‘A melee on a football pitch isn’t that big a deal – most people enjoy one every now and then’

Last week was Armagh’s chance to set the tone and bully a team with a load of young lads on it

The authorities must condemn them. Managers can’t condone them. The media has to tut-tut away and decide that they’re the worst thing to happen since the last worst thing. But really and truly, if everybody’s honest about it, a melee on a football pitch isn’t that big a deal. In fact, most people enjoy one every now and then.

Okay, they don’t look great but they’re almost never that serious and it’s very rare that anyone gets hurt. They happen so quickly and they’re over within a few seconds so there’s no time to do any damage. Or have any damage done to you, for that matter. So it’s pointless making out that anyone’s ever in big physical danger.

The point of a melee is never to go and hurt someone. It’s much more about mindset and purpose and getting the upper hand mentally. It’s about making a stand, sending out a message. We’re not going to be bullied here today.

It isn’t all aimed at the opposition either. A bit of a melee early on gets your own players pumped. It gets the blood flowing. It tells fellas that this is a day for everybody to get involved. We’ll all play football in a while but this is what we’re doing now. Join in and don’t be slow about it.


Be bullied

Of course, it’s all very macho. But it doesn’t always work out the way you plan it. I remember an International Rules game in Croke Park where we talked in the dressing room about the old Willie John McBride 99 call. It was half-time and things were getting a bit tasty and Kieran McGeeney said: “Look, we’re not going to be bullied by these fellas.” If it was going to start, it was going to be one-in, all-in.

Lo and behold, Brendan Jer O’Sullivan from Cork found himself being set upon by two Aussies underneath the Cusack Stand in the second half. But none of us saw it, we were all following the play. Poor Brendan Jer was giving as good as he was getting against these two lads and in his head he was counting the seconds until the all-in part of the plan kicked into action.

And he waited. And he waited. No posse. No 99 call. He came into the dressing room afterwards going – “so much for the cavalry, lads”. And most of us looked at him with blank faces. Half of us didn’t know anything had even happened.

Armagh weren't leaving that to chance on Sunday, just as they didn't leave it to chance against Cavan. The idea wasn't to take anybody out, it was more about drawing a line in the sand and setting a tone for the day. We're here, we're mad for action and ye lads better start asking yourselves how much of this ye can take. Cavan didn't want a whole pile to do with it, Tyrone didn't either.

It’s obviously rehearsed. There has obviously been a discussion about it beforehand. Maybe we’re supposed to believe it’s a coincidence that in four Armagh games so far this summer, two have started with an all-in melee. If you believe that . . .

Both times

But I don’t think it’s anything to be overly ashamed of either. It worked both times. They beat Cavan, they beat Tyrone. Their supporters – who haven’t been all that gone on the Armagh team for the past few years – got behind them because, rightly or wrongly, a good row at the start of a game makes people believe these players are prepared to go to war. Even if it’s only pulling and dragging, it looks like fellas putting their bodies on the line and it gets people riled up.

The breakdown of a melee is always worth looking out for. You see a lot of the same characters playing a lot of the same roles. Any melee usually starts with two fellas wrestling on the ground. One has the other in a headlock and down they go. No punch is thrown yet because the two boys are isolated. Throw a punch at that point and the linesman might decide to make a name for himself. You don’t want that.

The next bit is all about who joins in. Fellas come from miles around. Some of them are nearly out of breath by the time they get there. The odd lad will be thinking of giving it a miss but once his marker heads off in that direction, he know he’ll be in trouble later on with his own team-mates if he doesn’t go as well. He’s often the fella seen sprinting in, not because he’s out for blood but because he was slow off the mark in the first place.

For others, it will be time for a surgical strike. Very few melees come without a bit of history attached. It could go back years but, like the saying goes, you know not the day nor the hour. All of a sudden when a row starts, a couple of fellas will be craning their necks to see where certain members of the opposition are.

Good distance

If you watch the Armagh-Tyrone row from Sunday, Ciarán McKeever lined up Seán Cavanagh from a good distance away. Most lads were pushing and pulling out of whoever was nearest to them and moving on to different fellas over the course of the few seconds it lasted. McKeever saw Cavanagh pulling two Armagh jerseys off the pile and came straight for him and only him.

Watch it to the end – it takes a few lads from either side to make him let go of Cavanagh’s shirt. That wouldn’t be Seán Cavanagh’s scene at all. He’s the talisman, he doesn’t need the hassle of getting caught up in that kind of thing early in a game. McKeever knew he’d get full value out of the skirmish because in that sort of scenario you’re hiding in plain sight.

Then you’ll have the peacemakers. There are two kinds of peacemakers. The first is the lad who genuinely thinks this is all a waste of time and just wants to get on with the game. He’ll be rolling his eyes and pulling his men away and trying to send everyone back to their corners.

The other kind of peacemaker is the one who’s trying to lick up to the referee. He’s probably spent the game leaving in a few late tackles, crying for frees every couple of minutes, living on the edge. But he sees this as his chance to show the ref what a good, solid citizen he is. “Ah come now lads, enough’s enough. Let’s play football lads, let’s play football.” All shouted good and loud so the referee can hear him, so that the next tackle he puts in, the ref might think twice about booking him.

Quiet psychopath

The one fella you have to keep an eye out for is the quiet psychopath. Some fellas will be shaping, some fellas will be getting involved just to be part of it or out of duty. Not this man. He’s a serious operator and he’s going to get value for money here. He won’t throw a big punch and get himself sent off but when there’s wrestling going on on the ground, he’s the one with his arm pressed down on a fella’s neck. It might only be for a few seconds but he’ll go back to his position with his point made.

The International Rules games were notorious for melees. You always knew going into them that somewhere along the way, this was going to erupt. The year they went after Graham Geraghty, I remember Paul Galvin saying to me afterwards that he was certain something was going to happen even as we were just walking in the parade.

Bad manners

The Aussies were roaring over at Geraghty and he was giving plenty of bad manners back. Meanwhile Paul was walking behind him going: “Christ, this fella’s going to get us killed!”

Now Paul would be well fit for it and well-conditioned but it’s one thing getting into a scrap that breaks out spontaneously. It’s another walking around in the parade knowing that it was Queensbury Rules stuff that was on the cards.

One year I ended up marking Barry Hall for a while. We were playing down in front of Stephen Cluxton and big Barry ran into Cluxton at one stage and the two boys had words. Nothing to do with me – or so I thought. But Cluxton wouldn't shut up. He kept at him, kept mouthing away.

Now, if I was out the middle of the field away from all this, I’d have been thinking: ‘Good man Clucko, give him yards of it”. But I was standing beside all 6ft 5in of Barry Hall who I remembered reading somewhere was a trained boxer.

I looked at Barry and could see that his nose had been through a boxer’s life. Not good. I turned to Cluxton and told him very politely to pipe down. I don’t mind taking a hiding but at least let it be for something I’ve done myself!

In the end, a bit of intimidation is far more of a mental thing than a physical thing. Most teams are the physical match of each other, most of them are conditioned to be able to take and give hits.

But on a certain level, it’s about cranking up the intensity to the point where you throw the other side off their game. This is your plan, not their plan. And as soon as you start a melee, the other side can’t just walk away from it. They have to front up to it. Just like that, the game is being played on your terms.

That stuff on Sunday suited Armagh down to the ground. Once upon a time, it would have been like poking a bear trying that against Tyrone but not these days. Conor Gormley wasn't on the pitch at the start of the game, Joe McMahon wasn't around either. This was Armagh's chance to set the tone and bully a team with a load of young lads on it.

They took it and it worked a treat. It won’t work every day but it was perfect for this game. We can wag our fingers all we want but that’s the reality of it.