Sport

Enda McGinley: Wake up, man up and play our game the right way

Shaking hands after a tough but fair physical battle should always be the way in Gaelic football but recent incidents, including the injuries Sean Cavanagh sustained in the Moy v Edendork game and brawls at the Stewartstown-Strabane and Armagh v Tyrone U20 match have tarnished the game’s image.

A MOUNTAIN, a molehill or something in-between. Like a villain in a pantomime playing up to their role, Tyrone gaelic football has given the GAA world plenty of negative fodder this past week to reinforce all the stereotypes with which our county is currently viewed.

First there was the field fight in the Stewartstown-Strabane game, and then came Sean Cavanagh's alarming selfie.

On the back of the U20 melee with Armagh earlier in the year and the media attention around Cavanagh's book and the occasions of abuse described in it, Tyrone football's image appears merely copper-fastened as a poisonous pit of lawlessness and cynicism.

Those of us involved know it is anything but – however, as the politicians say, when you are explaining you are losing.

Perspective, as always, is key. With the advent of social media and the way news and particularly images and video clips spread, it is very easy for incidents to grab attention like never before.

It can appear that things are so much worse than it ever was before. The tales we all know from growing up in any club or listening to the footballers of yesteryear make it clear that physical altercations have been as much a part of our sport as our beloved bit of healthy neighbourly dislike.

However, it is not good enough any more to just accept these things as part and parcel of our game. They shouldn't be.

Equally, the GAA has to be able to do more than come out with the standard line of condemning all such incidents.

The frequent mode of action in the past has been to come out with strong sanctions that frequently get dropped or reduced in an appeal when the dust has long since settled.

The memories of the ‘Battle of Omagh' were told often before the All-Ireland final and, while a number of players got suspended in the aftermath, they all got off on appeal.

More recently, Armagh and Tyrone had many players suspended after that U20 brawl yet nearly all of those from Armagh were still available for the Ulster final. The wheel will keep on turning unless something is done.

On the administrative side of things, I think a rule change to allow automatic expulsion from that competition should be available for any team shown to take an active part in a large melee where sub benches run in and/or where several serious incidents occur.

The possibility of a second referee to cope with other aspects of the game has been mooted and for the disciplinary side of things and off-the-ball activities that might help too – though refereeing numbers are so stretched it's hard to see it being feasible.

For me, players and management bear key responsibility. Many aspects of player behaviour on the pitch in the modern game does not reflect well on us.

We take pride in ourselves and our games as being able to represent the best of us. To be reflective of a person's character, their courage, spirit, team ethic, their willingness to work hard for something much greater than themselves, their honesty.

Yet we are in the midst of an epidemic of behaviours that are the antithesis of this vision.

Feigning injury or over-dramatisation of the lightest contact to get opponents carded is pathetic to see. The apparently essential need to goad and hit into an opponent if they miss or if you have scored is similarly so.

The over-exaggerated aggressive roar of celebration by a player when a random point is scored in a game is at this stage so lame as to be embarrassing.

As to the nastier elements of the game, the fights and the physical abuse, there are other issues at hand there too.

While the standard line is that any such occurrence cannot be condoned, I think we are better to accept that occasional skirmishes will happen from time to time and while not welcome they are a knock-on effect of a sport built on passion and identity and playing with your brothers, neighbours or lifelong friends.

For me this is not necessarily in opposition to those traits of character mentioned earlier.

A subs bench emptying to run into a melee or a fella sprinting from 50 yards back with a haymaker or a fella kicking another on the ground are a different thing entirely.

They are actions of men who have lost the run of themselves and are not in any way associated with our game. They would be deemed criminal matters in any other environment. They are actions of hoodlums and deserve the harshest punishment.

Given that identification of all involved is difficult, whole team bans should be the sanction. Players and supporters might think twice if an entire club is going to suffer from their loutish actions.

The whole accidental or not issue around Sean Cavanagh's incident is for me getting away from a point I have mentioned before. Given the strength of our current players and the consequent forces involved in many of the hits, we must change our attitude to contact in our game.

As it is in rugby, it should be a player's first responsibility to ensure the safety of other players on the pitch.

In an amateur game this should be even more paramount. It should not be ok to go recklessly into a challenge knowing that you will get away with the consequent hit on your opponent by making it look like ‘going for the ball' or ‘accidental'.

I'm not without sin here but an attitude or cultural change is needed. Anyone who has played a bit will be familiar with the concept of a fella leaving himself open for a hit and ‘not missing the chance'. This thought process is just one of many which, when we stop to think about it, are the cultural building blocks that create a mindset where events and behaviour we see are accepted.

Take for example last weekend when I was at the Moy U8 tournament with my own club team. It is an amazing tournament to see and to watch the young boys and girls playing would do anyone's heart good.

However, look a bit deeper and some concerning behaviours were present, albeit among a minority of the managers there. I was aware of club teams who, with only one or two subs in and at least four to five games, never used the young lads. Crazy stuff. What messages does this send out? If we are willing to cause upset and pain to one of our own at seven or eight years of age, what will we do when we move up the ranks?

The Gaelic Players Association and the CPA (Club Players Association) represent the players' interests but maybe as players' bodies they could also start trying to engender a change in behaviour.

It is not good enough to look to authorities and referees to fix this. This is in our own hands. Clubs have been handed the greatest month in the gaelic calendar, September – free of county activity – to roll out a festival of club championship competitions. At present, admittedly due to the ability of social media to skew things, there is not much positive to celebrate.

We all know our game can be so much more but we all, and particular players, have a responsibility to man up and play it right.

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