Players giving it their all and getting insulted - for nothing
Tipping point: there is now an intensity to the focus on players that is insane
Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly. His behavioural motivation has been highly scrutinised. Photograph: Getty Images
What kind of schizoid do you have to be to play senior county football for Cork right now: or hurling for Offaly: or anything for Wicklow?
Okay, maybe not Wicklow. Even among GAA minnows expectations for Wicklow are famously low. There’s only weary resignation that fleeting visits to headline country will be for outbreaks of tribal violence and assaulting referees.
The idea of Wicklow county players bursting their “Bundun” for months on end getting conditioned for a championship kicking seems futile to most of us, but there must be an oddly enjoyable defiance all the same in devoting so much to the pursuit of so little.And an absence of expectation at least comes with anonymity.
Getting presented as a county player for quite a few set-ups invites good natured slagging about the Swiss navy. It’s different with expectation. That reacts very badly to disappointment.
Passionate debate is vital to the GAA, and since there can only be a couple of champions each year most of it is a sustainable blend of grumpy optimism. But there’s an intensity to the focus on players now that’s insane.
So considering so much identity gets bound up in all of this, a stifling sense of responsibility is inevitable for those players lining out for counties used to winning.
Which is okay when things are going well: it’s easier then for players expected to bear up under microscopic public examination for what remains nothing but the glory of the jersey, free gear and a few expenses. But disappointment these days can come with real destructive venom.
These are amateurs being held up to professional standards. They’re doing it for nothing. They don’t have the luxury of retreating to a gated community to count their professional millions. Instead, they’re retreating to communities who if not expressing contempt can be openly disdainful.
And eventually the question surely has to dawn on players as to why?
Why on earth they are devoting their lives to this supposed joyful pursuit which can get them publicly lambasted and their supposed inadequacies pseudo-psychoanalysed to within an inch of outright character assassination.
And they’re putting up with it – for nothing!
If you’re a Cork senior footballer these days an inordinate amount of time must be spent juggling masks.
There are obligatory ones like statements of delight at the honour of wearing the red jersey. Or not reading or listening to any criticism. And how flak just makes the group stronger and a siege mentality is actually a “paaasitive”.
But there are more everyday masks, like having to go to work pretending not to care that judgments on your lack of testicular fortitude are out there as a result of trite snappy quips rattled off by media pundits remuneratively filleting your character.
It must be exhausting pretending not to care what people you’re supposed to be representing think of you.
Or laughing off media representations of yourself and your team mates that might bear as much relation to reality as a cartoon but which still stick and can be deeply hurtful.
Eoin Cadogan recently pointed out how the Cork footballers aren’t loved. That’s simply a statement of fact. Yet even it was turned into another stick to beat the team, along the lines of how they need to grow a pair and invest in that conveniently vague cop-out piece of jargon called “leadership”.
Offaly is another country used to success across the codes. Their teams might be limited right now, but no one can doubt their commitment. Yet they’re more likely to get a dismissive shake of the head and a dollop of Mayo-patented “God help us” than praise for their efforts.
As for Mayo, has a team or a county ever been subjected to so much cod-psychoanalytical baloney about character and the need for an air-drop of spine-donors into Castlebar? Has one man’s self-absorption ever been so enthusiastically “friended” by so many as Aidan O’Shea’s?
It’s not like winning guarantees insulation from the glare either. Diarmuid Connolly’s behavioural motivation has been scrutinised like something out of Stanislavsky: Tipp hurlers are rumoured to have done what fit young men do and suddenly it’s A Doll’s House in Thurles.
It makes one think about what kind of head-wreck is it to play for any high-profile GAA team these days.
We’re already assured obsessive compulsive disorder levels of single-mindedness are needed just to get to the physical level required to compete – never mind succeed – at games increasingly dominated by overweening coaches who’ve turned expression into a dirty word.
Instead the prime years of young people’s lives are spent monastically cocooned in camps, ingesting protein and forsaking temptation in order to flog their guts out in front of profitably-packed grounds and a voracious hard-sell media in return for what is often little more than grief – for nothing!
Becoming public property can have its upsides. Some thrive on attention, often generating it themselves. But it can be vicious too, which is why many high-profile professionals spend considerable amounts of their fortune insulating themselves from fame. And fame without fortune is usually the worst kind of double result.
It’s what quite a number of top players now get though, opprobrium and derision with little to show for it, not even enjoyment, which don’t forget is supposedly why amateurs play in the first place.
Attention on top-flight Gaelic games isn’t going to regress. And the GAA is persistently proud of its professionalism, something which inevitably extends to the players.
But these players are now expected to put up with unprecedented public scrutiny and it is inevitable more and more are going to ask themselves if it’s worth the wick.
Why leave yourself and those closest to you open to this sort of scrutiny because where is the glory in insult or the fun in being a punch-line? For free.