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18th Apr 2018

Conán Doherty: Diarmuid Connolly saga brings amateur debate to a whole new level

Conan Doherty

I stood in Coppers a few months ago (don’t ask) trying to get the balance right between looking preoccupied with something on my phone and not looking like a dickhead as my mate engaged in conversation.

He was chatting with a high-profile inter-county footballer he once played alongside and I was somewhere in between being polite, pretending to be indifferent to the whole thing, trying to listen to what was being said but trying not to seem like I cared too much either. Yep, it was a crazy, crazy night.

In the space of about four minutes of shit chat between the two, the player in question had nine different people – or pairs – come up looking for a photo or generally just looking for his attention and, in fairness, he probably counted it as 10 with us two pulling him away from his group at the bar.

He was nice with his time – he stood for photos, he laughed at whatever the two girls had to say to him and he shook hands but, all the while, you could tell he was antsy to get back to the harbour of his own friends. You could hardly blame him because two of those exchanges in four little moments of a half empty downstairs bar early enough in the night involved one lad putting his arm around him and roaring in his ear, “you’re some fucking wanker”. The other was a selfie request that turned into the guy giving him the middle finger right in his face as the picture was being taken.

He pushed both of their grips forcibly away from him to giddy laughter which he’s probably fed up hearing from strangers at this stage and therein lay the biggest quandary the GAA has faced for some time. These players – however big they become – are expected to maintain amateur status and live the life of a lay person but, because they just so happen to be better at kicking a ball than your average punter, they’re suddenly fair game for the whole country.

What you get in any other sport is a cut-off point, where you’re earning so much money or your profile gets to a certain level and, because of that, you’re not getting the train into work for 9 o’clock on Monday morning and you’re not standing around Coppers before midnight because its free entry and leaving yourself open for judgement because people either like or don’t like the way you run around a pitch.

It’s a serious problem that’s only getting worse because GAA players are becoming the biggest celebrities in the country and their skills are polarising every single social media platform and there’s not really going to be an escape offered to them.

They stay playing with their clubs, they stay earning the same money they would have earned anyway and they work the same hours too – they get a few perks along the way, sure – but they grow into the biggest personalities on the entire island and then they have to deal with that in a way no other sports star has to.

Of course, there’s some form of beauty in the whole thing too. Every Gael around the world takes pride in the fact that these genuine heroes are just ‘one of the people’ and perhaps the lack of access in the like of the Premier League is just sad now at this stage.

But if we keep producing idols at this rate and keep witnessing the new heights they’re scaling, there are only going to be more problems, not for the rest of us, but for the players themselves.

Take Diarmuid Connolly’s situation. All over Ireland, probably in every single club at one point or another, good footballers and hurlers have walked away from the GAA. Tired, busy, a fallout with the manager, others just genuinely couldn’t be arsed and that’s it.

How many people have fallen away from your club over the last few years? How many have vanished this season? It happens and some people are happy that they can finally live life on their own terms again but what doesn’t happen is a subsequent nationwide search for those players. They’ll have club stalwarts approaching them in bars every so often but they won’t face conspiracy theories or relentless psychoanalysis like one man is for just living the same life he was living beforehand, except without the training and games at the weekend.

Okay, this is different because this is the best player in Ireland suddenly not playing for the biggest team in the country. It’s the captain of one of the best club teams in Ireland just not playing football or hurling with them either. It’s an abrupt and unexpected stop to a celebrated career for no apparent reason. And, after all that, all you’re left with is people telling you he’s taking a rest.

But if media silences have taught us anything by now, it’s that a vacuum will be filled, by whatever is around to fill it. So then you get stories. You get rumours about what might’ve happened. You get celebrity-spot-style reports. Someone told me, for example, they saw him at a petrol station outside Lusk.

The GAA want to push the amateur thing down people’s throats but they make no allowances for when amateur players who have no contract to break (unless they play for Brigid’s) automatically become fugitives because they’re not at training.

We were going to play Vincent’s in the championship last week and all anyone outside of the two teams gave a toss about was if they’d see him. Him.

In fairness, it probably wasn’t restricted to outside the camps either because it was common knowledge amongst all of us that Connolly hadn’t been out with them yet and, unless someone is bullshitting you, every single player will admit that they’re wondering if they’ll face him. It doesn’t really change anything apart from your thoughts because, as every club does, you prepare for the eventuality that he will be playing, regardless. It’s the thing that terrifies managers most, lads talking about the opposition as if they’re weakened.

But you can’t help it. You start thinking, ‘shit, if he was playing, we could go out and do everything right but he could still produce something to beat us himself anyway no matter what we did… but if he’s not playing…’

Listen, they beat us anyway without him playing but that’s not the point.

As the game unfolded, after the warm-up when you’re pretending like you’re not looking to the other side of the pitch to see if he’s there or not, but you are, the only story was the Vincent’s number 11. The only person who wasn’t actually there.

Amateur players with obligation and expectation. Amateur superstars who aren’t allowed to vanish. Not until we’re done with them anyway.

Some people are giving over a decade’s service to their counties, training nearly every day, living like monks – monks who lift weights every morning – and travelling the country in their free time and we’re supposed to not feel sorry for them because they got a car along the way or a nice, handy 35-hour-week job of of it, one that they didn’t really want but needed.

So there’s no sympathy for the demands or profile that players bear but there’s not even relief or understanding when an amateur says he couldn’t be arsed either and tries to step away from it.

We’ve reached an impasse where something more has to be done than just tossing players aside at 33 with a nice tweet or a ‘thanks for that’ but hounding them at 30 because they’re still useful tools.

Preserving the amateur status of the game is noble and would definitely have the majority support but players have never been asked to do so much, they’ve never been placed on higher pedestals, and yet they’ll never have the opportunity to let their lives outside of the GAA reflect what they’ve become. As it stands, it’s just a steep and abrupt fall from that pedestal and a lot are actually pushed to make way for the next one.

You? You can go figure out what to do with your next 50 years.

But if you try to step down on your own terms before your time, you’ll have the choppers up looking for you. Up around a petrol station in Lusk, presumably.