IN his Laochra Gael documentary shown last year, Henry Shefflin referred to the 2001 All-Ireland final defeat to Galway as a key turning point in his career.
Most of the footage shown was of a frustrated Shefflin having words with the referee, and his marker, Greg Kennedy, who had spent the afternoon winding Shefflin up and driving him to distraction.
Eighteen years on and Kennedy was still getting under Kilkenny’s skin this summer. Towards the end of the first half of their Leinster Round Robin match against Dublin last May, TJ Reid took a quick free to Billy Ryan, just outside the 20-metre line.
Kennedy was on the field as maor foirne and was standing in front of Ryan. Yet as the ball was delivered to Ryan, Kennedy instinctively stuck up his hand and caught the sliotar.
The Kilkenny crowd went wild with rage. Kilkenny selector Derek Lyng ran down to Kennedy to express his annoyance before Brian Cody exchanged heated words with Kennedy.
In his half-time analysis on Sky Sports, former Kilkenny player JJ Delany said he had “never seen anything like it before”.
It wasn’t the first time Kennedy has been involved in a heated exchange on the line. At the end of the 2018 All-Ireland club final between Cuala and Na Piarsaigh, Kennedy clearly irked some of the Na Piarsaigh backroom team, and a mini-scuffle ensued.
Na Piarsaigh, and the fourth official, had been unhappy with Kennedy's near-constant presence on the pitch throughout the game. It was bitterly cold but in the second half, Kennedy appeared to change his top as much to conceal his identity as he continued to defy the fourth official.
Kennedy’s antics against Kilkenny may have been the most extreme example of a maor foirne going too far but the GAA are now aiming eradicate the role of the maor foirne completely.
Kennedy’s case wasn’t the only example because a number of high-profile incidents over the last two years have convinced GAA officials that the sideline has to be cleaned up, and that entries on to the pitch have to be significantly reduced.
Kennedy was handed a four-week suspension while, in 2018, Dublin’s Jason Sherlock, former Mayo selector Tony McEntee, and then Fermanagh maor foirne (now manager) Ryan McMenamin were all suspended for their involvement in incidents on the playing field.
Rule 1.4 of the GAA Official Guide, Part II states that the maor foirne can only enter the field of play through the Substitution Zone, and only when the ball has gone out of play following a score or a ‘wide’ or during a stoppage in play, which is called by the referee for medical attention to an injured player.
The rule states that if the maor foirne does enter the field of play, that it should be “to make changes and/or to give instructions to players”.
The role though, has been exploited. "While Greg Kennedy incident has brought matters to a head this week, it was no huge shock to me as maor foirne role has been exploited for some time as every team (including ourselves) have sought to push its limits," posted former Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice on Twitter after the Kennedy incident.
"T McEntee (Tony) was a great man to spot and fill space on an opposition kick-out, as he slowly withdrew from the pitch, disrupting goalkeepers' appreciation of space. Jayo (Sherlock) is a good man to drag his backside when required also."
None of that stuff is anything new but the GAA need to get a handle on it. The GAA have managed to reduce the number of people permitted on the line from eight down to five - the team manager, a maor foirne, one medic and two water/hurley carriers. Yet those guidelines have been gradually stripped back and sidelines at some match venues look as populated as they ever were.
Yet the GAA clearly see the maor foirne as causing most of the friction - because many of the people in that role have taken the liberty of doing much more than what the rule states it should allow.
Along with performing the roles which Fitzmaurice described, maor foirnes have become weapons for teams to use in how they see fit; winding up opponents, sledging, running across opposition players’ paths. Some maor foirne may have entered the field to act as peacemakers, or to back up one of their own players, but that has invariably acted as a flashpoint, or thrown more petrol on an already volatile situation.
Many of those acting as maor foirne don’t want to be on the pitch or to find themselves in some of those difficult and confrontational situations. But too many of them have needlessly gotten into too many scrapes by their presence on the pitch.
It’s never easy to get information into players during a championship game, especially in a packed Croke Park, but there are still ways of doing so without the role causing the disruption it often does. And if information needs to be delivered, the people doing so need to self-regulate in such a heated and passionate environment.
The access given to maor foirne was done so in good faith but it has been undermined by gross exploitation.
Only a certain number of teams may have pushed it too far but, with the Standing Committee on Playing Rules currently examining the problem, and looking at possible solutions, the role of the maor foirne may soon be decommissioned.