The Christy O'Connor GAA column
IN his report to last year’s Mayo County GAA Convention, the Mayo PRO Paul Cunnane cleared his throat. Something had stuck in his gullet throughout the winter and Cunnane spat it straight out in black and white ink.
“There was a well-orchestrated media campaign to blacken Lee Keegan’s name,” he wrote, referring to the heavy and negative focus on the Footballer-of-the-Year before the replayed All-Ireland final.
“I would be disappointed that many outlets chose to take the bait.
“To see him depicted in this way before the biggest game of his career was very unjust. Ultimately, this campaign worked as Lee was black carded wrongly before half time in the replay.”
Cunnane wasn’t the only one who believed that to be the case. Before last week’s football league final, Eamonn Fitzmaurice loaded his chamber and fired a round in Dublin’s direction; one of the bullets was the orchestrated campaign against Keegan that Fitzmaurice felt was effective for last year’s replay.
After last August’s defeat to Dublin, Fitzmaurice bit his lip and swallowed hard. He wanted to say something but self-restraint wouldn’t allow him to say anything. He was disappointed with some of David Gough’s refereeing decisions but the frustration and anger simmering inside him all winter finally came to the boil after the sides met in Tralee in March. And on the week of the league final, the lid blew off.
Fitzmaurice has always been a calm, clever and cool-minded individual but everything about him that week underlined the calculated nature of his personality. Colm Cooper’s retirement announcement was clearly choreographed to provide some camouflage to Kerry in the lead-in to another big game with Dublin. Once Cooper walked, Fitzmaurice pulled the pin out of a grenade, fully aware that the blanket Cooper coverage would smother the blast, limit the flying shrapnel, but still leave a mark.
“I believe there is a game of football to be played and you trust the referee to get it right,” he said. “But I do find it a bit worrying that there is a narrative out there at the moment and I don’t think it’s balanced at all.”
The timing of his comments were everything because Fitzmaurice was clearly looking beyond a league final. In these situations, everything is ultimately about the referees, and subliminally transmitting messages for the future. If Fitzmaurice genuinely felt that Kerry were being wronged, especially after last month’s internecine battle in Tralee, then the week before another big game was the time to sew the seeds, and try and skew the general perception more in their direction.
Every great team has a sharp and physical edge. Yet every great team also enjoys the halo effect, and how they are often viewed differently, from their success. And referees are often seen as the most vulnerable and legitimate targets. Fitzmaurice and Kerry know exactly how this works because they have been on the other side of the fence for so long. Before their Munster championship match in 2013, former Tipperary manager Peter Creedon told a story how referee Marty Duffy had spent the previous year’s game between the two counties calling the Kerry players by their first names, while using no Tipperary player’s name.
“Even when they were questioning his calls he was still using their first names when discussing those calls with them,” said Creedon. “Obviously they’re high profile players but it was pretty insulting to our players to do something like that.”
Referees say they are not influenced by that kind of stuff but Kerry know they are. Before the 2015 Munster final replay, when Cork were denied a famous victory in Killarney in the drawn game through a terrible refereeing decision to award a penalty, former Cork footballer Conor McCarthy wrote how Kerry were the intuitive masters of this dark art of ‘referee plámás’.
“They’re genetically cute and play the hand they are dealt brilliantly,” wrote McCarthy. “More credit to them for finding an area of influence where most find only a stone wall. The superstar status doesn’t exactly hinder their cause. It would take a strong mind not to be influenced by such charisma.”
Before that replay, a picture emerged on Twitter, which was allegedly a poster on the Kerry dressing room wall. Posters or themes are used by many inter-county teams to reflect the values the players and management want the team to display on the field. One of the keywords on that poster was ‘Picardia’, the translation of which mean craftiness or cunning but with a naughty streak in there somewhere too.
Kerry and Fitzmaurice know exactly how the media works in all of this too. When former Dublin player Paul Curran said that “Kerry should be ashamed of themselves” after the Tralee match, Fitzmaurice clearly felt the need to get the next strike in first, and load it with even more kerosene before striking the match.
For years, managers have been privately complaining about the strong Kerry presence in the media, and the attempts by some of those pundits to skew perception in their county’s favour.
At a rough count, 11 former Kerry players have columns in newspapers and websites, either throughout the season, or over the summer. Former Dublin players don’t have as much of a presence but it’s still stronger than every other county outside of Kerry.
Fitzmaurice said before the league final that he doesn’t believe in mind games. Well, he clearly does. Fitzmaurice also knows how those mind games can work. So do Dublin.
Just ask Lee Keegan.