Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Is There a Thugs' Charter in Gaelic Football?

The laudatory chorus for Dublin in the national sports media has had a lot of material for its arias after this weekend's work. Tom Humphries, sounding like a man who'd just received his own weight in rich chocolate cake, suggested that a Dublin win in the Championship was synonymous with the beginning of summer. Only in Gaffney's of Fairview Tommy baby - every one else thinks of exams or silage.

Eugene McGee, who certainly should know better, was singing bass accompaniment to Tom's blue tenor. Dublin and Meath, according to Eugene, had restored honour to the grand old game, not by desisting from slapping, boxing, throwing pucks or any of the other euphemisms for violent and unsportsmanlike conduct - the squeamish or sportsmanlike among you will be disappointed to hear that slaps were slapped and pucks pucked with gusto for the full seventy minutes - but the players restored sportsmanship by being "manly" enough to take those same slaps, boxes and pucks, and praised the players' committment to the old tradtion that "a player never stayed down on the ground after being hit unless he was genuinely not able to get up, came back to life for at least one day."

Feigning injury is a curse of modern sports, and symptomatic of a society that is profoundly lacking in values or honour. But in concentrating in the mote of play-acting and injury-feigning Eugene misses the far greater log of violent and dangerous play. According to the GAA rulebook, not only is throwing a punch a sending off offence, shaping to throw a punch is a sending off offence. Which would make for a boring second half on Sunday, as the Meath and Dublin goalies punted the football back and forth over an otherwise deserted Croke Park sod.

Ciarán Whelan, another of those Dublin players whose national profile is absurdly inflated in comparison with his actual achievements, was getting rave reviews after the game, even though the general consensus was that "Whelo" was extremely lucky to stay on the pitch after punching Meath's Nigel Crawford fourteen seconds - fourteen seconds! - into the game.

GAA referees are under a lot of pressure not to "ruin" games for the fans. If Sunday's referee - I think it was John Bannion of Longford, I'm not actually sure - had sent Whelan off, as the rulebook clearly states he should have, he would have been castigated for "ruining" the game. The man who threw the punch, the man who committed the act of a thug and a coward, would not be castigated for "ruining" the game. It makes one wonder, doesn't it?

I wonder what Ciarán Whelan now thinks, or any other midfielder in the country? Does he think that he has a window at the start of a game, if he feels that his opposite number might be able to best him for tomorrow's headlines, when he can try and knock that man's teeth out, or have his opponent eating rice pudding and babyfood for the next three months while his broken jaw is wired up after getting "softened up"? Will the fact that "it's a man's game" or "it's a contact sport" be any consolation then?

In not identifying thuggish behaviour and going along with the Dublin-need-to-win-an-All-Ireland shibboleth that makes any sort of behaviour alright once the Hill is singing (or chanting soccer chants, but let's not try to look too closely), have the media signed a thugs' charter for the summer? Are the first ten minutes of football games meant to be a free-for-all where manly men "sort each other out"? What use will a lot of clucking on the Sunday Game couch be after the event be to a man paying a couple of grand dentist's fees to get enough teeth back in his head so that the very sight of their father will stop scaring his children? What then, when it's too late?

A number of years ago a man called Packie McGarty was being interviewed on RTÉ radio, a man who played for Leitrim for years and years without ever coming close to winning anything, or advertising fizzy drinks or anything like that. McGarty had a trainer one time who was concerned that Pacckie was a bit soft, and needed to put himself about a bit more. So in his next game, Pakie decided to try this "putting himself about" and punched his man. His man was more shocked than hurt - "I'm playing football," said the man, "what are you playing?" McGarty told Brian Carthy on the radio that he was so shamed by what that man said to him he never hit anyone ever again. I wonder will the GAA be naming any competitions after Packie McGarty anytime soon?