Players’ Honest Commitment Deserves Better Than Cheap “Cheat” Shots

A few weeks back, over an idle chat in the pub, I was challenged to name my “three favourite things”. Reading that statement back in the cold light of day it seems like a pre-school discussion, but after several pints of the foaming ale it was a topic of considerable gravity. In any event, the final output was boiled down to Bruce Springsteen’s gigs, Elmore Leonard’s novels, and Colm Boyle’s barrelling runs up the pitch. The last entry on that list was cemented when watching the Kildare clash and the aggression and infectious energy he plays the game with. An all-action style that makes the game a joy to watch for even the casual observer. Vital interceptions? Tick. Barnstorming forays up-field? Tick. Teak-tough defending? Obligatory point from range? Last-ditch tackles? Tick, tick and tick. At the moment, I can’t think of a single footballer that is more enjoyable or entertaining to watch. Even in the nadir of the Galway performance, the Davitt’s man tried to lead by example and jolt his team-mates from their collective slumber. That effort was best encapsulate in a two-minute window of the second half where he drove into several tackles, collected a yellow card, landed an audacious point before turning to let out a roar at his comrades to up the ante. Alas on that occasion he was howling in a vacuum, but to borrow a phrase from Chris O’Dowd – Boyler is ‘gangbusters’.

After a miserable few Brexit-dominated weeks over this side of the water, with a fairly tepid European championships doing little to lighten the mood or capture media coverage, the qualifier route for Mayo has actually been a blessing in disguise for those of us of a Green and Red persuasion looking for some distraction, and the efforts of our centre back deserve particular commendation. The Second Captains lads recorded a great interview with the legendary Michael Parkinson a few years back (well worth your time here) and one of the particularly brilliant soundbites was his response to the oft-referenced Shankly quote of football (or sport more generally) being more than a matter of life and death. Sir Michael was steadfast in his belief that sport is important exactly because it reminds us there’s something more out there beyond war, or recession or the general travails of the world. And for seventy minutes on two of the past three weekends he’s been exactly right. It was a thought which resonated with me while sitting amongst the electric atmosphere in Castlebar watching Boyle and Co. battle back from a half time deficit against Fermanagh.

That an audience can be transfixed by the efforts of amateur players for those seventy minutes probably says as much about the emotional involvement of the average GAA fan as it does for the feats on the pitch. But regardless of the quality of the contest, the honest efforts in competing – the self-discipline, self-motivation and commitment – is always worthy of our respect. Commitment to training, diet, matches, media and sponsors, prize-giving to underage teams and a raft of other behind-the-scenes tasks, while simultaneously managing commitments to family, education and career.  All of this honest endeavour to compete is why I recoil when hearing any player labelled a “cheat”, and the treatment of Aidan O’Shea in recent weeks by swathes of the media and in particular by the defeated manager left a particularly sour taste.

That he would be vilified in general public discourse in the immediate aftermath of the game was in little doubt. However, to see Pete McGrath still decrying the incident and questioning O’Shea’s integrity almost a full two weeks later was pathetic.  In that rancour-laden article, McGrath boldly states that “doing what he did, took away, in an unfair way, whatever chance we had of winning the game”. Let’s take a little recap here for Pete’s sake. Fermanagh kicked two points in the entire second half. Two measly points. Having put themselves in a firm position at half time to go on and win the game, the Erne men had little to blame but themselves for not closing it out. Mayo put in a far better second half performance, were unfortunate to not already have been awarded a penalty and indeed there were question marks over the validity of the Fermanagh goal. But then McGrath has been quick this year to point the finger elsewhere in defeat. After being soundly beaten in the Ulster quarter final, he blamed Donegal’s “gamesmanship”,  for the seven point defeat.  We’re no strangers ourselves to gamesmanship, but I’ve never felt the tug of a shirt or the wasting of a few minutes defined the winning or losing of a game, and certainly not in breaching five or seven point margins.

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We’re no strangers to gamesmanship ourselves…(photo: http://www.rte.ie)

Would I like to see the various “sledging” and cynicism driven out of the game? Absolutely. But to label any player an outright “cheat” is bordering on slander. In less than a month, global eyes will fall on Rio for the 2016 Olympics. Against a backdrop of political corruption and state-sponsored doping, the world will be expected to suspend belief and accept the improbably credible as true and fair. I know where my definition of cheating lies. These amateur players give us effort and application throughout the Championship summer, and we are absorbed by the contests – both the good and the bad. The players deserve reasoned criticism and fair appraisal not hysterical headlines and personal attacks (as an aside, Senan Connell’s comments on Sky Sports about the O’Shea treatment before the Kildare game were to be applauded). That a senior inter-county manager lit the torches and sharpened the pitch-forks for such a witch-hunt was  pitiful.