The biggest change in the life of an intercounty football player since I retired isn’t diet or strength and conditioning or any of that. It isn’t blanket defences or black cards. That stuff is all relevant, obviously. But it’s all small, gradual change – you’d hardly notice it as it’s happening. No, by far the biggest change has been the rise of social media.
If you think that's overdoing it, just look what has dominated the GAA news in the four weeks since the championship started. Week One – Aidan O'Shea. Week Two – Brendan O'Sullivan. Week Three – the Tipperary hurlers. Week Four – Diarmuid Connolly. Four big sagas, two of them completely rooted in social media, the other two argued over until the social media cows came home.
And what’s the one thing that links all four cases? Just go and check the social media accounts of the people concerned – there isn’t a mention of any of it. Now, if anyone thinks that because the players involved aren’t aware of the storm that was brewing up around them, I have a phone number you can ring and some nice people will give you a quiet room and a damp facecloth to put on your forehead while you have a nice lie down.
Of course they know. And there’s nothing they can do about it. By staying quiet, they’re actually saying far more than they would if they were spouting off about it. They’re acknowledging that there’s a world out there that they can’t let themselves engage with – and given the part social media plays in young people’s lives these days, that must be like cutting off an arm.
At all times, the basic principle of any intercounty panel is control the controllables. Everybody knows that. You can’t do anything about what’s written or said about you, so don’t pay it any heed. In my time playing, it was by far the best way of dealing with media. It was also pretty easy, compared to now.
Control that controllable?
For a start, in my early days there were only three national papers and maybe the Cork Examiner. And when you're a young lad, you have better things to be doing with your money than spending it on newspapers. So not only was there less media around, you actually had to make a physical effort to go and seek it out.
Nowadays, everyone is the media. All you need is a Twitter account or a Facebook page and you can say what you like. And if I'm an intercounty player, it takes no effort at all for me to read it. It costs me nothing. I don't even have to go to a shop. It's in my pocket, waiting for me to scroll through it and see what everyone is saying about me.
Control that controllable? Yeah, just you try it. Ask Aidan O’Shea about controlling the controllables. Like, imagine the look on his face when somebody said to him, “Here, remember that challenge match we played in Mullingar a few weeks ago? Apparently you committed some big crime afterwards posing for selfies.”
I watched that whole thing with one thought in my head – Christ, am I glad I'm not still playing. That was a fiasco that was 100 per cent caused by social media. Start with the selfies, all for posting on social media. Then the bit on the RTÉ radio podcast, shared everywhere on social media. Twitter was the first place most people found out about it. Facebook was where it mushroomed.
Then you had the next stage. Fellas in the papers having their say. Columns, articles, journalists, ex-players. James Horan on the radio saying Bernard Flynn had made a tit of himself. Bernard squawking away on Twitter defending himself. And then you had Greg McCartan of Down tweeting "it's on". Pure entertainment in the middle of a slow week.
Look, I fully accept that maybe it’s me who’s wrong here. I am on Twitter but I wouldn’t be what you’d call an active user. I flick through it and keep up to date with things but you’ll never see a picture of some bit of steak I’m about to eat going up on my account. As long as I live, I won’t understand the attraction of that carry-on.
Chatting and pinging
I was out for a pint with my brother Tomás one time last year. We sat down at the table and two pints of Guinness landed down in front of us and straight away he was out with the phone. He took a picture of it and ping, sent it by Snapchat. We started chatting and ping, a reply. Ping, another reply. Tomás starts typing, ping. Ping, ping, ping.
He was bashing away at this phone the whole time until I had to tell him to put it away. Like, are we out for a pint or are we out for a pint? And, by the way, I’m not supposed to be out for a pint, so if you want to tell the world what you’re up to, don’t be hanging me into the bargain.
I know, I know. I sound like the old man in The Simpsons. The whole thing just doesn't appeal to me that way it appeals to others. And it's obviously a big part of life for a lot of guys, who see plenty of positives in it too.
If you’re a high-profile player, you can make social media work for you. Whether it’s showing off your sponsored car or using it to promote a business or lay the groundwork for a media career – I have no problem at all with any of that. More power to whoever can work an angle for themselves.
But social media has a life of its own. You can’t trust it. You never know where it’s going to take you or how it might spin anything you say or do. At least the papers have to have some bit of manners, even if it’s only because they’re afraid they might get sued. Yahoos on social media will turn on you in the blink of an eye.
It used to be that a manager’s big worry was that his players would be out having a drink behind his back. It wasn’t a major deal but it was a headache. The manager would be told about it and he’d have to let on he knew about it and gave his blessing for a lad to break the curfew or whatever. And then, when they got in-house, he’d dish out the bollocking, as much for making him look like he had no control as for the couple of pints.
These days, the curfew isn’t such an issue. For one, half the inter-county population wouldn’t let anything stronger than a cappuccino pass their lips. For another, I don’t think in general the public is as unrealistic in its demands of these players as it used to be. You don’t see many counties with drink bans any more.
But woe betide some young lad who says the wrong thing on Twitter. Imagine the row if any Kerry player or Mayo player had made any sort of comment online about the Diarmuid Connolly thing over the past fortnight. The retweets would have gone through the roof. All the sports websites and apps would have made a big thing of it. the papers, the radio, the podcasts – more, more and more.
It would have driven Eamonn Fitzmaurice or Stephen Rochford to distraction. The player would have been dragged in and had the head taken off him. He'd be told he was only giving them ammunition, allowing them leeway to make a big thing of it. Most of all, he'd be told it was a stupid thing to do and a breach of policy. He'd walk out wishing he had gone on the piss instead.
The pressure on players now with this stuff must be overbearing. Even when they say nothing, it can become a problem. Remember the week of the league final when the Gooch retired? People started giving out about the Dublin players on Twitter because none of them posted a big tribute to him.
What did people expect of them? The week of a massive game against Kerry and people wanted them to be making a big show of telling the world they wished the Gooch all the best? Not a hope. Do you think for a second if it was Bernard Brogan retiring that Colm would be sitting there on a Tuesday going, "I think I should tell my followers that Bernard was a great player." Get real, lads.
But no, it became a thing for people to give out about on social media. So out of nowhere, the Dublin players’ character was being questioned – and this for something they literally didn’t do. Social media is a constant, always heaping more and more pressure on the lives of players.
Again, I looked at that and thought, “Thanks be to God I’m out of that world now.”