With about eight minutes left in the drawn All-Ireland final I espied Maurice Deegan running the line in front of me. I had not passed heed on him prior to that.
One of the Dublin backroom team sidled up to him, like a guy starts chatting to you at the bus stop. Deegan smiled as he listened, one eye on the pitch, ears having no choice. Then Jim Gavin arrived over, more touchy-feely stuff.
Dublin were tired and it showed. If a doubtful line-ball was to be the decider, Dublin were making sure Maurice had their ear.
Little did they know at that moment but Deegan was pencilled in for the replay. Dublin, as the man says, had his ear. No need to go into the mega-bomb of character assassination that was visited upon Lee Keegan. And as the storm raged, Ciaran Whelan, Charlie Redmond and host of former Dublin players and commentators set fire to the media about Keegan and his mode of playing.
The quarter-final gave grist to this barrage of abuse. Micky Harte singled Keegan and Mayo out for mention. Harte I saw as a fair man who gave Mayo credit, he showed that all that matters to him is winning. In four championship matches since 2004 he has only beaten Mayo once, and that day we were robbed.
Amazingly, unchallenged, Harte proffered Seán Cavanagh as a victim, following our narrow quarter-final win over them. The man who ensured that the dreaded black card got birth.
Harte, the manager of a team with Ricey McMenamon and a few other daisy cutters on it, saw nothing wrong at painting Mayo as cynical. This, a county that has left a dirty taste in the mouths of players from Donegal, Tipperary and Mayo where no insult or slight is low enough. The press and media gave Mickey a free run but Keegan’s card was marked for the next matches.
The sight of Keegan looking up at Deegan’s black card after he was sent off will stay with me forever. A slight look of bemusement as much as to say “Surely you don’t buy that shit?” accompanied by a shrug of the shoulder and a manly march off the pitch.
Dublin upped the ante but don’t believe for a moment that this was a last minute plan. The drawn semi-final of 2015 where Connolly was sent off saw them fight tooth and nail to clear their man.
They exhausted every appeal avenue in the GAA canon but took it a final further step where the verdict had many experienced legal practitioners scratching their heads. Dublin were showing every referee, county and official that you better dot every “i” and cross every “t” because if not, we will drag you through every corridor in Croke Park and further if necessary.
So, going out for the replay this year, two men had severe pressure on them. The referee had been bombarded by the chorus of Dubs about the bogey man from Mayo and so Lee had to execute every tackle perfectly or else he was gone.
He went, regardless of what we might think about the rights and wrongs of the decision to card him. Dublin sowed the seeds, watered them and then got their media pundits to propagate the narrative.
Jock Stein, when he took over Celtic, was annoyed at the persecution complex the club had. Referees had in for them, as did the Scottish Football Association, the Orange Men, the Glasgow media. Stein drove the negativity out the door. He told his team that if they were good enough, if they were far enough ahead, often enough, no one could thieve them. Not a referee, not the SFA, Rangers or the Orange Order.
As Dublin went to media war with Mayo, how did we respond? Before I answer let me point out that we had plenty of material but strangely had no-one getting the message across.
Instead The Sunday Game gave Ciaran Whelan and others a chance to slaughter us. Simply put, that was unethical in professional journalism. Whelan has every right to gut Mayo if he is the Dublin PRO, but Mayo were entitled to an equal rebuttal to Whelan’s comments. In failing to provide this, RTÉ and Whelan fell below the norms expected.
This week John Costello waxed wide and lyrical about the treatment given to Diarmuid Connolly. The Dublin boss cited an unnamed championship county that six times tried to get Connolly sent off before the throw-in this year. I believe in the interests of fair play, Costello is now duty bound to exonerate Mayo and name the county he is referring to or is it a shot in the dark at Mayo again?
This is what I don’t get, though, and fair play to John. It’s that he managed to keep a straight face whilst outlining this brutality meted out to one of his players. He deserves a medal. Philly MacMahon, Jonny Cooper, Small, MacAuley, MacCarthy … is he for a moment suggesting that those lads, like Brennan before them, are choir boys?
But, and here is the rub.The media with the exception of Colm Parkinson nodded like donkeys and never asked a question.
Last year’s semi-final saw Diarmuid O’Connor almost cut in two with a near leg breaker, Aidan O Shea suffered, ahem, “a clash of heads” with a Dublin player, while funnily enough Tom Parsons met the same fate a few months ago. Connolly had Keegan in a wrestler choke on the ground and then we’re the bad guys!
Jesus, John, what if one of your players got a broken jaw in front of 62,000 people in an All-Ireland semi-final and nobody from the opposite side were ever held accountable?
There is no doubt that we have the players to win an All-Ireland. However, nowadays you need to fight a media and PR war as well.
Brian Cody is a master. Most winning managers are happy to win, magnanimous to all. Cody, after Bubbles O’Dwyer had his equalising “score” chalked out by Hawk Eye, lacerated the referee who gave the free in the first place. Dublin began the defence of their All-Ireland possibly minutes after they won in October.
Alex Ferguson scared referees. Finger-stabbing at the watch, not enough time added on, too much time added on. Face puce with indignation, the referee and the officials got both barrels when needed and when Fergie saw it to his advantage.
Eddie Jones took Japan on a splendid run in the Rugby World Cup. Japan in rugby would be seen as the Sligo or Carlow of that game. England came calling. Eddie publicly laid down who was boss, what the goal was. He was the boss and the goal is to win the next World Cup.
Thirteen straight wins, sacred cows gone and two teams in the squad. The number tens and nines were told to shed more pounds, modern rugby warfare needs strong but light men in action. Australia beaten four times in eight months, Michael Cheika reduced to ashes. “England beat us because they focused on our mistakes” said the once great coach. Read it again Michael … don’t make mistakes, then.
Have we the necessary in our armoury to conduct a PR war and use the media? Liam Horan certainly galvanised the troops at a vital time in the Keegan affair, Paul Cunnane deserves great credit for his articulate analysis and defending the home patch also for his excellent work as county PRO. But we need more help, the game has changed and we have got to keep up there.
RTÉ and Dublin need and use each other. Let’s not be afraid to call them out. I read a quote by our manager along the lines that those espousing the abuse of Keegan will have to live with their own consciences. Football and sport today has no conscience. We have the players, the manager has done a sterling job but we need to fight on a wider front and that front contains those damn inches.
Here’s hoping. Happy Christmas. By the way, thank you Willie Joe for this forum where we that love Mayo meet and show our true colours. We have much to be proud of.