After weeks of turmoil on the Ulster GAA club scene Saffron Gael contributor Colum Thompson shares his thoughts on what he feels is behind it all, and tells us that last week’s Junior Hurling final was a beacon of hope for sport as it should be played
By Colum Thompson
These thoughts have been in my head all week. I actually sat down last Sunday after watching the two Antrim senior hurling semi-finals, both of which were marred by controversy and… let’s call them melees. One semi final had an unsavoury incident as the game finished, the other before the ball had been thrown in. This came following a bad fortnight for GAA clubs with alleged assaults on officials, fights involving spectators, the Sean Kavanagh saga and the list goes on. I thought long and hard about putting pen to paper but to be honest last weekend I chickened out. If five years at the coal face in politics taught me anyhing it was to hold your tongue when things were heated, let a thought mature in your head before you open your mouth. As happens in sport time goes on and these incidents, talking points for a few days soon become yesterday’s news. I was happy enough to let sleeping dogs lay. But the videos that have emerged from championship gaelic football matches in Derry on consecutive nights this week meant that I couldn’t forget those thoughts I’d had earlier in the week. Some day soon an incident will happen at a game and we won’t be able to forget it.
I’ve seen fights at matches before, in several different sports. It happens, no point saying it doesn’t but the frequency that anger and violence has reared it’s ugly head at club championship games throughout Ulster already this year is unprecedented. If it continues it will only be a matter of time before someone is killed. This is the cold hard fact of the matter. Anyone that hasn’t heard of the “One punch can kill” campaign following a number of tragic incidents in recent years must have been living under a rock. And when the punches are being delivered by young men, in their prime and who spend half their lives in gyms and training then the chances of a tragedy occurring only rises. But what is to be expected when amateur players are asked to give more commitment than professionals? When so much of a young man’s life is taken up with GAA? Plenty of people have no idea of the commitment demanded by club managers. GPS tracking players during training. Drink bans, training several times a week, matches, being told what to eat and drink, training weekends, travelling all day to play challenge matches, missing out on so many social occasions. Then the hype that goes into a championship match, the aggression. Win at all costs is the message. Players are like pressure cookers and it’s sometimes no wonder they explode.
Before I write the next few sentences I want to hold my hands up. A long time ago (20 odd years) I jumped the wire to get involved in a fight at a match. Not that I actually did any fighting but the intent was there. It isn’t something I’m proud off. In fact a minute or two after you’ve done a thing like that you realise you’ve made a fool of yourself. On a number of occasions over the past few weeks spectators have jumped the wire and got involved, whether it was fighting with others or to get at referees and officials it is happening far too often. I suspect anyone who has done this recently will feel the same way I did.
I really had my eyes opened last weekend. It was a bumper two days and I, like many others took the opportunity to watch plenty of hurling matches. The atmosphere at times during the two senior semi finals was utterly toxic. You could feel the tension in the air, it was nasty. Win at all costs. The game that enjoyed the most was the junior final between Cushendun and Glenarm. At the start of the year at clubs like Cushendun and Glenarm the main aim is to field a team, not win at all costs. Winning the junior championship might be an ambition or an aspiration for a junior club but it doesn’t engulf their every thought and action. It doesn’t keep people awake at night. As a junior club maybe progresses through the championship it becomes a focus. There isn’t the pressure involved in junior hurling, there isn’t the same level of fanaticism for managers and players aren’t subjected to the same outrageous demands. They have a sensible hurling/ life balance. Hurling at that level might be the last safe place for traditional GAA ethos. The game itself was a brilliant contest which both teams emerged from with loads of credit. Cushendun were the better team, played some wonderful hurling and fully deserved their victory. Glenarm were always up against it but I marvelled at the way they went about it. There were no dirty strokes, no red cards and no melees. What there was however was a brave and honest attempt to compete. They rattled Cushendun a few times, particularly with their second goal. It took a cameo from 42 year old veteran Rory McQuillan with 1-1 to finally see off their challenge. What a sweet way for Cushendun to win the junior title. After the game players shook each other’s hands, nobody harassed the referee. Cushendun victorious, Glenarm gallantly defeated. Anyone watching knew they had given their all and who can ask for any more than that? They left the field with their heads held high. Maybe in these days of win at all costs we could do well to learn by the example of these two clubs.