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Tipping Point: Something dubious about the hard man idea within Gaelic games

It’s wrong to have amateur sportsmen being near obligated to pretend abuse is all part of game

Tipperary’s Lar Corbett and Kilkenny’s Jackie Tyrrell during the 2011 All-Ireland Senior Championship Final. In his autobiography, Tyrrell gives a very honest account of the extent he went to “to drive Lar mad”. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Norman Mailer wouldn’t have known a sliotar if it was waved in his face. But the famously macho titan of American literature loved talking balls so he’d probably feel right at home during one of the GAA’s periodic fixations on the nature of masculinity. Then again maybe he wouldn’t.

During a rare lull in a hectic life of always trying just that little bit too hard, Mailer once declared masculinity to be something gained, not given – “and you gain it by winning small battles with honour”.

There’s a lot wrong with that, mainly that it really is balls. But it’s no use at all in the GAA. Because in hurling and football everyone knows you win the small battles any which way you can. Honour is optional. In fact often the more discretionary it is the harder the man. And hard is best, obviously.

Maybe that was behind Joe Connolly’s heartfelt outburst after Galway finally won the All-Ireland after six final defeats in a row.

The 1980 winning captain raged at pundits apparently questioning Galway’s manliness after a series of defeats contributed to a perception of talented teams lacking the “cojones” to win at all costs. They weren’t hard enough. Connolly’s response indicates there’s hardly a bigger insult.

That’s not surprising. There’s nothing followers love more than their hard men. Talent might inspire awe but the tough guy is loved, maybe because construction can be cerebral while it’s easy to get destruction. Except there’s something very dubious about the hard man idea within Gaelic games.

Testicular fortitude

We’ve been treated recently to extracts from Jackie Tyrrell’s autobiography, in particular the headline-grabbing view from the former Kilkenny defender that some of his old Tipperary rivals were severely lacking in testicular fortitude. They hadn’t “the balls” to take Kilkenny on man for man.

That’s been the headline: what’s remarkable is how nobody batted an eyelid at Tyrrell’s description of what apparently constitutes such balls.

Earmarked by Brian Cody to mark Tipp’s star forward Lar Corbett in the 2011 All-Ireland final, Tyrrell was determined there would be no repeat of Corbett’s hat-trick from a year before. And it clearly didn’t matter to anyone in the Kilkenny setup how he managed it.

“I tried to drive Lar mad. He always has his socks pulled up but I kept trying to pull them down. I was standing on his toes, kicking at his heels. I was never into verbals but I dialled up the heat that day. Nothing personal, just business.    

“At one stage when he tried to dart away from me, I caught his helmet. My fingers edged through the bars on his faceguard and I scraped him below the eye with my fingernails. I’m not sure if I drew blood but when Lar started complaining to the referee I just shrugged my shoulders,” he writes.

Tyrrell gets full marks for honesty. Most would shelter under cover of “shenanigans”, the old nod and wink which lets everyone crack the code for themselves. And everyone can crack it. Because there can’t be anyone who has played to any kind of level, from intermediate club to Sunday’s All-Ireland football final, who won’t recognise Tyrrell’s story.

The digs and constant picking and pulling, rank ignorance prettified by anodyne phrases like “sledging”, the incessant shaping and shoulder charging, all of it slyly undermining an opponent with the winning of any true man for man clash, turning sport into stoic endurance.

Ridiculous

That’s why the balls bit was the headline. This other stuff is taken as read.

It’s why no one has stood up and shouted “Whoa!” And we should because this is ridiculous. Just examine what Corbett had to put up with. An amateur sportsman playing for nothing but enjoyment subjected to treatment that in real life could have the cops called. And he’s the problem!

If Corbett opened his mouth afterwards he would have been nationally vilified as a whinger, not enough of a man to stand up to it, the sort of character aspersion that presumably so maddened Connolly. And if Corbett had turned around and retaliated he would have been vilified as a hothead.

To Tyrrell, of course, it was just business. He won the small battle so he’s the winner winning at all costs. Except the behaviour he outlines isn’t so much hard as cheap. He won the battle all right but there appears little honour in it. 

The book is part of Tyrrell’s new career as an admirably plain-speaking pundit, including for this organisation.

His bluntness in the role is a stark contrast to the “cute-hoor” picture he paints so graphically from that 2011 final and he should be commended for doing his audience the courtesy of acknowledging reality rather than hiding behind cliches.      

Blackguarding

But the non-reaction to it is proof of how this cynicism is so insidiously sold throughout the GAA as being what’s required to win, often by pundits and ex-players throbbing with uncertain passion for clean-limbed Gaeldom and its supposed ethical superiority to cheating soccer.

The sort of blackguarding Corbett and countless others put up with simply wouldn’t be tolerated in other sports, never mind cherished as part of “what we are”. It’s so ingrained in the GAA, however, that the problem isn’t the one delivering the nasty dig but anyone who reacts the “wrong” way.

It’s fundamentally wrong to have amateur sportsmen tolerating shameful abuse and being near obligated to pretend it’s all part of the game when it patently shouldn’t be. That it gets couched in cod-psychological claptrap about winners and winning makes it even more pathetic.

We need to shout “whoa”. But before we stop tolerating this stuff we need to stop glorifying it. There’s no courage in sly abuse. Hopefully, someday, a genuinely brave man will summon the balls to step off the field and simply say this is bollocks.