Subscriber OnlyGaelic Games

Kevin McStay: GAA must stop facilitating the easy acceptance of foul play

Violence has long been a cultural issue within Gaelic games and will remain so until appropriate punishment is guaranteed

It had all started so well. A warm, sunny Sunday morning and the streets surrounding Croke Park buzzing at 11.30.

Old school championship with a near-capacity attendance giving us the biggest crowd for three years since the pandemic turned everything upside down.

It felt like the whole of Armagh had descended on Dublin and with the gates of the stadium still closed had congregated around the hotel. The colour was orange, different accents, big expectations and a real sense of excitement. New teams with prospects really are lifeblood for the GAA.

If only we could ensure more came to the top table and stayed there.


For once, we had a big match that actually lived up to the expectation. The Galway-Armagh quarter-final had some terrific point shooting, amazing goals and a first penalty shoot-out this late in the championship.

By Sunday evening though, it was all in the shadow of the latest eruption of indiscipline and in the two days since, the only discussion point has been the depressing melee/row/fight/handbags (delete according to taste).

For any big GAA match to stray out of the sports bulletin into the main evening news is not a good look.

I’ll get to that and the GAA’s unending disciplinary problems later but looking at the weekend’s action, it was as I had expected with the four provincial winners emerging from the quarter-finals even if in the case of Galway, it took a while.

The romance of plucky outsiders generally runs out of steam at this time of the year when the big beasts get serious about winning the championship.

I was amused in the lead-up by the amount of head shaking about the four-week gap the provincial champions had to endure. Winning will always provide the best route to All Ireland success.

This is based on the confidence gained from lifting your local trophy both for the squad and the supporters; the extra weeks to prepare for the opposition, no chance of running up new suspensions and generally, fewer injuries — although Dublin might argue that last point this morning.

There’s a reason no qualifier team has won the All-Ireland for 12 years and counting.

Three of the quarter-finals can be boxed away neatly enough. Derry added to their reputation by hammering Clare but for me the questions around their game being transferable to Croke Park remain for this reason. Clare failed to ask any honours level questions of them at all.

But what we did see looked more than decent. Their back line looks highly organised and in Chrissy McKeigue and Brendan Rogers they have big strong athletes that take their man marking jobs seriously. That will help greatly when a few of the Galway attackers need to be nailed down in a fortnight’s time.

Dublin sauntered to a routine win against a Cork team that are simply operating a good few floors below them. No contest. Big win. Another case of winners never worried about doing the jobs the losing teams tend to be not bothered with.

All hands on deck from Dublin and they are now in the final four and yet to get tested, which isn’t their problem but the fitness race for their team captain and deputy is on and if it’s hamstring issues, I’m not sure that’s a race they are likely to win.

Kerry-Mayo was a strange old game. After the curtain-raiser drama and the length of time it took to establish a winner, it felt like the oxygen had been sucked out of the stadium.

Kerry looked like lads running up a hill of pillows with lumps of rust falling off them but they had the natural skills of evasion and accuracy to steer the ship home. Mayo kept the contest real until the last quarter when the very same skills they must develop, evasion and accuracy, once again deserted them when it mattered most.

The annual Mayo question of, ‘where will the scores come from?’ is asked in the hope defenders and midfielders weigh in with a full sack. The conclusion remains that the forward line alone can’t get near the required winning total.

It was a downbeat conclusion to James Horan’s second stint as manager but the odds were stacked against him this year. Looking back at his contribution over two terms, you’d have to concede that he worked wonders in keeping Mayo relevant.

The past four years have seen the county in two All-Ireland finals, which didn’t go to plan but he hasn’t had as strong a hand to play in recent years, particularly with injuries and retirements.

His departure comes at what feels like a power shift in Connacht. The sight of Galway moving up the charts week on week will be tough for the county to digest but the reality for all of Mayo just now is that Galway are ahead of us in more places than just the alphabet. They are occupying the high ground with sights set on dominating for a period.

David Clifford remains Kerry’s star turn. He is rated the best all round footballer in this country and again, even if only performing fitfully, he did nothing to damage that status. His magnificent goal more or less settled things and whereas a fading Mayo persevered, the tone was set.

And so to the big game of the weekend, anticipated as such and certainly living up to that billing. It had just about everything and the thrilling finale was a credit to Armagh’s refusal to walk away from what looked like inevitable defeat.

The long high dropping ball made a comeback and it was obvious how uncomfortable modern goalkeepers and defences are with this ploy. Refusal to attack the high ball and then letting it drop must have had defenders from previous generations covering their eyes in horror.

The rest of us ended up watching if not in horror, then certainly dismay at the full-time scenes. I have often written about the GAA’s apparent lack of interest in taking the matter of on-field indiscipline sufficiently seriously to tidy up the game.

If you agree that our best players are entitled to reach the national stadium confident that they will be protected by the rules of the game, and more importantly the enforcement of those rules, then the following few paragraphs may surprise you.

In general, referees cannot ensure this. This is because the referee’s team of officials rarely play as a team and certainly are not selected as a team and in particular, they tend to see certain infringements as acceptable and therefore not to require intervention.

It goes much deeper than that. On-field violence has been a curse since the foundation of the games. To me, it is a cultural issue that the association has shown no great stomach for addressing.

You might think that is an unfair criticism and many believe the games to be as well-disciplined as they have ever been. When however you occupy a seat in a commentary position, you can see the amount of stuff that goes on ‘off the ball’. It is intensifying week by week as the temperature increases.

The past weekend witnessed so much foul play that was not pulled up by the match officials: aggressive ‘face-guarding’ defence, holding of arms, jerseys, wrestling off the ball, body collides, non-stop sledging, the now accepted aggressive push a second after a hand-pass is made, the late ‘half tackle’ the fouling at both throw-ins is now routine — and again, apparently accepted.

It is possibly sledging that led to the rumble at the tunnel. Following a Shane Walsh special from under the Hogan, Damien Comer had words with the Armagh goalkeeper who proceeded to execute an MMA manoeuvre on him, throwing him to the ground. Comer was the only man (surprisingly) to be sanctioned but a few of the Armagh lads would not forget.

These scenes were inexcusable and the eye-gouge, for that is what is was, was despicable. The Armagh player involved is readily identifiable

When the final whistle went after 79 minutes of play and an amazing finale, my eyes turned immediately towards the Cusack tunnel. I’m reasonably experienced in these matters and it was obvious it would take only a spark to start a serious fire. Two Armagh players could not resist shouldering into Comer as he neared the tunnel. The fire ignites.

A simple solution? Of course there is. Mayo and Galway (not playing each other) in the Cusack dressingrooms/tunnel and Kerry and Armagh in the Hogan dressingrooms/tunnel.

Then again, is it too much to ask that teams leave the field together without it degenerating into a brawl?

These scenes were inexcusable and the eye-gouge, for that is what is was, was despicable. The Armagh player involved is readily identifiable. Let’s wait and see the subsequent ban but there are other players, officials and a few strays that wandered into the action who also have a case to answer — from both sides. Busy week ahead then for the Croke Park detectives.

A quick story: early last week while working on the RTE GAA podcast one of the contributors, Rory O’Neill (RTE Sunday Game Editor) inquired if the rule surrounding a foul committed to deny a goalscoring opportunity should have been applied in the Cavan v Sligo Tailteann Cup game.

The first port of call in these matters must always be the primary source document, the GAA Official Guide (Part 2) which contains the playing rules of hurling and football.

A quick search of my rucksack finds the 2021 version all right but not the 2022 one. So we head for the internet and the GAA website and there it is in all its glory, an online version with an effective date of 27th March 2002.

I can’t get my hands on the hard copy, though. A few phone calls to interested parties reveal that the booklet is with the printers! Three months on from its effective date and we have yet to get this year’s updated rules in print.

After the teams eventually got to their dressingrooms, I noted David Coldrick gathered his team of officials around him to discuss the tunnel events and decide on what action they would take.

To my eye, his team had grown by two and 10 officials now chatted through the events of a few minutes earlier. Some looked like members of the referee’s body in Croke Park. Can they have a say in what happened or what action might be taken? Of course not and this may well have serious consequences when it comes to issuing rulings.

At the beginning of each season, I open a Word document and fill it every week with the rule anomalies that arise during league rounds or early championship. By late May I usually have a full column in the oven. A season’s summary of rules that were flouted, not enforced, incorrectly applied, not known about, not cared about and on it goes.

When remedies are needed, there’s no point in wringing our hands. The GAA playing rules needs a forensic review and update for the pace and intensity of the modern game. The rules that have obviously failed us need removing and the rules we obviously need must be provided.

If the likes of David Clifford, Shane Walsh, Rian O’Neill, Shane McGuigan, Con O’Callaghan and the star players we all want to see, cannot be protected and recidivist sluggers are allowed to engage in non-stop foul play, especially off the ball, what will the games become?

I’ll finish on this: on Sunday, following 10 minutes of deliberations, the referee concluded he must send off a player from each side. When they emerged for extra time he duly did that.

Before he threw in the ball for that extra time both teams were back to 15 players. Some punishment for foul play right there! And don’t forget the earlier red-carded Armagh player, Greg McCabe, was also replaced. Farcical rules guarantee farcical outcomes.