I must admit to a certain softening in my attitudes towards the much-maligned species of sports tournament known as the pre-season GAA competition.
Much like the music of Coldplay, I bear no ill-will to those who engage with it, and have even mistakenly stumbled upon it and thought it to be of some merit, before quickly banishing that thought from my mind lest polite society get wind of my sordid predilections.
But there is one, seemingly endlessly repeating, aspect of these January warmer-uppers that never fails to annoy me, and that is what happened to Jack Savage and Tony Brosnan last week.
Having played in a Sigerson Cup match in Tralee for MTU Kerry last Wednesday, they travelled up to Templetuohy in Tipperary (a trip of almost 200 kilometres) to play the last 14 minutes of Kerry’s McGrath Cup game against the home team, a game which Kerry won 1-23 to 0-5 having been up at half-time by 12 points to two.
I know myself from when I was playing, it is very hard to put the shackles on players. The lads are trying to impress night in, night out
Asked after the game, Kerry manager Jack O’Connor had this to say about them: “Tony and Jack were tremendous. I didn’t ask them to come up at all. They wanted to be involved. They volunteered themselves. That is great to see because those lads are mad to get every minute they can in a Kerry jersey, which is great.”
Freshening up selection policy as a newly-arrived manager is one thing, but accepting volunteers really is a departure. He didn't even ask them, the rascals just showed up unannounced. If Michael Fassbender is back home for the weekend and volunteered for the McGrath Cup final, would Jack feel obliged to pick him, too?
In this case, it would be usual to expect quite a bit of blow-back from the players’ Sigerson Cup manager, but quoted in the Irish Examiner on Tuesday, the man in charge of MTU Kerry, Aidan O’Mahony, was happy to hedge his bets.
“My responsibility is down here in Tralee, Jack’s responsibility is up there,” said the man who used to play under Jack O’Connor, and who possibly wants to manage Kerry himself some day.
“I know myself from when I was playing, it is very hard to put the shackles on players. The lads are trying to impress night in, night out. They are fantastic and they are fierce important for us. The county players, the likes of Jack and Tony, what they are showing in these games here is fantastic.
“But my comment on that, I don’t have a comment because Jack is their boss outside of here. Once they leave here, I don’t have nothing to do with them. If they are in good shape when they come back in here and they are able to play the games, I am happy out.”
So we have two young players, playing for two teams. One of their managers says they’re essentially ungovernable, they can volunteer their way on to the Kerry team as they please, and their other manager says they can do whatever the hell they like once they leave his dressingroom. What freedom!
Of course, that’s not how this is actually playing out. Regardless of what Jack O’Connor might tell you, it was very, very easy for him to say that rather than including them as part of a matchday squad, he will have someone watching the players in question at their Sigerson Cup match, and that their performance in that would count for a lot more than 14 minutes at the end of a game that Kerry already had in the bag.
And if Aidan O’Mahony has anything about him as a manager, and his results with MTU Kerry strongly suggest that he does, then he should be strong enough to accept that his responsibility to his players does not end the second they walk out his dressingroom door.
The power imbalance here is so stark as to hardly need emphasising, but Kerry have more good footballers than any other county in the country. Tony Brosnan and Jack Savage don’t have a leg to stand on if their manager comes up and asks them if they’re free to line out for their county in a McGrath Cup game, no matter what game was happening three or four hours beforehand.
In another situation, the players might have leaned on their college manager to go into bat for them, to try and come to some sort of compromise between college and county if they felt they didn’t have the cachet built up to broach it with their intercounty manager directly. And when their two managers have a previous relationship, as O’Connor and his former player do, they’d have been forgiven for thinking that would have made negotiations much simpler.
That two men as experienced and as smart as O’Connor and O’Mahony allowed this to happen is not a good look. O’Mahony said “players want to play games”, when he was asked about this controversy last Tuesday. But they would also no doubt appreciate being protected from having to play two in one day.