of a crank —  good enough for him if he gets sent off for hitting the defender back. And double good enough for him if he is suspended for 12 weeks for making a relatively trivial incident with a lineman.

As former Kerry great Darragh Ó Sé noted in one of his Irish Times columns defenders are lining up to pull Connolly’s tail and then standing back.  

The tone of many of the newspaper and online comment pieces around the Keegan-Connolly rivalry is instructive. Typical is the observation of former Roscommon footballer Karl Mannion that Keegan was winning the battle between the two, because he had got inside Connolly’s head. Connolly only scored one point so Keegan has done his job well.

Too bad that Keegan died by the sword and was sent off in the final replay on a black card for pulling down Connolly — but only after scoring a marvellous goal, which raised the question would Mayo be better served employing the defender’s obvious skill and energy more positively.

“I think Connolly has reacted better previously to that kind of focus and abuse from defenders,” said Mannion, normally sharp as a bag of broken razor blades and a paragon of measured insight.

  The moral, it would appear, is intimidation is okay — and it works. This would be fine if we were talking about a boxing match, or a full-on MMA bout featuring Conor McGregor. If Connolly and Keegan took to the ring, I would watch with relish, but what has all this to do with FOOTBALL?

Diarmuid Connolly is a marked man in more ways than one, and the irony is he is an easy target precisely because he doesn’t take this treatment lying down. There has to be something wrong with that.

It might be fanciful but I think the message being sent out has ramifications far beyond sport. The message is life isn’t fair and only saps play by the rules. The bad guys do win too. Maybe Agent Machismo is reaching farther than we thought.

Ultimately this stuff isn’t good for the likes of Keegan either. Now if Mayo finally break their All-Ireland curse and he is playing he probably won’t give a damn what others think of him. But does he really want to be thought of as a destroyer, a man-marker trading on breaking the will of others? 

One cannot help questioning the attitude and influence of the coaches and mentors down the years that have fostered this approach. Lee Keegan is a great defender and I believe he would be a massive test for Connolly anyway.

Coaches and players will only draw back from nefarious practices when it is unprofitable to do so.  Or they are properly punished.

This is why it all comes down to us: that’s us as players, coaches, fans, and parents and guardians, and the disparity between what we preach about sport and what we actually practise.

 We tell our children about fair play and all shake hands at the end but they can see perfectly well what is happening out there on the pitch. And encounter it when they cross the white line.

Respect the referee at all times, we say. Oh yeah, so why are daddy, mammy and my coach shouting their heads off at him every second week from overwrought stands and sidelines? 

Who among us doesn’t ignore our own team’s transgressions while screaming blue murder when the opposition do something similar?   

The elephant in the room here is the question of bravery, or as it is more euphemistically put, “heart”.

“Don’t let him push you around,” the coach shouts to the little 10-year-old corner forward being elbowed and needled off the ball by the husky corner back, “get stuck into him!” 

There is another message implicit here: don’t be relying on the rules, waiting for the referee. Hit him back.

But then bravery comes in many forms. Is the abrasive enforcer any more doughty than Dublin’s Bernard Brogan, who only has eyes for the ball and takes the hits as he battles to get to it ahead of his man and hopefully swivel-hit another trademark point? It didn’t happen for Brogan on Sunday and he was subbed off, but you can guarantee that, if selected the next day, he will show for that ball, and bravely run that gauntlet again.

The phrase “in vino veritas” is a familiar one, but when playing sport, one’s true character, I would argue, is also sooner or later revealed. Sport lets you be yourself, only more so.         

 I am particularly interested in the role that sport can play in the formative years, and how, through it, one can learn not just about oneself, but how to deal with major life issues. 

As Eric Cantona once put it, one must learn to play ze game.

 That phrase “play the game” is great because it can also refer to the notion of appearing conform in order to get what we want out of the game. Getting away with stuff. And very often encouraged to do so by one-eyed coaches — and parents. 

So, what do we do about all this?   Again, I believe it’s down to us. We have to take a stand, or stands. Starting at the beginning. If your son’s or daughter’s coach is not doing right by them, let it be known, or change teams. 

Referee, linesman or umpire, if things are getting out of hand on the sideline, warn the miscreants. If they persist, abandon the match. Lodge a complaint with their club, or with your governing body. It won’t go down well, and you’ll get an earful or two, but it won’t continue for long. Hang tough!

And surely referees should make better use of umpires and linesmen when trying to nail various culprits. Save the Omerta for the baddies. 

 Sport is all about winning, but there’s a good way to win and a bad way.  And the bad way won’t work for long. Not if you want to really be the best.

 Watching my children’s GAA and soccer matches week on week, I am seeing the present and the future, and it is not always pretty. There are thrills, spills, and entertainment aplenty, but there’s also levels of hacking, fouling and abuse of referees that can still genuinely shock. 

The emphasis too early on winning at all costs, and the fear of losing, is stifling creativity and killing skill and self-expression.

Coaches and players are often the last ones to want or accept changes to their sport that might actually help the skillful player to thrive, but let us continue to try to fight the darker forces in our character that would blight our efforts to be the best people we can be. 

And redouble our efforts to strive for sporting contests hard, unflinching, but fair.      

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2 comments on “We only hate the GAA hit men when they’re on the other team

  1. Reblogged this on The out of kilter world of Father Brennan. and commented:
    A great read.


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