GAA Football

Sport can be cruel if you forget it's supposed to be about having fun

Tiernan McCann was one of five players to step away from the Tyrone panel after last season's All-Ireland triumph. Pic Philip Walsh.
Andy Watters

THE Tyrone dressing room in Omagh will be a changed place on Sunday afternoon when the Red Hands gather for their first serious test of the year against Monaghan.

Five men who busted their guts and pushed ferociously at training and when they came off the bench last year have gone: Tiernan McCann, Ronan O’Neill, Hugh Pat McGeary, Mark Bradley and Michael Cassidy have all decided that enough was enough.

The commitment they gave was huge, lives were put on hold and even being part of a squad that won the Ulster Championship and the Sam Maguire wasn’t enough to convince them to give it another year. The awesome bench strength that allowed the Red Hands to finish games so strongly last year has all but gone and the ramifications of that won’t be clear until the end of season report comes out.

Tyrone will miss them all but I think Tiernan McCann will be missed most of all. McCann’s contributions when he came off the bench were outstanding throughout last season and he excelled in a variety of positions. The Killyclogher clubman has had a controversial moment or two during his career but he has a warrior’s heart and my abiding memory of him will be that skull-shuddering challenge in the All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry.

The game was in extra-time when a ball hopped between him and Kingdom colossus Tommy Walsh who was running at full speed onto it. Croke Park shook when the pair of them went into an airborne, shoulder-to-shoulder, tackle. What a belt! Right there you had what makes Gaelic Games so unique – bravery, commitment to your county and, after putting their bodies on the line, Walsh and McCann just got up and got on with it.

Can you imagine if that collision had taken place in a Premier League game? Unbelievable Jeff!

As for Ronan O’Neill, his slick skills and ball-playing ability would have made him a certain-starter in many counties but, like he said in his honest interview with Brendan Crossan, he was always “the fall guy”. It seems his face just didn’t fit and when room had to be made, O’Neill was the man who had to make it. The last year must have been torturously frustrating for the Omagh clubman and you can only wish him success with his club in the future.

Sport can be cruel and the wheel keeps on turning. When the five Tyrone retirees first won their places in the senior panel, they got them at the expense of players who had to stand silently and hear the news from the manager that they’d been dropped to the bench, or dropped from the squad.

“Thanks, keep working hard and you’ll get back in,” they’re told but deep down they know they won’t.

Inevitably, the players who fill the spaces McCann, O’Neill and the others have left in the squad will have to swallow their pride when their time comes and shuffle off the stage when a new batch of youngsters force their way past them.

Inter-county squads are constantly evolving and changing as players hit form or lose it and as management teams come and go. That’s just the way it is because in county football and hurling it’s all about winning.

That winning mentality seeps down into club level and even to underage level. As coaches all of us, or certainly many of us, can get caught up in the pursuit of winning. Have you ever listened with a guilty conscience to a story about a player at an U14 game who came home angry and upset because they didn’t get to play?

Ten minutes to go with the game in the mixer… Does Jim or Jane get a run-out or are the best players kept out there to get the team over the line? Let’s be honest, far too often Jane and Jim are left on the bench.

If you take a step back and think about it; this mean-spirited, elitist attitude is does no-one any good. After all, it’s not the All-Ireland final is it?

I went to watch a basketball match recently. In basketball, the rules stipulate that the entire squad has to get a game – the coach can’t just keep his best six on the court and go for a win while the fringe players sit there and watch.

It was food for thought.

Coincidentally, I also watched ‘King Richard’, the Will Smith movie about the remarkable life of Richard Williams, father of the Williams sisters Venus and Serena.

From before they were able to walk their dad told them – with total and absolute conviction - that they would be Wimbledon champions. Everyone thought he was crazy but he was right! He mapped out their lives and the lives of their sisters (also success stories) and they practised tennis religiously until be persuaded a top coach to take them on.

But here’s the thing: Richard didn’t allow his daughters to play on the youth tour even though they would have absolutely cleaned up. He didn’t care about having his ego massaged, he wanted his daughters to be kids and the most important was that they had fun. It paid off didn’t it?

As the new season gets closer, there has to be a realisation that this is the way sport should be below senior level.

The happiness and mental health of young players comes first. Everyone who trains with the team has to feel a part of it and know that when the jerseys are being handed out they have a chance to get one of them.

Yes, when kids get to minor level, coaches have to crank up the intensity and start focussing more on results but they’ve got to be making an effort to use the entire squad; that’s the most important part of their job.

In this day and age, there are so many things out there for kids to do, but the biggest pitfall of all – the temptation for them to retreat to their bedroom or hang out on the street corner – has always been there.

Train as hard as possible, demand total commitment, expect maximum effort and give everybody a game. After all, it’s not about you and it’s not the All-Ireland final.



Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

GAA Football