When I saw Tyrone were crying over the treatment Seán Cavanagh received on Saturday against Mayo, I couldn't help laughing. Mickey Harte called him a victim and said it's a shame he was targeted. Seán himself was in the papers yesterday saying it was something that needed to be stamped out of our game.
Ah, lads. Come on now. There’s brass neck and there’s brass neck.
Seán got it tough on Saturday, there’s no doubt about it. Lee Keegan dogged him for the day and gave him misery all through the game. But the idea of Tyrone – Tyrone! – suddenly deciding that this kind of thing is beyond the beyonds is pretty hilarious. It would brighten up a bad day just to say it out loud.
I’m not one of those people who blames Tyrone for everything. They didn’t invent sledging or targeting certain players. That was all around before they came along and it will be around long after us all. But they’d want to go easy with the horrified nuns act.
Especially since they did plenty of it themselves on Saturday. Aidan O’Shea got no better treatment from Tyrone than Seán Cavanagh did from Mayo. Go back and watch the sequence after about 10 minutes where Colm Cavanagh gets in a brilliant steal to dispossess O’Shea just as he’s turning to take a shot down at the Davin End.
It was a great turnover but Cavanagh couldn’t resist roaring in O’Shea’s face after it. Ronan McNamee got in there to have his say as well. It was very obvious what they were trying to do. They wanted to entice him into a reaction.
Mickey’s defence of Seán Cavanagh was that he never went looking for cards in his whole career. But if O’Shea snapped there and pucked the head off one of the Tyrone boys, would you say he went looking for a card? Not a bit of it.
Actually, if you want to get technical about it, what’s supposed to happen there is a black card for the Tyrone players. If we’re all so anti-sledging, then a black card option is there for a player making a provocative gesture at an opponent.
But have you ever seen a black card for that? I haven’t.
I don’t think there’s any real stomach for it either. It’s one of those rules that floats around the GAA without anyone paying it much heed. The most famous man in Ireland would be the first referee to dish out a black card for that in a big game. Players know they won’t be done for it so they do it. If they thought they’d get the line for it, they wouldn’t do it.
So I have to say that my sympathy for Tyrone would be fairly limited. I have no big problem with them getting away with what they can get away with, no more than any other team. But don’t turn around then and make out like you’re a crowd of altar boys and that butter wouldn’t melt.
The GAA is terrible for finding these fake controversies that bubble up out of nowhere. I heard people saying over the weekend they are worried that this stuff is creeping into our game. Creeping! It’s been going on for decades. That’s some noisy creep. A man trying to creep in like that would wake up the wife, the dog, the neighbourhood and the Gardaí.
Let’s talk about what intercounty football actually is. A lot of people talk about what they’d like it to be and often they decide to ignore what we see with our own eyes. Anybody in the crowd can see how the game is played. Nothing is a surprise.
Every team is trying to find a loophole. Every team is pushing the boundaries of what you can and can’t get away with. The first thing every intercounty player thinks of when some new rule is announced is, ‘How can I test out the edges of this?’ Where is the line? What’s going to be called and what will referees leave go?’
This is a physical sport. It’s overseen by a referee who has too much to do and who can’t see everything that happens. Put those two things together and you have players trying to put the opposition off their game by picking at them off the ball. It won’t always be within the rules but that’s part of the deal. Everyone who has ever pulled on a pair of boots knows the story here.
So why is there all this horror at the idea of the main player on top teams coming in for rough treatment? This wasn’t invented last Friday in a Mayo team meeting. It has happened forever and a day. People were talking in the 1960s about Mick O’Connell taking unmerciful skelping because he was Kerry’s best player and other teams wanted to get at him. That’s all part of the game.
But there’s a way to react to things and there’s a way not to react. This is sport – everybody is going to lose games they should have won, everybody is going to get hard done by somewhere along the way. But nobody in the history of sport has made the thing better by whinging about it afterwards.
Seán Cavanagh is one of the best players of his generation. He’s probably in the top three or four Tyrone players ever. But come on now – we all know Seán has done his fair share of deeds too.
When he dragged [Monaghan’s] Conor McManus down that time, he knew what he was doing. He shrugged his shoulders afterwards and said it was part of the game. That’s fine. But if you live by the sword, you die by the sword.
What you don’t do – or what you shouldn’t do, in my opinion – is make a big deal about it. When McManus was interviewed after that incident, he didn’t crib. He just said it was part of the game and he probably would have done the same himself. Even if he was raging underneath it all, he knew there was nothing to be achieved by playing the victim.
Seán’s problem on Saturday was that he wasn’t playing well. He was getting frustrated because he couldn’t get into the game. Once he got his yellow straight after half-time, he should have been experienced enough to pull his beak in for the rest of the game. But instead, he got a rush of blood to the head and it cost him.
And who did he clatter for the second yellow? Aidan O’Shea. Again, that comes back to the opposition’s main guy being targeted. Seán saw him coming with the ball and decided that if there was going to be contact, he’d have his pound of flesh. It was an unconscious thing – it had to be since he was already on a yellow. But I don’t think he’d have gone in as recklessly if it was Tom Parsons.
If you’re a big player, you have to expect that you’ll be targeted. Your job is to deal with it like O’Shea did. You suck it up. You make sure the referee knows what’s going on. You make sure the linesmen and umpires are keeping an eye out. But you also make sure you have very low expectations of anything being done about it. Otherwise, you’ll get more and more cranky at the injustice of it all. Which is exactly the reaction the opposition are looking for.
I’m not saying it’s easy. God knows, I’ve fallen into the trap myself.
I was sent off in the 2008 All-Ireland semi-final for throwing a dig at Pearse O’Neill when I should have kept my head. Only for the game ending in a draw, I’d have missed an All-Ireland final over it.
Diarmuid Murphy left one through his legs at the end and Cork got a draw so I missed the replay instead (thanks, Murph). It was stupid of me and I was bulling about it. But I shut my mouth and didn’t let anybody know how I felt.
It’s like that scene in The Departed where Jack Nicholson walks into a bar and asks this young fella sitting at the counter how his mother is. “She’s on her way out,” says my man with a big glum face on him. “We all are,” smiles Jack, patting him on the back. “Act accordingly.”
That’s it, exactly. Act accordingly. These things are going to happen, nobody is immune. But we’re all big boys. We’re all responsible for our own bits and pieces of skulduggery along the way. Let’s not pretend the game is something other than what it is. Let’s act accordingly.
Every team does it. And every team has it done to them. It happened to Pat Spillane, it happened to Peter Canavan, it happens to the best players in every team. Kerry picked on Michael Donnellan when we played Galway, we picked on Ciarán Whelan when we played Dublin. If you think there’s a chink in the armour of an opposition’s main man, you have to go after it.
People missed the point in what I wrote about Diarmuid Connolly last year. I said that for teams trying to come up with a way to play him, there's something to be said for pulling his tail and seeing if he'll hiss back at you. They made out that I was talking about trying to hurt him or take him out off the ball. Nothing could be further from the truth.
The point was – and is – that he can be rattled. He can be drawn across the line to the dark side and can get himself in trouble. That’s a weakness – I’d say most Dublin supporters would admit it. It’s probably the only one in his game. But it has cost him enough times now for teams to know it’s worth trying again.
Do you ever notice how nobody tries to pull Bernard Brogan’s tail in the same way? Or if they do, he never gives them the satisfaction of reacting.
But with Connolly, they think they can goad him into overstepping the mark. So why wouldn’t you?
Similar to Mickey Harte, I thought Jim Gavin made a mistake in cribbing about Connolly's treatment on Saturday. In fairness to Connolly himself he kept quiet. But Jim made a big deal of it.
Apart from anything else, he has plenty of players in his own team who will be glad of referees turning a blind eye from time to time. Michael Murphy should have got his red card for catching Brian Fenton, no question. But just in case he was confused, Philly McMahon and Jonny Cooper let him know all about it for the rest of the day. Jim might want to be careful what he wishes for.
What goes around comes around sometimes. Just ask Seán Cavanagh.