GAA Football

It's okay blaming the opposition but Armagh need to ask the existential question: ‘Am I actually the problem here?'

Armagh have been involved in melees against Tyrone, Donegal and Galway this year. Pic Philip Walsh.
Andy Watters

“WHAT happens if somebody pushes you?” Kieran McGeeney challenged BBC reporter Mark Sidebottom after Armagh’s penalty shootout loss to Galway last Sunday.

Sidebottom had started the exchange by asking: “Don’t players have to assume responsibility as well? As adults, is there not an onus on a player to recognise…”

The Armagh manager didn’t let him finish the second part of his question.

“What happens if somebody pushes you?” he shot back at him, stoney-faced.

“Do you push back? What would you do?”

Sidebottom was reluctant to answer. After all, he pointed out, he wasn’t there (at the post-match press conference) to answer questions, he was there to do his job as a journalist and ask them. Mark Sidebottom obviously isn’t an Armagh player, or part of the management, so what did his opinion matter?

McGeeney had just watched his team get knocked out of the Championship on penalties after extra-time remember, so he deserves a little slack here. He’d much rather have been talking about what was a wonderful game, about the progress his team has made this year.

But Sidebottom seemed to have, well, pushed him and so he kept at it.

“What would you do? What would YOU do?”

Eventually Sidebotttom relented.

“It would depend on the circumstances, it’s not as cut and dried as that,” he said.

It isn’t. Armagh go out with the attitude that they’re not going to be pushed around and understandably so because nothing is given to you in Division One and you get nothing easy at Croke Park.

If someone pushes the Armagh players – like Tyrone did, like Donegal did, like Galway did – they are going to push back. Simple as.

So it’s always ok to engage then, even when the boys that start the pushing do so in the hope that you retaliate? Is it always as cut and dried as that?

Maybe that’s ok when you’re struggling to break out of the pack but Armagh have to be mindful of their reputation and they have to be a bit smarter now. If David Clifford pushed back every time a defender tried to get physical with him he’d probably never have got past U12 level.

You can’t pin the blame for the three melees that have punctuated Armagh’s season on McGeeney’s players. Tyrone had four men sent off for the first one, according to reports Donegal lit the fuse for the second and there were plenty of willing Galway participants on Sunday. But none of those counties have been involved in similar incidents with other counties.

It’s ok to blame the opposition but if massive brawls have broken out three times in 10 games, then the time must come (and now is that time) when you have to ask yourself the existential question: ‘Am I actually the problem here?’

Some of the Armagh players saw the incident brewing against Galway and went straight down the tunnel. If they’d all done that I wouldn’t be writing this now. Then again, it’s not as cut and dried as that either. Maybe their mates were in trouble and of course they felt duty bound to help them out but if their mates had had the discipline to walk away...

Tiernan Kelly has been vilified for what he did to Damien Comer and his action is indefensible. But he was on the field for the Tyrone and Donegal melees and wasn’t singled out for punishment. Would he have acted as he did if he had been playing on Sunday? Perhaps not. Without defending or excusing him, I’ve seen Kelly in action for club and county and he can handle himself but I haven’t seen a vicious, sneaky side to him.

Whether Kelly had got involved or not, Galway’s Sean Kelly and Armagh’s Aidan Nugent were picked out of the crowd on Sunday and sent off by referee David Coldrick. Both were much more sinned against than sinning and you could argue that Nugent’s dismissal cost Armagh a place in the semi-finals.

Late in the second period of extra-time, Armagh worked up the ball up the right wing to the area where Nugent had been stationed throughout the game. He’d scored 1-3 in normal time including the goal that got Armagh back into a match that seemed lost but by that stage he was watching from the stand. Instead, Niall Rowland, usually a defender, took the shot. It drifted wide, the game went to pens and you know the rest…

McGeeney has the trust of his players, he’ll defend them to the hilt and what he said to the media may well be very different from what he tells them behind closed doors. The fact that some of the players walked away suggests that a message has been sent but he transmitted contradictory signals in that conversation with Sidebottom.

On the one hand he said: “You wouldn’t like to see it” then, on the other, he hinted that Galway started it and said he’d support tougher GAA sanctions on the issue only if “everybody is treated in the same way”.

Nobody is going to bully Armagh. Ok, fair enough, but their aggressive attitude is doing them more harm than good.

Other teams see the potential to wind them up and – nevermind the danger that someone is going to get seriously hurt in one of these encounters – the more they take the bait, the more severe the sanctions and suspensions are going to get.

Armagh had a year to remember. They went to Croke Park and beat the Dubs, thrived in Division One, beat Tyrone in League and Championship, beat their bogey team Donegal, pushed Galway to the very brink…

They can build on it in 2023 but these rows are an unnecessary distraction and if there’s the same again next season, the GAA is bound to come down hard.

If you had the chance to avoid that what would you do? What would YOU do?

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THE penalty shoot-out at Croke Park was the first at All-Ireland quarter-final level and for my money it should be the last. Yes, it gets the game put to bed but heaping that pressure, responsibility and culpability on the shoulders of the amateur player who misses a penalty is not appropriate in the GAA.

Are we really in such a desperate rush to get the inter-county season over and done with that we can’t factor in replays from the quarter-finals on?

Okay, World Cups have been decided by penalty shoot-outs but you’re not comparing like with like. The soccer player who misses from the spot is a professional and at least they’re getting very well paid for their efforts. They are able to get their head down out of the public eye afterwards and come to terms with missing a penalty. Our GAA players don’t have that luxury – they’re maybe back teaching a class at school the following day.

Stefan Campbell and Conor Turbitt, the two Armagh players who missed on Sunday, had played out of their skins and asking them to carry the hopes of their county in front of millions watching on TV is unfair and unnecessary. Players who have put so much into getting to the last eight deserve the chance to go at it again and who wouldn’t have wanted Armagh-Galway 2?

The GAA is nearly there with the current fixture schedule but there’s no need to fast-forward through flagship games with such insensitive haste.

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