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Friday 20 October 2017

Sporting cynicism is not just confined to Mayo footballers

Roche’s Point

Lee Keegan of Mayo throws a GPS pack in the direction of Dublin’s Dean Rock as Rock kicks the winning point from a free during the All-Ireland SFC Final at Croke Park
Lee Keegan of Mayo throws a GPS pack in the direction of Dublin’s Dean Rock as Rock kicks the winning point from a free during the All-Ireland SFC Final at Croke Park

Nine days on from the most captivating All-Ireland final in recent memory is probably the best time for a more reflective pers pective on the dark arts of Gaelic football.

By that we specifically mean cynicism, which continues to thrive in the black card era.

This mindset should not be conflated with moments of rash indiscip line (such as Diarmuid Connolly's back in June, at a huge personal cost) or reckless aggression (such as Donal Vaughan's, with collective ramifications far graver still).

This year's football decider had almost everything. But once you moved into that elongated bout of injury-time, interspersed with moments of high drama and heroism was an eruption of cynicism - on both sides.

"The end justifies the means" was never more glaringly apparent.

After the Sky Blue celebrations and Mayo post-mortems, the post-match debate ventured into more controversial terrain.

Charlie Redmond's contribution in The Herald last Wednesday certainly caused a stir - and righteous fury in the west. You could see their point.

Not that Charlie was wrong to call out Lee Keegan for his innovative contribution to the dark arts. Clearly, any act that involves the removal of a GPS tracker device from a vest behind your neck has to involve a level of calculation.

For all the desperation involved, to then fling it towards Dean Rock as he strikes that match-winning free qualifies as a deeply cynical act.

But while Charlie called it a "new low" in Gaelic football, Mayo fans have an obvious answer to that: what about the seemingly choreographed bouts of wrestling that followed straight after Rock's winning free, as David Clarke sought to find a free man from his long-delayed and eventually miscued kickout?

Basically, what those closing minutes reaffirmed is that elite teams will push the boundaries as far as they can get away with in pursuit of the ultimate prize.

Ramped up

Right from the off last Sunday week there was plenty of 'stuff' happening off the ball. Then it ramped up during stoppage-time.

It happened on both sides: first Keegan's GPS 'missile'; then the collective fouling of Mayo men across their own '45' (the black-carded Ciarán Kilkenny cited as the most culpable); plus Cormac Costello's interference with an assortment of David Clarke's kicking-tees.

Costello's three-point heroics off the bench in last year's All-Ireland replay is the obvious standout of his senior career, but his two other most recent cameos paint a different picture: on after 71 minutes against Kerry last summer, black-carded after 76; on after 74 minutes against Mayo nine day ago, yellow-carded on 77.

Here's the thing: Costello is a dazzling footballer, a shining light at underage level, and this is not his natural game. But when a title is on the line, anything goes.

Mayo and Dublin are not alone. Kerry are market leaders in accumulating black cards.

Perhaps the most surprising feature of Tyrone's semi-final collapse to Dublin was their dearth of 'devilment' - just one yellow card. How some of their noughties forebears must have cringed.

Don't believe this thesis? Then consider what has happened in big Croke Park encounters where one of the above was defending a second-half lead. This is where true cynicism manifests itself.

1. 2012 semi-final: Mayo are ten up after 51 minutes before Dublin lau nch a comeback. Four of their last nine points stem from virtual tap-over frees. Mayo's mantra? At all costs avoid a goal.

2. 2013 quarter-final: The black card was already about to become rule before Seán Cavanagh's infamous rugby-tackle/professional foul on Monaghan's Conor McManus … but that one incident encapsulated why football was crying out for some such measure.

3. 2013 All-Ireland: After Bernard Brogan's second goal puts Dublin three up, Mayo's last five points all come from Cillian O'Connor frees. With Dublin forced to finish with two injured men, they are happy to foul within range and even more so out the field.

They pick up four yellows from the 61st minute. Jim Gavin's post-match claim that a lopsided free count showed they were "playing the referee" as well as Mayo could be dismantled by any objective review of the match tape.

4. 2017 semi-final: Once Mayo soar eight clear after Andy Moran's goal, the mindset is clear: do not let Kerry score a goal. From the 40th minute, seven of their last ten points are frees, including five tap-overs.

5. Kerry's overall black card record: They earned more in this year's league than anyone else (nine) and are also top of the serial offenders list, with 25, over the last four NFL campaigns. In this year's league they leaked a far higher percentage (over 47pc, or 3-51) from frees and penalties compared to any of their top-flight rivals. Perhaps it's no coincidence that they won the final having only coughed up four pointed frees against Dublin.

6. Rival fury over Cillian O'Connor: The Mayo forward had a contributory role to the collisions that led to black cards for Galway's Tom Flynn and Kerry's Darran O'Sullivan this summer.

Back in May, at this year's Leinster championship launch, Jim Gavin took issue with what he perceived to be a growing narrative about Sky Blue cynicism.

He said: "The facts demonstrate that we're not, in terms of the yellow and black cards, a cynical team and that we try to play the right way."

Gavin had stats on his side. Until you get to the home straight of an All-Ireland final where Dublin will do what it takes.

No more than Mayo or Kerry or the rest.

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