An Cailín Rua
Watching the national league final between Dublin and Kerry on Sunday, you’d have been forgiven for thinking you were watching a summer championship game. It was a game that promised everything – skill, physicality, drama – and didn’t fail to deliver.
With over 50,000 in attendance, that the GAA’s second-stream competition now garners more consistent engagement among customers than the its main one is striking and perhaps somewhat embarrassing, but that’s a column for another day. What made this match extra intriguing was the build-up.
GAA journalists these days operate in what could be classed as a bland environment. It’s rare that players or managers deviate from the script – or indeed, the ‘process’ – which was what made Eamonn Fitzmaurice’s remarks in the lead-up to the game just so fascinating.
For those who missed it, the usually stoic Fitzmaurice spoke out about what he felt was a ‘lack of balance’ in the media narrative surrounding his team. He took issue with the fact that the analysis was consistently suggesting that Kerry were resorting to unsavoury tactics in their attempts to beat the All-Ireland champions, without acknowledging Dublin’s own ‘hard edge’ – both on and off the pitch.
What made this intervention even more noteworthy in the eyes of Mayo supporters was Fitzmaurice’s referencing of the ‘orchestrated campaign’ instigated in the media against Lee Keegan last year. While Fitzy was happy to sit on this for months until he could use it to his own advantage, it was almost a relief to hear someone outside our county call it for what it was, and it was certainly refreshing to see players being defended by one of their own. Take note, Mayo.
Slow to respond
Last September, as a county we listened passively to Ciarán Whelan use a national platform to set the stage for a denigration of Lee Keegan’s footballing integrity, and subsequently stood by over the course of the following fortnight as every fame-hungry has-been from Dublin lined up to castigate him.
We have now twice listened to the RTÉ panel – unchallenged – imply that Aidan O’Shea is a cheat. We read Joe Brolly’ poisonous character assassination and personal attack on Rob Hennelly after last year’s All-Ireland final replay. In 2014, we allowed ourselves to be bundled off down to Limerick for that All-Ireland semi-final replay.
We barely raised a murmur when the referee who did us such an injustice that day was recently deployed to adjudicate the biggest day of our season so far, and failed to highlight the fact that his ineptitude on the day was such that it could conceivably endanger the safety of players (although Cormac Reilly is far from alone in this). I could go on.
Now, when I say ‘we’, I don’t mean supporters. Mayo supporters are getting weary of standing up for our players on the only real medium we have - social media - and getting ridiculed for doing so, or labelled ‘whingers’. Rather, I mean those whose commentary could make a credible impact - officials, managers, county board executive members, ex-players. With only a couple of exceptions our own media analysts are frequently slow to respond to these incidents, and certainly do not attempt to shape the narrative in the way that other counties do.
Meanwhile, our players without exception hold their dignity.
Hands up, I can’t say I’ve rated Fitzmaurice hugely as a manager over the past few years, but I was hugely impressed by the clever, calculated and diplomatic manner in which he delivered this statement. He was careful to acknowledge the undeniable excellence of Dublin, as well as recognising his own team’s tendency towards the dark arts.
In this most sterile landscape where any deviation from the script is perceived as a weakness, the ‘process’ pervades and the stiff upper lip mentality is king, it was refreshing to see Fitzmaurice take the courageous step of leaving himself open to accusations of sour grapes, of mind games, of whinging, and standing up for his players. He may not have had a lot to lose in one way, but it was a risk, and it took courage.
And what did his players do? They went out and won the game.
There’s definitely a lesson in there somewhere.