Belfast Telegraph

Players need to realise that it's always good to talk

By Declan Bogue

There are few greater work requests than getting asked to go to Rome for the weekend, with flights and hotel room booked.

This happened to me in February, for Ireland's Six Nations rugby opener against Italy. Rather oddly, it was the first time I covered a professional sporting event in the flesh.

I was exposed to a 'mixed zone' for the first time. This consisted of a corridor in the bowels of the Stadio Olimpico, with half of it fenced off for reporters standing like bullocks in a feeding pen, while players walked by and granted interviews.

My wariness of the practice stemmed from reading columnists in the past complaining about the concept of a mixed zone, with one asking former Republic of Ireland defender Stephen Carr for a word but being met with a sneer and a "no chance".

I held a certain smugness because as Gaelic games are amateur, there would hardly be a situation whereby players would get away with such a lack of courtesy. They live among us, cut your meat and teach your kids on a Monday and so forth.

But things are changing.

As management teams model themselves on professional counterparts, the 'media handler' has become a thing in the GAA. Formerly, the county public relations officer might have had a hand in organising access to players and managers, while the immediate aftermath of the post-match was considered a free for all. Not any more.

This year, I have spotted several media handlers. At a press event in Ulster, the journalists present were having a perfectly convivial conversation with an engaging manager. It was broadened when he was asked if he had a Twitter account, only for him to amusingly respond, "no, I get enough abuse."

At that point, the media handler jumped in and instructed us that any further questions should only concern the upcoming match.

Last Saturday, Jim Gavin was being interviewed with his own media handler close by. The scenario is perfectly described by journalist Vince Hogan: "The Dublin press officer bizarrely takes one more step towards the dais, tugged by an invisible chain. Oddly, this person is fully togged out as if he might even have been an option to Gavin from the bench. He swings a water bottle while Jim talks, his body language endlessly calling time."

Afterwards, with reporters seeking three minutes of a player's time for a follow-up piece outside their team bus, the same man blots out the prospect, saying they are too tired. The previous week, he stopped a player who was about to give an interview. Make your own mind up.

Instead, he arranges a player to take a call 24 hours later, presumably when emotion and adrenaline are drained and the player returns to 'media mode'.

Last Sunday, Brian Cody gave the shortest ever post-match interview of an All-Ireland winning manager. When there was a pause, he used it to wrap things up.

Most of the media coverage afterwards led off with how injury-stricken substitute Jackie Tyrrell inspired his team-mates with a rousing half-time speech. We only found that out because the question was asked and even at that, Cody played it down.

It feels like a lifetime since the Brians, Dooher and McGuigan, sat either side of Mickey Harte, Sam Maguire in front of them, telling yarns of how they won the All-Ireland in 2008, faces beaming, still in their kit, enjoying the moment.

Right now, as the season bursts into incandescent flame, it's not being captured or adequately discussed by the proponents.

The time has come for the GAA to introduce a mixed zone.

Because something is always better than nothing, and as it happens, the Ireland rugby players and their media officer couldn't have been more pleasant to deal with in Rome.

Recently, former Armagh ace Tony McEntee made the point that he was watching a game and he stopped caring, because the players to him were all faceless characters.

In an era where there has never been more GAA coverage, we've never known less about the figures that play the sport. And everybody misses out. Not just reporters.

Belfast Telegraph


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