Mayo boss James Horan believes John Small should have been red-carded for his “high-risk” shoulder charge that left Eoghan McLaughlin with a double jaw fracture – but he’s opposed to any kneejerk reaction by GAA rule-makers.
he injury suffered by McLaughlin, during last Saturday’s All-Ireland SFC semi-final against Dublin, has prompted a fresh debate about whether the rule governing shoulder-to-shoulder tackles should be reviewed.
Referee Conor Lane didn’t award a free, nor did he stop the play with the Mayo defender stricken on the ground – a decision that was heavily criticised afterwards.
Speaking at Mayo’s All-Ireland press briefing in Castlebar, Horan refused to definitively rule out a miracle final comeback for McLaughlin, who met up with his fellow panellists on Wednesday night after undergoing surgery over the weekend.
Such an outcome would appear highly improbable, while Horan said he “genuinely” doesn’t know if All Star defender Oisín Mullin will recover from his quad injury in time for the newly-arranged final date of Saturday, September 11 against Kerry or Tyrone.
Having reviewed replays of the Small/McLaughlin collision since Saturday’s game, he deemed it a reckless but “mistimed tackle” with unfortunate consequences for his player.
“Look, there are tackles like that in every footballer. When a ball is coming, you can see the ball in your eyeline, you can see the player and you can take man and ball,” Horan surmised.
“You see it in rugby sometimes, when a pass comes out from the back of the scrum and your first or second centre comes out, he can take man and ball. There are times like that you can do it.
“But they are hugely high-risk tackles,” he stressed, “and if they are mistimed by a second they are very, very dangerous. And that’s what we saw.
“John Small is a tough player, a brilliant player. Went to physically dominate that contact … but it is reckless and there is high risk with it. And, more often than not, they are red cards – as it should have been the last day.
“But as regards the tackle, there are plenty of players that try and seize that opportunity for a strong tackle.”
Asked if the GAA should look at the issue of shoulder challenges, given the dangers involved, he said: “I think the shoulder-to-shoulder and the physical element of the game is hugely important. It makes it exciting; any game where there’s contact and physicality, it makes it more of an interesting game.
“So, I wouldn’t like anything that would diminish the physical aspect. But when there are players getting hurt, there is something wrong somewhere. So, it’s what you can do to maintain the physicality … I have no idea of solutions, I haven’t thought about it, to be honest; but I think it’s key that the physicality is kept in the game.”
He described as a “fair point” a suggestion that players’ conditioning may have added to the risk, because “the speeds are higher and therefore the impact is higher. Thankfully it’s not too often it happens, but we don’t want players getting significantly injured in our game … we just don’t.
“But I will reiterate that physicality is an important part of Gaelic football. And there could be a bandwagon now that goes to look to take that [away] – and there are too many changes in Gaelic as it is. We are too quick to respond to maybe one incident, so I just think we need to be sensible.
“And on the tackle: I think John Small is a brilliant player,” he underlined. “Mistimed tackle that significantly hurt a player. Red card should have been the outcome and the game stopped, etc. So, there are the tools there that should have been used to deal with that if it did happen.”
Horan confirmed that McLaughlin was back with the group on Wednesday night – and in “great form, up and about. He was on his stationary bike spinning the legs, so in great fettle.”
When asked if it was accepted the Westport clubman won’t be back for the final, his manager countered: “Oh God, I didn’t say anything to him yet – but I never write young guys out of anything, to be honest.”
Asked if it was a possibility, he replied: “You’d probably be better off talking to the medical guys, to be honest! But, certainly, it was brilliant to see him there in such good spirits last night. We managed to stop him togging out, but he’s a brilliant character and it was a great lift for the team to have him there.”
Mullin, who missed last Saturday’s thrilling dethronement of the Dubs, would appear to be a more realistic comeback contender. But even here, while accepting that a run-in of “four weeks is definitely better than two weeks”, Horan was non-committal.
“Genuinely don’t know,” he said. “He is in rehab with the medical team and it’s going well, but with some of those injuries it could be six, eight, ten weeks – you don’t know, it all depends on the sort of player. Some people respond quicker than others.”