It's time to Stamp out and destroy this sledging virus
The first time I played for my club Errigal Ciaran, I was eight, maybe nine. It was an U12 game. The jersey was hanging down over my knees, on legs resembling two matchsticks.
I had three pairs of socks on because I was wearing my older brother's boots. A strong gust of wind would have blown me away like tumbleweed. Then when I wandered into corner-forward, I had this big, strong corner-back peering over me like a sheriff with a shiny badge.
I can still picture him laying down the law, telling me what he was going to do to me on his beat. I didn't know what to think. I couldn't hit him. I couldn't run away.
Thankfully, my big brother could see what was developing. He intervened. The sideshow was over. New law was established. The sheriff was ran out of town.
That boy wasn't coached to mouth or push me around. He just embraced the circumstances before him. He was big. I was small. He could bully me so he tried to do what felt natural to him.
As I got older and bigger and could no longer rely on my big brother to protect me, I couldn't lie down when other players tried to intimidate me. I learned to deal with it myself.
That U12 game was my first induction to bullying. Some lads would do anything to try and soften you up but sledging was never really a part of that process during my career. I marked some great players, hard warriors - Kieran McKeever, Mick Deegan, Seamus Moynihan, Enda McNulty, Seán Marty Lockhart. They'd take your life on the pitch like an assassin but they were fair and never once foul-mouthed.
For 12 years in Tyrone, Errigal Ciaran and Carrickmore went at it like two prizefighters. We were the two best teams in the county and neither would back down to the other inside the ring.
In some games, the pitch was like a battlefield. It was all-out war between the lines. If a guy got a chance, he'd go through you with a tackle. It was hard and tough but there was never any sledging in those games.
There were times at club and county level where defenders would inform you of what they were going to do with you, of where they intended to bury you, but it was only on sporadic occasions.
I never paid any heed anyway because I always felt it was done out of fear. The majority of footballers I played against don't want to see that stuff. They certainly didn't want to hear it.
On our Tyrone team, Ryan McMenamin was renowned for talking trash during games. He said himself recently that he felt it gave him an edge. It helped him get inside players' heads.
Whether you agreed with him or not, at least Ricey was honest enough to admit it. Players expected him to bang his drum in their ear but I don't think he was ever malicious with his words in the way some players are now. I've heard stories of players mentioning deceased relatives to opponents. That is eating away at the soul of our game.
It is so ingrained in the fabric of football now that the logical assumption to make is that sledging is being coached. From my experience, it definitely is not.
I have never seen it at any level, from school to club to county, where a coach graphically teaches a player how to verbally abuse or taunt someone. But more and more players are developing runny mouths, with bile and venom spilling out the sides of them.
People are giving out about defensive football but this is a far more pressing issue. In last week's Donegal-Tyrone game, there were so many positives.
It was intense. There was a brilliant atmosphere. Some of the football was first class. And yet, most of the discussion afterwards was about sledging. It was justified because I've never seen a match with so much of it going on.
I was on radio on Monday evening. The show played a previously recorded interview with the referee Maurice Deegan, who said that unless a ref is within earshot of sledging, there is nothing he can do about it.
That is totally incorrect. A good referee can read a situation. He can make a statement that acts as a loud deterrent. When the referee knows something is going on, as everybody could clearly see there was last Sunday, it is his responsibility to intervene.
In one game towards the end of my career, a defender was constantly in my ear, hammering away at my head like a woodpecker attacking a tree. Pat McEnaney was 40 yards away but he could read the malicious intent in my opponent's body language.
He didn't need to hear what was being said and he dealt with it quickly by issuing a yellow card. At the time, he had no legislation to support his intuition but there is a rule there now and it's up to referees to use it.
With all the sledging and mouthing last Sunday, don't tell me that the two linesmen and four umpires didn't hear what the ref couldn't. One black card early on would have stemmed a lot of the poisonous bile flowing around.
Referees have got to man up and start doling out black cards to fit the punishment. If somebody runs 20 yards after getting a score to roar in an opponent's face, to me, that's a black card.
It's not good enough and referees have got to root this virus out early on to ensure it doesn't spread and infect the rest of the championship.