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Somebody is going to die: GAA stars issue warning after spate of violence

By Declan Bogue

Several of Ulster's most-respected former players and managers have come out in opposition to the recent run of on-pitch violence that has erupted around Ulster over the last month, with one medical professional warning of an imminent 'one-punch fatality.'

Clips of violence in games involving Stewartstown and Strabane in the Tyrone Intermediate Championship, Ballinderry and Slaughtneil in the Derry reserve Championship and last weekend's Down league fixture between Ballyholland and Downpatrick has shown a growing trend of all-out fist-fights that is doing serious reputational damage to the GAA, and threatens the safety of their own players.

Aside from that, footage has also emerged in recent weeks of referees being assaulted after the game, while over the summer an Armagh-Tyrone Ulster Under-20 game was the setting for some gratuitous violence that resulted in seven suspensions, with many overturned on appeal.

However, three-time Tyrone All-Ireland winner and Clinical Specialist Physiotherapist with the Southern Trust in Trauma and Orthopaedics, Enda McGinley, has warned of the potential damage that players can do to each other in fights of this kind.

"Everyone has heard of the one-punch fatalities and there are shocking incidences. But all you have to do is catch one person correctly and you can do massive damage," stated McGinley.

"Nowadays with boys having eight, nine or 10 years of strength training behind themselves, the power in those punches is much greater than before, if they are being thrown with intent. And the one area that never gets any stronger is your face and bones, your skull and brains."

For the last three years, McGinley served on the GAA's Medical, Scientific Welfare Committee, and the majority of their work centred around the area of concussion.

While he is keen to point out that he himself had been involved in the odd skirmish on the pitch, the nature of such combat is evolving from self-defence to physical attack.

"As much as it is bad PR, bad PR goes away. Serious damage doesn't. I work in the health sector, so you are aware that these things that change lives happen in split seconds and there is plenty of regret afterwards. There needs to be a big dose of common sense entering the discussion."

While pointing out that a one-punch fatality would almost seem an inevitability, he asked the question: "Not only that, but what if you put somebody into a coma? Leave somebody brain-damaged? Take somebody's sight?

"You see plenty of people worse off in hospital. I have seen them with head injuries up in hospital and these are normal people, same as you and me and you see them then in the hospital with a bad brain injury. What a sentence for family and everything."

A serious problem for the GAA is that the same units who are supposed to be implementing discipline can also seek to overturn it when it suits.

For example, the Tyrone county board have handed out 14 suspensions for the incidents arising out of the Stewartstown-Strabane game, but after the scenes at the Armagh-Tyrone Under-20 game earlier this year, the same body sought to get players off from their suspensions arising out of that.

Former Armagh player Steven McDonnell is still playing in goal for his club Killeavey, and remarks he made about the influence of Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) culture filtering through the GAA led to a recent debate on Twitter.

He clarified what his feelings are on the current spate of violence, saying: "The scale and the magnitude of the rows, particularly in the last couple of months seem to be getting out of control, and that's a serious problem. It needs to be brought into line by the GAA, not only by the clubs, but there is a responsibility there for the GAA to dish out the relevant punishment to anyone involved in such actions.

"Ultimately, it is only going to go one way. All it takes is for one person to receive a blow to the head and it can kill them."

He continued: "I came out with a statement about the gym culture in the GAA, and there are more and more players going to the gym. They have greater egos, they have an image to hold up and ultimately it is not all down to that.

"I believe that the UFC has a lot to do with it, this macho image. Players have that in their mindset, believing they are big and strong and nobody can beat them. But people can.

"Football should be about playing football and enjoying playing football."

What the respected figures say

Enda McGinley (Ex-Tyrone player and physio)

"People just need to catch themselves on when that rush of blood is in. I have no doubt that none of them want to do serious damage, but they are caught up in the moment and you are just waiting for the first major, real bad story to come out of this.

"As much as it is bad PR, bad PR goes away. Serious damage doesn’t. I work in the health sector, so you are aware that these things that change lives happen in split seconds and there is plenty of regret afterwards."

Marty McGrath (Ex-Fermanagh and current club player)

"If you go in hard and fair now at all, it seems to be a free. The tension seems to be coming out because there is always somebody looking a free and someone to blame if it is not given.

"I think there needs to be a bit of common sense. If you are playing football, play football. Have a bit of wit.

"It can happen anywhere, but it has taken a step too far. It seems to be the public image of Ulster football, but it is not just Ulster football, it is everywhere."

Steven McDonnell (Ex-Armagh star)

"The scale and the magnitude of the rows, particularly in the last couple of months, seem to be getting out of control. And that’s a serious problem. It needs to be brought into line by the GAA, not only by the clubs, but there is a responsibility there for the GAA to dish out the relevant punishment to anyone involved in such actions.

"Ultimately, it is only going to go one way. All it takes is for one person to receive one blow to the head and it can kill them."

Frank Fitzsimons (Club manager, former Antrim manager)

"I have been talking about this the last few weeks. To be totally honest, the Derry clubs will have been happy about what happened in Down because it takes the spotlight off them.

"There are too many people out on the sidelines. That means that every game has the potential for it, to be honest. People need to get a handle on it. It is not good for the GAA and I am as rough and ready as any of them, but I have seen the clip from the Down club game and it looked bad."

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