Well I guess it was inevitable. A National Hurling league semi-final. Nowlan Park, Kilkenny. A near full house. The defending All-Ireland champions, sitting proudly on their throne. A swarm of loud Yellow-Bellied fans urging their side to knock them off their perch. A beautiful day, for a beautiful game. I guess it had to happen.
It was always going to be a tough day at the office for the Slaney men. It’s one thing beating Kilkenny on their home patch a few weeks beforehand but, as the old cliché goes, your most difficult match is usually the one immediately after your best. So, facing the most potent of attacking sides in the game, at the peak of their powers, they were going to need every bit of help they could get.
As it turns out, they didn’t get it. Playing against the wind in the first half, Wexford got off to a bad start, and with the lethal John McGrath notching a trademark goal in the opening minutes they were quickly 5 points down. Given that, they battled back admirably and with 18 minutes gone had reduced the gap to just 2 points when trusty left corner back James Breen tried to emerge from his position with the ball intact.
As he did so Breen became entangled with Tipperary forward Niall O’Meara who, not to put too fine a point, made a challenge that was akin to trying to pull the head of somebody. It was an obvious foul. To anyone with a pair of functioning eyes and any knowledge of the game, they would know it was more like something you’d see in a UFC cage than a hurling field. But whatever took over the referee Diarmuid Kirwan in those couple of seconds: whether he was unsighted, or wanted to give Wexford an advantage, he didn’t give the free. Breen lost the ball, Noel McGrath was put through, and seconds later it was in the back of the Wexford net.
Now obviously, being six points down halfway through the first half of a game against the All-Ireland champions, is a daunting prospect for any side. The question is how you react in such a situation. Given the course of the next 55 minutes of action, you would have to say the Wexford team showed plenty of guts and passion to bounce back from what happened. And if they didn’t show that, their management certainly did.
Davy Fitzgerald. What can we say that hasn’t been said before? You know what you’re getting with Davy. Any team who hires him as manager will be aware they are privilege to one of the most intense and committed hurling men in Ireland. His record with Wexford thus far has been impeccable, and he deserves immense credit for the work he is doing.
Then again, you may also be aware when you sign him up that you are dealing with a human volcano. The term “heart on his sleeve” was never quite strong enough for Davy. He has that organ on his shirt and a few more. So naturally he wasn’t pleased with the referee’s indecision. You don’t give a man with a chip on each shoulder another chance to complain. Because he might, as in this instance, use those shoulders to try inflict even more damage.
When Davy came on to try and re-enact his own version of the “Rumble in the Jungle” he wasn’t just letting himself down but the game down. One wonders what he thought he was going to achieve. Certainly, squaring up to much fitter and bigger men as Jason Forde and Niall O’Meara lacked a little clear headedness. If players are often lectured to about showing control and discipline leading up to a game, it sounds a bit hollow when their own manager is constantly losing his.
When he was asked about the incident post-match though he didn’t seem to think it was that big of a deal. One may have thought he would have had some deal of shame about such a blatant show of indiscipline but that wasn’t necessarily the case “I did what I thought was right” he said. When it comes to pitch incursions though, Davy didn’t lick it off the stones. He learned from the best.
Back in 1995 when Clare were trying to make their breakthrough in the hurling world, they had a secret weapon in the form of their manager. Ger Loughnane had a very “hands on” style of management, that involved him constantly running out on the pitch and giving instructions and practically standing beside his players as they were pucking each ball. It got so bad that before the 1997 All-Ireland final, the GAA made a point of banning Loughnane from moving around during the game, by making him sit with his two selectors on a miniscule wooden green bench. The same treatment was meted out to Loughnane’s Tipperary counterpart Len Gaynor.
Needless to say, Loughnane treated the bench with the contempt he deserved. Rather than staying stationary over the course of the game, he probably covered more ground than some of his players. When Jamesie O’Connor popped over the winning point at the Hill 16 end in the final minutes, who was standing beneath the goal only the bould Ger. “I couldn’t sit down” He argued in his defence “The paint on the bench was ,wet!”
Around the same time as Ger was making a name for himself in the pitch invasion word, Mayo’s John Maughan was decked by an opposing player during a game as he ventured onto the field. Now of course, there is a perverse glee to see a team official stomp onto the pitch and try to flatten/be flattened by an opposing team player. We’ve all seen it, we’ve all laughed. But when you escape the tooting and hollering that comes with such an act, you’re left with a sense of bemusement.
Let’s put this into context for a second. Could you imagine Jose Mourinho or Jurgen Klopp marching onto the field to square up to an opponent? Or Joe Schmidt coming down from his lofty position in the stand, to plant one on an over-exuberant All Blacks Flanker? Of course you couldn’t, because the authorities in those games wouldn’t allow it. In the GAA though, it’s pretty commonplace. I guess, that’s why 2 of those sports are professional and the other 2 aren’t.
Along with the archaic fixture schedule, nothing so defines the amateurishness of the GAA more than the way we tolerate pitch incursions by officials. Sure, it may be humorous at the time, but it’s also unedifying and embarrassing. Managers shouldn’t be able to do as they please. It’s hard enough for referees to deal with 30 players, without getting involved with Managers, trainers, selectors, doctors, masseurs, kit men…entering onto the stage to give their tuppence worth. While the players train like professionals, the way mentors and the like are allowed enter on the field is farcical. It reduces the game to pantomime, the equivalent of a row between soccer moms at an underage game in the US.
Davy has done wonderful things as Wexford manager during his short tenure there. To get promoted from a fiercely competitive Division 1B was a fantastic achievement, and his team have performed admirably in their two games since. But he should get at least a two or three game touchline ban, for what he did on Sunday. And if he was fortunate/unfortunate enough to be working in another sport, then the ban would be substantially longer than that.
No doubt if/when Davy does get cautioned, he will use it as further grist to his “us against them”/siege mentality mill. There may even be some merit to that. But there’s absolutely no point in the GAA letting this transgression be swept under the carpet, as you’re giving free rein to others to do likewise or worse. Now maybe other managers won’t be striving to follow in Davy’s footsteps. He is a unique character in more ways than one. But If the GAA are anyway serious about stopping this kind of problem, they need to clamp down hard on it now.