GAA bench is about as luxurious as a weekend on Lough Derg
Páidí Ó Sé didn’t speak to Mick O’Dwyer for two years after he was put there
This is where Colm Cooper is used to being, in the Kerry starting XV. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Ah, the bench. Is there a more complex or analysed piece of furniture in the entire catalogue of GAA interior and exterior decor?
Thursday night’s news that Colm Cooper had – as rumour predicted – been ‘dropped’ to the Kerry bench for tomorrow’s Munster final served to confirm that the Gael has a psychologically strained relationship with that plain and grimly functional seating apparatus. All counties struggle with the concept of the bench but nowhere is it more feared or analysed than in Kerry, where they have developed a niche and highly profitable line of psychoanalysis exploring the long-term effects of the bench on players and supporters alike.
For well over a decade now, GAA managers have been earnestly assuring their public – and their players – that the team “is only as good as its bench”. This idea is often cold comfort to the same public, who scan the match programme over a choc-ice on match day and grumble to their neighbour that the bench is no f****ing good at all. “There’s no one on yon bench at all,” they will complain, as if their manager has chosen a reserve list of ghosts.
This 20-man lark is also of scant consolation to the players whose destiny it is to sit on the bench. When all is said and done, managerial tributes to players left on the bench are just a more humane way of telling them that although haven’t been picked to start, they haven’t been forgotten about – entirely.
The traditional design of the GAA bench hasn’t helped matters. American sports stars recline on padded seats, passing their digits to the bored companions of movie stars; they have a full-waiter service to fetch them towels and cocktails and standby masseuses to ease any stiffness. The GAA offers no such frills to its players. The GAA bench is about as luxurious as a weekend on Lough Derg. It’s a bare and often unvarnished splinter-ridden thing, resentful in aspect and tucked away in the shadows of the dug-out, as if its guests were best off out of sight. Present but not there.
There were a good few years when the substitutes of most All-Ireland teams could have brought a few kegs of beer and a ghetto blaster into their dug out. To be substituted was interpreted by the departing player as an absolutely mortifying humiliation. The only way around it was to affect an elaborate and unmistakable limp as you departed the scene, shaking your head as if you despaired of ever walking properly again. The corner forward was always the first man for the chop, victim of the sort of last-in-first-out policy which prevailed in GAA managerial thinking until Mickey Harte showed the world a new way by taking Peter Canavan off – and then putting him back on again.
Most counties have their treasured stories of hitherto unremarkable players who suddenly went all Braveheart when sprung from the bench, casually knocking over stupendous points from all angles. A clamour for his elevation to the starting XV quickly followed but, mysteriously and inevitably, that magical form would desert the super-sub once he was required to play from the start. As a first-teamer, he started no fires. So it was accepted that the bench, for whatever reason, ‘suited’ the temperament of some fellas.
But only some! It has become clear that most Gaels just aren’t emotionally or psychologically equipped for the bench life. The most famous case, naturally enough, belongs to Kerry, when the late lamented Páidí Ó Sé responded to Mick O’Dwyer’s decision not to pick him for the ’88 Munster final by not really talking to him for two years. In the end Páidí conceded that O’Dwyer was right and all was forgiven, if not forgotten. But the magnificence of the sulk is not diminished by Ó Sé’s admission that the manager was right. Ó Sé’s unhappiness was directed at the heartlessness – the torture – of the bench as much as at his manager. The man had started for Kerry all his life. He genuinely didn’t know what to do on a bench. He literally didn’t know how to sit still. A stranger would recognise that about him after five minutes flat. Páidí Ó Sé was basically an uncontainable bundle of energy and nerves in a crew-cut. Expecting a man like that to observe a Munster final with his boots on – just yards from the action but surplus to requirements – was a form of torture.
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And now Colm Cooper, the perpetual #13, joins the list of demoted Kerry gods, sending a wave of tremors throughout the Kingdom. Questions abound.
Was it even legal to drop the Killarney man without some sort of emergency session featuring all living former All-Ireland winners with five medals or more – and the entire Healy-Rae clan? Wouldn’t this set in motion an entire year of piseogs. The only previous time anyone could remember the Coop languishing – for that is how the true greats must reside on a bench – amongst the substitutes was when he was hobbling on crutches and had one of his pegs encased in Plaster of Paris. They still reckoned he was responsible for 1-2 that day – through pure influence. But to voluntarily not pick young Cooper is a different scenario entirely.
True, he will sit among exalted company for tomorrow’s Munster final. And true, the bench has lost much of its stigma in recent years with habitual heavyweight teams like Dublin loading their reserve places with All-Stars and All-Ireland winners. The manager has lost his fear of the substitution. It is, after all, a 20-man game.
Still, holding Colm Cooper in the wings seems like toying with the natural order of things. They did the same with Kieran Donaghy a year ago.
And look how that worked out . . .