The inter county season may have ended a few weeks ago, but the club season is rumbling on. And if we are to talk about the last weekend of provincial club championship games, then “rumble” is indeed the operative word.
In the Leinster Junior football championship game between Crossabeg Ballymurn of Wexford and, the appropriately named, Man of War from Dublin, a mass melee broke out that disrupted the game for several minutes. Videos were posted online, but were taken down shortly afterward, with the clubs obviously not wanting to draw any undue attention to themselves in light of disciplinary hearings, that will probably take place in the near future.
But if that incident was unsavoury, it had nothing on the Leinster intermediate football clash between O’Connells of Louth and Carlow’s Kilbride. An astonishing 10 red cards were handed out in the game by referee Noel McKenna, with six Kilbride players heading for an early bath. There was even 2 maor uisce sent off as well. Incidentally, O’Connells finished as winners, but given the Carlow side had more than 5 men sent off, they couldn’t have legitimately won anyway.
In light of such indiscipline, you would imagine that a representative of either or both of the teams would come out to issue a mea culpa on their behalf. Not so. O’Connell’s chairman David Neasy bemoaned afterwards that “It was far from a dirty game, but the referee just lost control. The whole game was “Sludden-esque”
Now for those of you who can’t remember, and you really should, Martin Sludden was the referee for the notorious 2010 Leinster final between Louth and Meath, where Joe Sheridan scored a controversial last minute goal/pushover try that somehow won the game for the Royal County, and denied Louth their first Leinster title in 51 years. It wasn’t a decision that the wee county took lightly. In fact, the players responded post game by angrily confronting the referee, before their fans spilled onto the pitch and tried to physically assault him. And if you need any reminder of how bad things actually got, just look at the YouTube footage afterwards.
Now, I wasn’t present for that game at the weekend, so I can’t truly judge how merited all of those 10 red cards were. According to the RTE report though, a spectator at the game said “the cards all seemed justified” https://www.rte.ie/sport/gaa/2017/1021/914225-ten-red-cards-in-leinster-intermediate-game/?utm_source=dlvr.it&utm_medium=facebook Then again that didn’t stop the Louth side harbouring a grudge against the refereeing on display. It’s almost as if, when a Louth side or their fans lose their discipline, it’s never their fault.
Now I’ll hold my hands up here. There is a certain degree of hypocrisy in all of this. I’ve never been one to fully subscribe to those pious types who bemoan any sort of fisticuffs as “Something we don’t want to see”. There is, sometimes, a perverse sense of glee in watching an unabashed melee break out. This year we posted a video of some of the most shocking/entertaining fights that have broken out on GAA fields over the past 30 years. It proved to be one of the most popular videos we’ve had.
Then again, it’s a cultural thing. Irish people, as a general rule, love fighting. Whether that be Conor McGregor in the Octagon, or a Saturday night after a few drinks, or a Sunday afternoon on the football field, doesn’t really matter. We encourage it, we’re engrossed by it, we are active participants.
On the flip side of that, you have the fact that this indiscipline problem seems to be almost exclusive to the GAA. Perhaps I’m not as au fait with the workings of Junior soccer in Ireland as I should be, but if there has ever been a game where 10 red cards have been issued at that level, the information has bypassed me. In the professional sphere, there are some frequent altercations between the fans of Shamrock Rovers and Bohemians in the League of Ireland, but I’ve never known violence to extend massively onto the pitch. And if you are to compare and contrast what happens on GAA fields, with what happens in the English Premier League, it’s like night and day. The idea of there being mass brawls in a top-flight English game and punches being thrown, would be enough to give administrators heart attacks.
Even in Ireland, we have a shining example of what discipline in sport should be like in the form of Rugby. On the pitch, it is one of the most physically intense sports anyone could wish to see, yet the behavior of fans and players can be positively genteel at times. There’s no mass brawls on the pitch or in the stands. There is a code of respect that exists, that is enviable for practically all other sports. Imagine having a situation in the GAA where just one player from each side (the team’s captain) can speak to the referee at any given time? Would that not be better for player and referee alike? And would that not encourage more people to get involved as referees in the game, if they knew they were going to be treated with respect, and not continually subjected to a torrent of abuse from players, management and fans?
I’m always loathe to be too harsh on referees because I appreciate fully the thankless nature of their job. Now sure, there are some incompetent referees out there, just like there are numerous inept players. But whereas a referee can make one high profile mistake in an otherwise perfect game, and be criticized from on high for ages, a player can kick one crucial score and be feted as a hero. The standard we use to judge the two separate roles is like night and day.
There’s this lazy, man in the pub argument, that all you need to be in order to referee, is to have played the game, and have a bit of common sense. Not true. Not only do you need to be an authoritative figure, with an in depth knowledge of the rule book and an exceptionally high level of fitness, you also need to have a particularly thick neck to immune yourself from criticism. Because you can be sure, as the sun rising in the morning, that no matter how competent an adjudicator you are, there will be a shedload of vitriol coming your way. And ask yourself this, if refereeing is so easy, why are so few top county players willing to take up the job once they’ve retired? Well obviously, they’ve seen how hard the task is, and they don’t want any part of it.
I find it hard to believe that, no matter how incompetent the referee is (and I’m not suggesting Mr McKenna was) a side can have 4 or 6 players sent off in a game and not bear some responsibility. There seems to be this constant excuse, that the referee was at fault for a game developing into a brawl, when really, the majority of blame should be on the heads of the players.
Take this year’s All-Ireland football final as an example. It’s not the referee’s fault that Donie Vaughan had a complete rush of blood to the head, and tried to clothesline John Small after the Dublin man attacked Colm Boyle. Unless you have eyes in the back of your head, or have access to video replays, you wouldn’t have seen Eoghan O’Gara’s eye gouge on Colm Boyle. These acts aren’t the fault of the referee. They are the product of over-hyped, ill-disciplined players.
And this is not just confined to players of course, but managers. Could you have imagined Joe Schmidt or Martin O’Neill running on to the field to protest a decision in the way that Davy Fitzgerald did in the League semi-final this year? He would have been banned from activity for much longer in those sports if he did. Now, in one way, you could say this adds to the charm of the GAA. In another way, it shows that our organization is still amateurish.
And yes, we’ll laugh and post the videos on YouTube and tag our friends but maybe the joke is on us at the end of it. If someone commits an act of violence in the street, it’s a criminal offence. Why should it be different on a sports field? If your side has received 4 or 6 red cards in a game, and you are not willing to accept any blame, well maybe that says more about you than the man officiating. And before you blame a referee for any misdemeanor they’ve done, maybe take a look in the mirror first. Because, ultimately, you and not anyone else are responsible for your own actions.