The GAA shouldn’t just impose a long suspension on the imbecile who gouged Damien Comer’s eyes at Croke Park, they should consider doing the same thing to Armagh.
This was the third serious fracas Kieran McGeeney’s Young Offenders have been involved in this season. It seems they’ve learned absolutely nothing from the suspension of 10 players, some involved yesterday, after a huge row following the 2018 Ulster U-20 semi-final against Tyrone.
Armagh were not wholly to blame for these dust-ups but the fact of their being involved in three big brawls against three different teams suggests something has gone badly awry with their discipline.
They appear to have taken a decision, perhaps unconsciously, that when a fight starts they’re under no obligation to control themselves in any way.
The result that the most entertaining team in this year’s championship has seen its season pock-marked by moments of extreme ugliness.
Their Jekyll and Hyde nature has never been better illustrated than it was against Galway. Armagh’s miracle comeback and Rian O’Neill’s massive last-gasp equaliser moved an excellent game into the realms of the all-time classics. They’ll be remembered for years.
But so will what happened as the teams left the field at the end of normal time.
The first rule of GAA Fight Club is that we don’t really talk much about GAA Fight Club. The second rule is that anyone involved in GAA Fight Club may well get off on a technicality.
That’s what happened when four Armagh players suspended after the incidents in Donegal saw their one-match ban quashed so they were free to play in the subsequent championship match between the two counties.
The same thing happened to two Clare players and a Galway player who were able to play in the All-Ireland hurling quarter-finals after their two-match suspensions were overturned.
And back in 2018 eight of the 10 suspended Armagh U-20s had their sentences overturned on a technicality too.
Yesterday’s donnybrook might be the inevitable result of a joke disciplinary process apparently designed by a combination of Franz Kafka and the guy who thought up the stuff about The Judean People’s Front and The People’s Front of Judea in Life of Brian.
Back in April Rian O’Neill was suspended by the Competitions Control Committee but unsuspended by the Central Hearings Committee. The Central Hearings Committee upheld the suspensions on Stefan Campbell, Ciarán Mackin and Aidan Nugent but they were then quashed by the Central Appeals Committee.
What kind of sporting organisation approaches discipline in this way? An Association which provides multiple chances for miscreants to undermine the authority of referees is inevitably going to be embarrassed in the way it was yesterday.
It’s not entirely Croke Park’s fault. They were forced into assembling this ramshackle edifice because teams and players will do anything to escape responsibility for their actions. Being an inter-county player means never having to say you’re sorry, especially when a big game is coming up.
The most wearing thing about breaches of discipline in the GAA is the self-pity which generally accompanies them.
You can practically hear the excuses for everyone involved in the latest fiasco being revved up already.
The old chestnut about everyone involved being amateurs will no doubt get a run-out. Indeed they are. Damien Comer, for example, is a science teacher and would probably find that job a bit more difficult if he only had one eye with which to look at the Periodic Table of the Elements.
Good old ‘Manliness’ may also be invoked. But even if this fabled quality, with its stale aroma of old-school machismo, does retain some cachet it’s rarely on show in your average GAA punch-up.
Yesterday’s eye-gouge was par for the course in a genre of combat which also favours the blow to the back of the head, the kicking of men on the ground, the elbow from behind and the ganging up on an outnumbered opponent.
Gaelic footballers are normally very brave young men. But they never look more cowardly than during these fights.
Pundits sometimes do the old soldier on it and throw in a crack about ‘will someone think of the children’ so everyone realises they’re cynical old souls immune from all forms of outrage.
But it’s not the children who are let down by these ‘half two in the morning outside the chip van’ routines, it’s the players themselves.
Why are Armagh so prone to it? Perhaps Kieran McGeeney’s rhetoric about Mixed Martial Arts as the ultimate sporting experience isn’t as harmless as it seems. Or perhaps that’s unfair. McGeeney’s assistant Kieran Donaghy did his best to try and cool things down yesterday.
It was notable that the most enthusiastic pugilists appeared to be members of the Armagh panel who weren’t togged out. This should hopefully ring the death knell for that perpetual plaint by managers about not being allowed to name their entire panel as subs.
One reason these rows escalate so quickly is that there are too many people on the average GAA bench and all feel entitled to get stuck in when any trouble arises.
The prominent presence of uninvolved players in the latest imbroglio scotches the idea that all this misbehaviour can be passed off as arising in ‘the heat of the moment.’ Too much extreme sneakiness and cold calculation was on show for that to hold water.
This stuff is a blight on the game and the GAA needs to shout stop. But don’t hold your breath. The one thing you can expect is that anyone punished for their part in what happened will feel much sorrier for themselves than for what they did.
The GAA is very proud of the behaviour of its fans. Rightly so. Despite the extreme passions and tensions unleashed in Croke Park tens of thousands of fans stood peacefully side by side with those supporting the opposition.
Had Armagh and Galway fans started gouging each other’s eyes and throwing each other on the ground there’d be widespread revulsion.
So why accept it from the players?