Home Thoughts From Abroad

My grandfather was a gentleman and a great character. A sharp, dry wit, and for someone that never touched a drop of alcohol in his life, was the centre of attention at many a late night music session well into his nineties. He never really held more than a passing interest in football – his passions were cultural rather than sporting – but he was always finely tuned into the fortunes of the green and red.

I remember countless league Sunday afternoons, Mayo either featuring either on Mid-West or “Teilifís na Gaeilge” as it then was, when he would stroll in the back door and get settled into the armchair. Never a man to prevent a kettle from being boiled, he’d know the first question to be asked.

“Will you have a cup of tea?”

“I will surely. How are they doing?”

“Up by two.”

“Mighty!”

We could have been playing with a gale force breeze and ought to have been ten or twelve points further ahead. We could have been dicing with relegation due to results elsewhere. We could have been heading for the knock-out rounds. All that was irrelevant. Mayo were up and that was all that mattered. In-depth analysis wasn’t really called for. His enjoyment was in the game itself, not in the wider distractions. For a man that was 20 when Mayo won their first All-Ireland and 35 when they won their last, he could see the bigger picture and the futility of over-analysing the immediate.

I’ve thought of him a few times over the past couple of days as the build-up to the semi-final clash gathers pace. The column inches and airwaves already devoted to the game is extraordinary, verging on the bizarre. Whether it’s the unprecedented demand for tickets, Kevin Keane’s disciplinary hearing, Jim Gavin’s nudge and a wink to the referee, various fitness updates or the myriad number of opinion pieces on the key individual battles; the level of media coverage has been more akin to a final. This is all the more astounding considering it is the latter of the two semis, almost as if this weekend’s clash is an afterthought. A Kerry team barely considered at the penultimate stage of the tournament. I’m sure they’re distraught in the Kingdom.

Living in London, I wrote previously that all this coverage is meat and drink. A regular dose of championship hype to keep connected with the mood at home. But there’s a problem – I’m struggling to find a regular outlet for this overload of information. Processing such an intake requires two-way communication on a near-daily basis to generate a real championship buzz. And working in a large multinational company, I find myself in a minority of one with an interest in Gaelic games.

Water cooler conversations are dominated at the moment by England’s recapture of the Ashes, the start of the premier league campaign, or the approaching rugby world cup. Trying to get views on the merits of Lee Keegan man-marking Diarmuid Connolly is difficult. But nonetheless, I persevere. Allied to the Mayo crest tacked to my desk, I now have an image of Aidan O’Shea barrelling past the Donegal defence as the wallpaper on my desktop. It tends to draw attention whenever a colleague walks past.

“What’s that?”

“Oh it’s gaelic football. That was my home team winning the quarter final a few weeks ago.”

“Gaelic football. Is that a bit like rugby?”

“Well sort of, but it would have similarities with soccer as well.”

“You mean football?”

“Erm, well yes…just a different football. Think more like Australian rules.”

“Australian rules what?”

Know your audience I guess. And so for my own sanity, I’ve decided to take a lead from a wise man and not get too caught up in the analysis or the occasion this time. It’s a losing battle. No doubt I’ll still read everything, and I’ll still obviously be elated if they win, devastated if they lose. But on the whole, my focus will be on taking enjoyment from the day and appreciating what Mayo football means. A unifying factor for local communities, being based abroad it means even more. It’s now a connection with home and a source of community in London instead.

And I’m fortunately still close enough to Ireland that these marquee games offer a chance to meet up with friends and family. The morning of the game, the routines of the breakfast, the (proper) pints of Guinness and the chance to yet again visit the hallowed arena of Croke Park. Coaches often speak about players needing to enjoy the big occasions to be able to play to their potential. Maybe there’s a lesson in there somewhere for supporters also. This Mayo side have given us plenty of great days out in the past. I hope they enjoy the next one as much as I intend to.

This post first appeared on the ever-excellent http://www.mayogaablog.com, run by the inimitable Willie Joe. Essential reading for all Mayo supporters and fans of GAA in general.

McEnaney’s Musings Help Nobody

Superficial remarks from an experienced referee are a missed opportunity to improve standards, inform supporters and provide greater transparency on the disciplinary process.

Back in the heady days of 2007, as the music faded and the realisation was dawning that the party was over, then-Taoiseach Bertie Ahern spent a lot of his time trying to convince people to stay for one more round. His most infamous remark around that time was a critique of those who were beginning to err away from the group-think, the ones he deemed to be “talking down the economy”. It was a crass and flippant remark on an important and sensitive topic but to set aside the seriousness of the issue at hand, what really stood out was the utter stupidity of it all. How could someone in such an important position of influence, take such a dim-witted view and express it in such an ignorant manner?

The same instinctive reaction came to mind upon reading Pat McEnaney’s comments from the Mayo v Dublin clash over the weekend. The dismissive tone. That air of “I-know-better-than-you”. The sheer inaccuracy of it all. In the aftermath of Sunday’s contest, Joe McQuillan has been somewhat insulated in the media with a general consensus emerging that it was a nigh-on ungovernable game which he did well to control. Keith Duggan captured the chaos in Monday’s Irish Times describing it as being akin to a zookeeper turning up for work and finding all the cages open. But McQuillan didn’t merely arrive powerless to this scene, he was an active participant in its development.  

Let’s examine the expert verdict on two key incidents and it’s worth taking a moment here to establish the credentials of that opinion. Pat McEnaney is one of the most experienced referees in the history of Gaelic games, taking charge of All-Ireland finals, International Rules tests and from 2012-2015 was Chairman of the National Referees Committee. His opinion carries weight, and his knowledge should be drawn upon to educate and enlighten the casual observer. In Australia, former referees are regularly employed on TV and radio during AFL matches to comment on incidents. BT Sport have taken a similar route this season in their Premier League coverage where Howard Webb contributes to technical discussions. 

“Philly McMahon, did it clearly show that he struck with his head? I would say there is no clear striking of the head. Yes, he put his head forward. Yes, the other boy put his head slightly forward. But as someone would say, that’s how they walk in Ballymun anyway!”

 Dismissive of a rule of the game and somewhat disparaging of the inhabitants of an area of Dublin in the one breath. To accept the antagonist in question did move his head towards an opponent and then reject its validity with a pathetic attempt at humour makes for feeble ‘analysis’. For what it’s worth, my personal opinion is that McMahon shouldn’t face censure for the incident. Having viewed the footage several times and still undecided on the nature of the coming together, I’d rather give the benefit of the doubt where no injury has been sustained. But then again I’m just an average specator – if only there were a knowledgeable commentator to educate me on these technical rules and how the disciplinary process should proceed. Say a former referee for example. Ahem.

 “Yes, it was borderline. It was a bit rash. Knowing Jonny Cooper, he’s not that type of player. I’d say if I was refereeing the game myself, it would be still be just yellow”

Jim Gavin has always appeared fairly level-headed and understated in his public utterances. He may rightly have faced criticism for his obtuse stance on a nasty incident in the recent challenge match with Armagh, but there was clearly a larger enforced omerta in place. This calm and reasoned nature was again evident immediately after the game when he was questioned on some of the refereeing calls. “It would be very unfair of me to comment. Joe made the decision based on whatever information he received”. A rational suggestion that the referee makes a decision to the best of his abilities based on information to hand.

The excuse of “not that type of player” is one more regularly trotted out by the coterie of ex-players or managers. For someone in McEnaney’s position to even contemplate this as a valid reason behind the decision-making process is concerning. Of all the various flashpoints in Sunday’s clash, Cooper’s was arguably the most serious. It was a deliberate, reckless and cynical attempt to immobilise an opponent and one which could have easily ended Diarmuid O’Connor’s season. The fact that McQuillan awarded a free indicated he had clearly witnessed it, and it’s a poor reflection on his performance that stronger action wasn’t taken. McEnaney’s absolution on such spurious grounds is unhelpful, bordering on irresponsible.

These are but two incidents from a footballing maelstrom, where both East and West alike will likely harbour resentment as we head towards the replay. Comments in the media from those such as McEnaney certainly haven’t helped ease the tension or educate the masses. With the disciplinary process yet to run its course there is every reason to expect another powder-keg atmosphere on Saturday. Let’s hope Eddie Kinsella and his team can better control the blast.