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They're repeat offenders, but GAA needs characters like Connolly and Davy

Tommy Martin puts a case forward for GAA needing controversial figures to add a bit of colour to the season.

INCARCERATION WAS THE common theme in the GAA week’s two big stories.

In Davy Fitzgerald’s case it was the literal kind, locked away like Rapunzel high in the Wexford Park stand on Saturday as his young princes performed below. For Diarmuid Connolly it is the figurative clink of the GAA’s disciplinary system, with the upholding of his 12 week ban keeping him in chokey until late summer.

While Dermo’s harmonica sounds plaintively in the night, Davy’s spell of porridge is now over. And a good thing too, as the plywood and plexiglass box in which he served the last of his hard time would surely not have held him much longer. But while both men had to pay their debt to society, their respective brushes with the law were another reminder of how generously they already contribute to the spectacle and sensation of the GAA season.

Talking to the regular GAA journos at a GPA press gig on Tuesday was to witness normally cynical faces lit up in childish glee at the events of Saturday night. Not only had Davy conjured up scenes of bedlam in the south-east not seen since ‘Dancing at the Crossroads’ dominated Tony Fenton’s Hotline, but the carry on with his temporary billet in the stand also added a gloriously surreal twist to proceedings.

To the rest of us he was the deus ex machina, the off-stage presence to which the actors refer but the audience never see. But to those on the other side of the press box partition he was a noisy neighbour, yelping and thumping the walls of his makeshift cell as all the kinetic energy that usually fizzes along the sideline was dangerously compressed into a few square feet of hastily-contructed joinery.

The photographs that emerged of him in post-match celebration, coupled with the tide of pent-up ebullience unleashed by his team’s defeat of Kilkenny, left one indisputable conclusion: Davy – some man.

Amazing to think then, with the gaiety of the nation raised several notches, of the figure he cut on the other side of that 8 week spell of penitence. “Sanction for Davy Fitzgerald must reflect gravity of offence” thundered the the Irish Times, donning their black cap in the days after he charged onto the field to add his tuppenceworth to the league semi-final against Tipperary.

And who could argue? It was an open and shut case. Davy muttered something in mitigation about wanting to give his team a psychological shot in the arm, but he was bang to rights. He had crossed a line, in more senses than one, and most people were appalled. At best it was the unacceptable boiling over of his famous competitive nature; at worst an example of a narcissistic need to insert himself into the story, a belief that every battle was his battle.

The view on Connolly’s guilt was far less unanimous. The arguments raged in recent weeks as to whether his shove on Ciaran Branagan deserved the fate of being sent down for a big chunk of his prime summer season. Twitter was bombarded with screen shots from last weekend’s games showing other players laying their hands on referees, and the question was posed: what actually constituted ‘minor physical interference’ of an official? A gentle caress? A playful pat? What about an unsolicited buttock fondle?

Diarmuid Connolly speaks to linesman Ciaran Branagan Diarmuid Connolly received a 12-week ban for an altercation with linesman Ciaran Branagan in Dublin's win over Carlow. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

But like Davy, Connolly’s actions were a transgression, an outrage to right-thinking society, and his status as one of the most gifted players of his generation was scant defence. He is the Cantona of the GAA, and one thinks of Jonathan Pearce’s famous commentary for the Frenchman’s notorious kung fu kick on a Crystal Palace fan: “Where can there be a place in the game for a man of such extravagent talent, a man of such wicked temperament?”

But in actual fact, the question is rather what would the GAA be without such complicated and compelling characters as Connolly and Davy?

The Irish Examiner writer Larry Ryan has coined a term for the lurid mix of squabble and scandal that fuels coverage of the English Premier League – “controvassy”. The GAA has its equivalent, and it moves the needle in the summer in a way all the fascinating talk about kickout strategies and sweeper systems never could.

Disciplinary rows; big match melees; managerial wars-of-words; polemical punditry.

Sheep in a heap; Galvin and the Notebook; Sean Cavanagh’s manhood; everything to do with Ger Loughnane.

These storms-in-teacups are often blamed for tarnishing the GAA season, but in actual fact they give it colour and flavour, further heating already broiling passions, adding intrigue and hysteria, lighting up a thousand conversations and, on occasion, even a few Letters to the Editor.

At the centre of these sagas and kerfuffles are characters like Davy and Dermot. These are men of complexity: in Fitzgerald’s case the combination of searing managerial genius on one hand, and near bug-eyed lunacy on the other; with Connolly, the sublime talent that draws him such attention from opponents, and the brutish temper that attention often provokes. At a time when many of our sportspeople are admirable, clean-living and, frankly, a bit dull, Connolly and Fitzgerald, with their faults as much as their feats, are anything but.

They did their crime and so must do the time but as much as justice must be seen to be done, would we really want these repeat offenders going straight?

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About the author:

Tommy Martin

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