Oisin McConville: Cynical gamesmanship in GAA leaves sport in gutter
I just knew that I was not about to have one of my better days at the office when I entered MacCumhaill Park, Ballybofey last Sunday — and it wasn’t because the rain was pouring down at that juncture.
No, instead it was a malfunctioning electronic scoreboard that detracted somewhat from my appetite for the Donegal v Fermanagh Ulster senior football championship quarter-final that was about to unfold.
And, sadly, there was much worse to come.
While the rain relented, there was to be no let-up in the level of gamesmanship, cynicism and indeed downright cheating that marred what I initially thought would prove a very decent contest.
To be fair, the early portents were good but even before the halfway stage had been reached it became clear that the simmering undercurrent which prevailed would have repercussions.
The upshot was that instead of being left to dwell on a lively, high-octane, absorbing tie most followers — yes, even the Donegal folk — were forced to digest a championship encounter that highlighted deficiencies in both sides and left a sour taste in the mouth.
As the game gradually disintegrated into a series of spiteful confrontations, obvious ‘sledging’ and a sustained pursuit of ‘one-upmanship’, we were left to reflect on just what direction Ulster football is taking given the below-par quality of the four championship matches which preceded Sunday’s set-to.
There is no doubt that Donegal play an energy-sapping, fast-moving game that requires huge levels of physical fitness and stamina as well as the ability to function within the parameters of what is a complex but potentially effective game plan.
For their part, Fermanagh’s honest efforts to retain a foothold in the game all but vanished when Sean Quigley’s rather feeble penalty effort was comfortably saved by debutant Donegal goalkeeper Mark Anthony McGinley on the stroke of half-time.
Donegal’s protestations following the red card quite rightly shown to defender Neil McGee by referee Maurice Deegan for his forearm smash on Ruairi Corrigan underlined the pathetic levels they are prepared to go to in their quest for ‘justice’.
Not surprisingly, the game took a turn for the worse after this and it was indeed disappointing to see the level of gamesmanship and cynicism to which Donegal descended as they closed out the match — tactics that understandably left Fermanagh manager Peter McGrath fuming at the finish.
Should Donegal persist with this modus operandi, I cannot see them making great headway, certainly not against sides like Monaghan or Tyrone — and that’s just for starters.
I hope for their own sake that Donegal were keeping something in reserve for further down the line because if last Sunday was as good as it gets for them, then they are going nowhere.
The sole concession to youth in their starting line-up was the inclusion of Eoin McHugh while three of their substitutes — Rory Kavanagh, Colm McFadden and Christy Toye — are past their sell-by dates.
I am convinced, too, that manager Rory Gallagher would have no objection if vastly experienced goalkeeper Paul Durcan were to suddenly appear on the horizon again following some woeful kick-outs by McGinley, indiscretions that would have been robustly punished by a more streetwise side.
I can understand Peter McGrath’s sense of frustration as Donegal engaged in their wiles but at the same time this will have been another learning experience for his side.
The most successful teams are usually always the cutest — think Dublin, Kerry and Tyrone — who can mix swashbuckling enterprise with the occasional foray into the dark arts.
Like Donegal, they will hold up their hands in innocence but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
I have no doubt that the events which unfurled in Ballybofey last Sunday will serve to heap a little extra pressure on the referees who will handle today’s semi-final between Cavan and Tyrone and next Saturday’s confrontation between Monaghan and Donegal as well as the Ulster final on July 17, of course.
The hope in all games is that the emphasis will be placed on winning fairly and squarely rather than by taking a more devious route to success.