In Ventry last weekend, they had a big crowd down to unveil a statue of P Ó Sé himself. A rake of his old teammates were there, plenty of locals, plenty of rogues. There was a monsignor and two priests down to bless it. That’ll tell you how holy Páidí was – they needed three clergymen to balance the scales for the blessing.
It was one of those occasions where even though you thought you knew every story about the man already, there was still one or two more that sounded new to you. We heard one about a change of county secretaries in the 1970s – Andy Molyneaux had been the man for a long-time but Tony O’Keeffe was coming in to replace him. Páidí saw what you might call a political vacuum and decided to see if he could take advantage of it.
He had already sent his expenses in to be settled by the previous secretary but just in case, he said he’d send them to O’Keeffe as well. No harm in finding out did these fellas have their ducks in a row at all. As it turned out, they did. O’Keeffe told him where to go with his second claim. “Oh, no problem at all boy,” says Páidí, half making out that the confusion was on the county board end of things. He didn’t get paid twice but you couldn’t hate him for trying.
All the talk about sledging from the weekend reminded me of a challenge match from Páidí's time as Kerry manager. We were playing Armagh in Askeaton and for whatever reason, they landed down without a full team. Or maybe they only barely had a team. Whatever it was, my abiding memory is that Kieran McGeeney went into the game cranky. And he was giving Maurice Fitzgerald plenty of it.
Back of the head
Now, the thing people might not appreciate about Maurice is he was one of the most physical players in the country when he wanted to be. He had these big long heavy hands and he’d no problem using them. You’d be playing a county championship game and jumping for a ball when all of a sudden you’d feel a shot down the back of the head. You wouldn’t know where it was after coming from because when you’d look around, Maurice would be sloping away in the languid way he moved and you’d be going, “Well, whoever it was, it couldn’t have been him.” You’d be looking around for some kind of hobo but it would be Fitzy all along.
Anyway against Armagh this time, him and McGeeney were hopping off each other from early on. Maurice hit him a puck at one stage and McGeeney being McGeeney wasn’t going to back down. He was full of chat for him. “Come on,” he says. “Come on, I can take it, I can take it.”
I only know this now because McGeeney said it to me later on. He’d have had plenty of running battles with fellas down the years but Maurice’s reply was unique. “I know you can,” he says. “But I need it more. Hit me back but make sure Páidí sees you do it. Come on we’ll go over here beside him here – he thinks I’m soft.”
It threw McGeeney off his game altogether. He was laughing with me after. “How do you answer that?” he said. “I thought we were in the middle of a row!” The moral of the story is, if you’re going to be going mouthing, you’d want to know your audience.
No avoiding it
There’s no point in us all tearing our hair out about sledging. It’s part of the game now and there’s no avoiding it. You don’t like seeing it but I wouldn’t be getting my knickers in a twist about it either.
My view on it was always that it seemed to be a lot of wasted energy for not very much gain. The last thing I ever wanted to give an opponent was an insight into how I was thinking. I felt that there was way more advantage to being an unknown quality. If a guy is talking to you and yapping at you and you’re not responding, then he has to be wondering what the point of it is.
I didn’t get it that often but when I did, I just shut my mouth and carried on playing. The longer it kept going, the easier it was for me to play on and not respond. After a while it would stop – I always assumed out of embarrassment as much as anything. If you keep jabbering away at somebody and you get nothing back, surely you start to feel a bit stupid after a while.
Sledgers aren’t bad people. They’re just guys who’ve got themselves into a certain mindset for a certain game or opponent. They’ve convinced themselves that this will have an effect somehow or other. Ryan McMenamin was one of the worst for it – a monstrous little weasel when he was playing. But I’ve rarely met a footballer whose company I’ve enjoyed more off the pitch.
That just tells you it’s all a put-on. Which, to me, proves that there’s no point doing it. Sledging means nothing. It achieves nothing. I’d far rather a fella yapped in my ear all day and spent his energy on that rather than on making run after run for me to chase after. Sledging never scored a point or set up an attack. All it ever did as far as I was concerned was show a chink in the armour.
There’s no doubt it’s a huge part of football in Ulster now. Obviously you see it outside of Ulster but not to anywhere near the same extent. Funny, in all the talk that there’s been since Sunday, nobody has really mentioned the driving force behind it – the sheer level of familiarity between the teams up there.
It’s a massive factor. We played Limerick back to back in league and championship for a few years. It felt like they came out of the hat every time we turned around. And they pushed us to the wire a few times, which only made it worse. Suddenly, they were a team that we knew we had to keep down. We knew we couldn’t let them start getting it into their heads that they were allowed to win against us. You couldn’t let that idea take root.
So those games got spiky and they needed you to be mentally tuned in. You’d be going in knowing you weren’t going to get any breaks from the referee because any bit of a dig out he was going to give would fall the way of the underdog. The other thing in your mind would be that you have Cork in a couple of weeks – don’t be getting a man sent off, whatever happens.
What that meant was resigning yourself that you’re going to be a punchbag, you’re going to be a target and your job was going to be simple – suck it up and take it. Don’t go looking for trouble. Stand your ground but don’t give the referee an option to make a name for himself. Just get through it.
That’s what a lot of these Ulster games must be like. Players know they have to get through it. They steel themselves for war every time they go out. Think about it. Ulster is the only province where most of the teams think they can beat each other on a regular basis. No county is afraid of any other county and the majority of them aren’t beaten before the ball is thrown in, as is the case in the three other provinces.
On top of that, they meet each other often three or four times a year. Check the reports of the McKenna Cup games in January – the Ulster counties have far more of their best players out in those games than is the case down the country. Go back to the opening game this year, Tyrone v Armagh. It had nearly 9,000 people at it and it ended with four men sent off. Serious players too, Colm Cavanagh and Ciarán McKeever among them. No way do you see that sort of madness so early in the year down south.
Throw in the fact that these guys come up against each other in colleges games and in league games and you arrive at the summer with them just having seen far too much of each other. They know each other’s weak points. They know how to get at one another. Seán Cavanagh and Eamonn McGee were playing against each other in the championship back in 2004. How many times have they played against each other since? What is there left to say?
I enjoyed the Donegal-Tyrone game on Sunday. The pace of it was savage at times and the ability of these players to take hits and bounce up was totally admirable. Fellas were throwing themselves on the line for the cause, which is what you want to see in championship football. And the quality was high enough that there was no margin for error – those Tyrone wides in the first half cost them dearly in the end.
The difference between what was going on in Ballybofey and in the other games was massive. If you took a player out of one of the Leinster games at half-time and dropped him into the second half of Donegal-Tyrone, he’d have had a heart attack. Ballybofey was pure championship, the rest of it was Mickey Mouse stuff.
People can give out about the Ulster Championship all they like. But let's be honest here – it's the only thing worth watching this side of July. Intense, dogged, cynical, physical, no margin for error and always, always competitive. A bit of sledging won't stop people tuning in for that.