Jim McGuinness: Why Jim Gavin should retract Diarmuid Connolly remarks

Manager likely spoke out to sharpen sense of fraternity in Dublin as they seek three in a row

Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly with manager Jim Gavin after being sent off in the quarter-final against Donegal. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly with manager Jim Gavin after being sent off in the quarter-final against Donegal. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

 

On what was a long flight to Beijing on Saturday night, I found myself thinking about the furore over Jim Gavin’s comments on the Diarmuid Connolly affair.

Already, it has become one of the defining moments of the GAA summer. It has provoked so much debate and controversy that you have to ask the question as to why Jim decided to speak out the way he did. Many people are saying that it’s not the best decision he has made but that has to be balanced against the fact that he hasn’t made many poor decisions since he took the Dublin job.

But I do feel he made a mistake in this instance and the smart thing to do would be to retract the comments.

Let’s look at what has happened here from Gavin’s perspective: it’s the first round of the championship against Carlow. One of Dublin’s main players gets caught up in something he possibly shouldn’t have. And he faces a long suspension. Think about where he was at after that match. He reviews the film of the incident and probably realises straight away that it was going to be difficult – if not impossible – to navigate a way out of it. A suspension is inevitable so it becomes a double negative.

Then he sees the analysis of the incident onThe Sunday Game, led by Pat Spillane and supported by Colm O’Rourke. And he seizes on the tenor of that to castigate the television analysts for what he interprets as a clear attempt to influence the due process. By bringing his thoughts into the public arena, it becomes a negative/siege mentality.

Constant agenda

Now, I am far from the biggest fan of The Sunday Game. I felt that The Sunday Game had a constant agenda against Donegal when I was managing. Its punditry did shape thought processes around the country in terms of how we were perceived. But in reality, it meant nothing to what we did on the field.

I never commented on what I felt about the coverage except for the specific comment made in relation to Ryan Bradley after the Antrim game in 2011. Ironically, that was with Spillane too. But I feel that was a different dynamic.

Here was a kid who put his life on hold and made a decision to get into incredible shape. He worked harder than he ever did in his life and turned down a work opportunity in America. And he ends up playing championship football and gets man of the match.

And the Pat comments: really, there shouldn’t have been a man of the match. That irked me as a manager because I knew what the kid had gone through to reach that stage. He was the best player on the pitch that day. If the match isn’t great, then fine: don’t have a man of the match award.

But don’t give it and then slag it off. So as a manager, I felt compelled to take a stand for Ryan and go public and address that. And I think that in general, there are dynamics within the GAA media coverage in which some journalists and ex-players act in concert.

People have agendas and at certain times pundits do try to spin stories to create pressure or a certain perspective. People get hot under the collar and use it as energy and drive and to get the best out of themselves and spin it back again. So the media and ex-players in the media can have an influence.

But this was not one of those situations. The reality here was that Connolly shouldn’t have done what he did and anything said or not said on The Sunday Game could not change that fact one iota. Are we seriously suggesting that a group of people from all over the country gathering to sit for Connolly’s disciplinary hearing are going to risk their reputations by listening to and being guided by what is said in The Sunday Game? And in doing so make a decision that has a big impact on a footballer’s career? I just don’t buy that.

Rigorous

Those appeal hearings are rigorous they feel like a world apart. In 2011, Michael Murphy got sent off against Cavan. He turned into a player and the guy held his face and went down. It was completely innocent and there was no contact. Everyone in the ground knew that. But a red card was issued. Michael was in shock. But we had to go to Dublin and fight that case. And it was difficult. It was one where you must prove your innocence.

It’s almost like the legal principle in reverse: you are guilty until you prove your innocence – even though it is like a courtroom setting. So once you end up in that environment, it is an entirely different setting and environment than the kind of raucous, casual Sunday Game debate.

A lot of these people are barristers and are highly versed in legalese so you have to fight your case and it becomes very technical. We had a letter from the Cavan player involved confirming Michael’s innocence but we were told that it wasn’t worth the paper it was written on: we had to prove his innocence here. And Dublin were never going to be able to do that in this situation because the video evidence was clear cut.

The concept that the Dublin county board were happy to pursue the case but that Connolly wanted to let it go doesn’t wash. If they were absolutely clear in their minds that it was minor, why would they drop it? They would fight the suspension. But the video evidence is irrefutable. He laid his hand on the official and by the letter of the law had to be hit with a suspension.

So why did Gavin speak out? It was surely to sharpen the sense of fraternity and to lock the world outside the gates of Parnell Park. Dublin are going for three in a row. Every team needs a cause. It is a lot easier to keep that sense of togetherness if you feel that the world is out to get you. That thing of “we have to be together and fight on every single front if we want to achieve that goal”.

Disrepute

So when you weigh all that up, I feel that Gavin’s comments bring the game into disrepute. To say that “there is no doubt in my mind” that The Sunday Game panel influenced the decision is impossible to reconcile with what he must know to be the reality of the situation. Imagine a manager saying that on Match of the Day? That, for instance, Alan Shearer’s comments indirectly contributed to the suspension of a player. The Premier League would throw the book at him.

Finding that edge and that drive or passion to maintain excellence is not easy. Gavin has been exceptional in this regard. But you need to pick your fights. The ironic thing about the whole row is that if there was a kangaroo court, it was probably on The Sunday Game itself the following week when the pundits tried to suggest that their colleague Spillane’s comments were indeed provocative and influenced the proceedings.

You need to remember when you are listening to certain pundits it is not what they are saying – it is why they are saying it. And that version of events, in turn, was then adopted as gospel.

There is a lot of commentary about players and managers. Some is fair, some is unfair and some of it is biased. But irrespective of the nature of any commentary I do not believe that it would impact on the decision of a group of people from around the country who would sit down to decide whether a player should serve a suspension. And I don’t believe Gavin believes that. So he used the situation to create this siege mentality.

Like most sports fans, I love watching Connolly. He is one of the most enjoyable football players in Ireland to watch. He has a short fuse and people play on that. It is up to the referee to protect him. But he has to accept responsibility for himself too.

Meaty slap

I once watched an Ulster championship game and someone hit Anthony Tohill from Derry a fairly meaty slap across the jaw. Anthony is 6’4”: in his Derry years he was an incredible athlete and a man mountain of a player. Striking him across the face was not a smart career move. But he just turned and looked at the guy as if to say: “Are you serious there? Is this a road you want to go down?” And he just stared at him. As if to say: “I am waaaaay above this.” And that must have taken immense discipline.

But that is where he was at. And that’s the ilk of player that Diarmuid is. He is in that bracket. And if he could recognise how important he is himself he would recognise that nothing should get in the way of that – including losing your composure.

The reason I feel that it would be smart if Gavin retracted his comments is that his viewpoint could create a messy precedent. Throughout the US election campaign, Donald Trump kept saying the election was rigged. It was his mantra. And had he lost the election, he hadn’t really lost it: it was rigged.

Then he got this shock result based on a lot of his rhetoric. Then when evidence emerged that there was electoral interference – and ironically the election was rigged – he portrayed that as fake news. So in the much smaller, localised world of GAA we have to be careful. If something clearly happened, we can’t pretend that it didn’t happen.

If he had no doubt that the case would have been thrown out, then why do a disservice to your player? Why not take it the whole way and fight to get him cleared?

Top manager

Dublin are a big team and a big entity. Gavin is the top manager in the country. There is a responsibility that comes with that. This was a clear-cut incident: one of his players infringed and had to be punished.

All the reaction and criticism around that was just white noise. Gavin has probably achieved what he wanted: a lot of people are commenting and asking questions about Dublin and saying negative things about them.

This column is probably adding to that. Dublin will now feel that they are under attack and will use that positively. It is only ourselves!

It has been a long three years and if they get over the line this summer, it will be some achievement. But I feel that Gavin should be above this kind of gamesmanship and even if they do finish the season as All-Ireland champions, he may regret this moment in the long run.

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