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Saturday 21 April 2018

Pundit-baiting now fair game for bosses

Latest Davy diatribe is a classic case of 'tactical' distraction

Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald on the sideline during the All-Ireland SHC quarter-final against Waterford at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Pic: Sportsfile
Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald on the sideline during the All-Ireland SHC quarter-final against Waterford at Páirc Uí Chaoimh. Pic: Sportsfile

Say hello to Ireland's latest blood sport: pundit-baiting. Or bashing, take your pick. Either way, The Sunday Game sure are getting it in the jugular this summer.

Their various pundits, in either code, have been accused of everything from breaching constitutional rights (copyright Jim Gavin) to being "negative", jumping on bandwagons and easy targets, and generally being "totally out of order" (Davy Fitzgerald in one fell post-match swoop).

In one internecine instance, we even had Sunday Game pundits taking verbal pot shots at one of their own.

Is this onslaught of the analysts an all-new trait? No, it must be said. Managers have been letting off steam at the Montrose gang for many years, but this summer's salvoes have certainly been amplified.

The curious thing is that the bainisteoir brigade appear particularly sensitive to criticism emanating from 'old pros' (of the amateur variety).

Outcry

An ordinary Joe Soap scribe writes a trenchant column and it will cause seething private resentment, for sure … but it won't prompt a public outcry such as Gavin's (with Pat Spillane top of his hit-list) or Fitzgerald's (with Michael Duignan clearly edging Henry Shefflin as enemy number one, if only because you have to be careful in how you castigate a living legend like Henry).

The veiled message seems to be: players who played the game should not criticise their own.

The other key factor is that these players are deemed to have an umbilical attachment to their own county, prompting all manner of partisan objections if they say something vaguely critical of an arch-rival.

Spillane's biggest 'crime', apart from his apparent relish in knowing the rulebook vis-a-vis Diarmuid Connolly's indiscretion, was the fact that he's from Kerry, who just so happen to be Dublin's chief rival for Sam.

The case against Messrs Duignan and Shefflin, as outlined by Chief Prosecutor Fitzgerald in an entertaining yet slightly bonkers press briefing on Sunday evening, was somewhat more curious.

The Wexford boss was visibly animated - almost emotional, it seemed - as he tore into the RTÉ duo for their latest criticisms of the sweeper systems employed by his team and their victorious rivals, Waterford.

Listening on, this column presumed that the pundits had cut loose on The Sunday Game over the quality (or otherwise) of this far-from-riveting All-Ireland quarter-final. It was only afterwards that we discovered neither had been 'on air' at all. As you do, nowadays, they had tweeted their displeasure.

Checking out Shefflin's Twitter account, we even discovered it had emanated from Mijas in Spain, not Montrose or even the shiny new Páirc. "Who is marking who in this game? One would hate to be playing in the full forward line - or be a forward full stop," he pronounced.

Hmm, not quite a hanging offence. Then again, maybe someone should tell Henry that - to juxtapose codes and paraphrase Jim Gavin - his constitutional rights to freedom of expression are not absolute.

Pointed

Fitzgerald was far more pointed in his criticism of Duignan, even to the extent of indirectly dismissing Meath from the pantheon of hurling strongholds - given that the Offaly man and Shefflin had, in his words, "never managed a team at a high level."

For the record, here's what Duignan tweeted on Sunday: "Sweepers should be outlawed! Not the game I love. Coach players to tackle & to use their heads instead of using extra backs to compensate!"

And here's how he responded to Davy's diatribe, via his Irish Daily Mail column: "I'd encourage him to grow up at this stage."

On the more general criticism, aired by Fitzgerald, that RTÉ should "get analysts who have been on the sideline and who know what the story is about" … has he a point?

Sorry, but we don't buy it. Yes, there comes another layer of invaluable insight if your pundit not just played the game but also knows what it likes to manage a squad at this elite level. But it's not a prerequisite and nor should it be.

Shefflin's right to comment as he sees fit (and let's be honest, he's more a safe pair of hands than Mister Outraged From Ballyhale) is copper-fastened beyond dispute by his ten All-Ireland senior medals.

It's true that he's spoken and written his mind about his dislike of the sweeper system and midfield congestion propagated by Waterford under Derek McGrath.

The headline over his Sunday Times column at the weekend - "Waterford will have to cut loose to reach the top" - was an accurate summation of his viewpoint.

But within that column was the following nugget: "I don't like this kind of stuff. I'm not overly gone on watching it but, the more I see of this style, the more I appreciate it too. We had our way in Kilkenny and it worked. But it's not working now."

Admire

He added: "You do what you have to do to win and you have to admire how both McGrath and Davy Fitzgerald have gone about that pursuit."

That admiration wasn't cutting both ways on Sunday evening. Then again, the cynic in us can't help but wonder if Fitzgerald, not for the first time in his ever-eventful managerial career, has achieved a spectacular result.

Namely this: he has got everyone talking about something entirely different than the match itself and why his team may have lost.

A bit like Jim Gavin getting everyone talking about something other than why his team has just won by 31 points ...

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