With 12 minutes to go in the 1972 All Ireland Hurling Final, the ‘Cats’ were in dire straits, trailing by eight points to a rampant Cork. Eddie Keher won a ball near the touchline and took a ferocious belt of a hurl in his unguarded face.
Undaunted, he soloed through and drove a remarkable goal to the net. He turned and went back to his position, his face a mask of blood from the deep gash over his eye. The stitches could wait. Keher’s goal launched a legendary turnaround. He had been well held until that point but after the ‘belt’ went into overdrive. By the final whistle he had 2-9 to his name and Kilkenny were champions by seven points. It was a glorious and honourable day.
Mike Mac, Clare trainer during Ger Loughnane’s glorious reign, famously said “Men win All-Irelands.” In hurling, this is true. I vividly remember sitting in the Cusack stand for the epic ‘09 final. Tommy Walsh was just in front of us when he got a powerful belt in the face from Tipp’s Benny Dunne. The force of it knocked him to the ground but Walsh got straight back up, snarling. Dunne was sent off because the referee had no option, not because Tommy was writhing around on the grass. Hurlers are men of honour. They zealously guard their dignity. Neither I nor anyone in the RTE Sports Department could recall an instance of a hurler feigning injury to get an opponent carded. This is because it does not happen.
The same can no longer be said of Gaelic football. There is a joke that did the rounds a few years ago: Q. Why do hurlers not feign injury? A. Because Tyrone don’t play hurling.
In a 2002 World Cup group game, Brazil’s Rivaldo was waiting for the ball to take a corner kick against Turkey. A Turkish player kicked the ball towards him as Rivaldo was looking the other way. The lightweight FIFA ball struck him below the knee. The Brazilian dropped to the turf clutching his face, then writhed around in agony on the ground until the referee produced a red card for the hapless Turk. We laughed and smugly shook our heads, certain that such dishonourable behaviour would never deface our game. We’re not laughing now.
The following year, the Tyrone bandwaggon rolled into town and the virus of feigning injury was injected into the game. In the first round replay against Derry at Casement, Sean Kavanagh and Derry’s Padraig O’Kane ran across each other near the sideline. Sean went down clutching his face. O’Kane was sent off. Slow motion replay revealed minimal contact. In the Ulster final a month later, Down’s Gregory McCartan had a free awarded against him and petulantly tossed the ball towards Brian McGuigan who went down hard, hands glued to his face. Another red card. In that year’s All-Ireland semi-final versus Kerry, Peter Canavan tried to get Michael McCarthy sent off in the eighth minute in an absolutely shocking incident that has become immortalised on youtube. During a break in play, McCarthy was standing with his back to Peter with his arms outstretched. Canavan ran from behind into his arm, then went to ground clutching his face. McCarthy was yellow carded. Type ‘Peter Canavan hits the deck’ into your search engine and watch open-mouthed as the incident unfolds. Wee Peter dived so much that year a cartoon appeared of him on the internet in his Tyrone kit, wearing a snorkel and flippers.
The lowest point came in the final when Philip Jordan ran into Diarmuid Marsden off the ball, then went down rolling in anguish on the ground, cradling his jaw. The referee was conned and Marsden was red carded. When Central Council reviewed the video footage a few weeks later they revoked the red card and cleared the Armagh man. In his autobiography Joe Kernan’s outrage was still palpable. He wrote of being, “disgusted by the actions of at least one Tyrone player who mockingly clapped Diarmaid off the pitch.” The video is still on YouTube. Afterwards, Marsden - a man of integrity - was particularly distraught that his daughter when she grew up would find out her father had been sent off in an All Ireland final. As Kernan put it in his book, “thankfully, at least a good man’s name was cleared.” Colm Cavanagh did it for Derry’s James Conway in this year’s McKenna Cup final. There was no contact between them at all. Big Colm, all 6’3’’ and 15 stone of him, went down in agony. James was red carded. A somewhat sheepish CHC rescinded it when they watched the video and realised the referee had been taken for a ride. It has become commonplace.
When Kerry’s Aidan O’Mahoney got Cork’s Donnacha O’Connor sent off in the 2008 semi-final in another YouTube classic, it was another nail in the coffin of sportsmanship. Again, the card was rescinded on appeal. Dublin’s Diarmuid Connolly suffered the same fate in last year’s semi-final. Donegal’s Marty Boyle shouldered Connolly off the ball, Connolly pushed him back in the shoulder and Marty was suddenly unconscious. The Red card was rescinded.
In the recent NFL final, when Mayo’s Donal Vaughan took on the role of ham actor, throwing himself backwards to the ground holding his face after a minor shoving match with Cork’s Fintan Goold, I said on television that it was a disgrace that was disfiguring the game. Surprisingly, this provoked a massive wave of protest from Mayo folk, which tells you all you need to know about how the ethos of the game has changed. My cousin John plays full back for Dungannon RFC. He told me this week that anyone feigning injury in a rugby game to get an opponent carded would be ostracised by their team mates and club members. It used to be like this in our own game, but not any longer. Not only is it acceptable to cheat, it is now unacceptable to criticise the practice. Sadly, Men no longer win football All-Irelands.
Joe Brolly writes in the Derry Journal every Friday