Martin Breheny: Time to take responsibility
NINETEEN years ago next month, an All-Ireland club football semi-final became so unruly that it prompted the GAA to change policy on venues. Previously, semi-finals were played at the home ground of one of the participants or at the nearest suitable venue if a club didn't have adequate facilities. In 1993, Cork champions O'Donovan Rossa, Skibbereen, travelled to Ballinascreen to play Lavey (Derry) and within 12 minutes of the start the temperature had zoomed high into the red zone.
Two Lavey players had been sent off, three others (two Lavey, one Skibbereen) were booked and referee Seamus Prior was telling the captains that if the mood didn't change quickly, he would abandon the game.
It took most of the first half to bring the gauge down to relatively normal levels, a process helped enormously by Prior's experience as one of the country's top referees at the time. A potentially chaotic situation had been diffused but, nevertheless, Croke Park heeded the warning and opted for neutral venues for subsequent semi-finals.
In the September after the Lavey-Skibbereen game, while attending the Kilmacud Sevens, my colleague Vincent Hogan was approached by a Lavey man, who was clearly less than pleased with what had been written by him in the Irish Independent about the Ballinascreen bust-up. Handing his glasses to a friend and yelling incoherently, 'Annoyed of Lavey' made a lunge in Hogan's direction but was cut off by former Offaly footballer Mick Wright, using all his instincts as a defender.
Seven months after the game, the Lavey supporter remained so enraged by the comments of a neutral observer that he was prepared to park his senses and engage his fists to embody the "for the honour of the little village" sentiment from Charles Kickham's 'Knocknagow.'
Nineteen years on, little has changed, as the embarrassing scenes from the Derrytresk-Dromid Pearses game last Sunday prove.
Incidents such as occurred in Portlaoise produce a number of reactions, ranging from claims that Croke Park is ambivalent to violence and intimidation -- which isn't true -- to reminders that things should be put in context since only a tiny minority of the thousands of games played annually produce any trouble.
Statistically, the latter viewpoint is accurate but this isn't about figures or proportionality. It's about the reality that every so often a GAA game spins out of control, thereby embarrassing the entire Association.
There's no short-term solution to the problem. The GAA decided in 1993 that allowing clubs home advantage for All-Ireland semi-finals carried too many risks but there was -- and is -- a lot more to it than that. A lack of respect for referees, an underlying conviction that intimidation is acceptable, a belief that spectators can intervene if their side is being threatened and, perhaps most corrosive of all, an unyielding determination to defend the indefensible have been allowed to fester, leading to a cheapening of core values.
I recently attended an U-14 game where the umpires were from the opposing clubs. Team A conceded a '65', which was rightly signalled by the umpire from Team B. The Team A full-back ran in and unloaded himself of a string of expletives at the umpire while the other umpire, a mentor of the ridiculously outraged youngster, remained silent. The lesson for the kid was that an adult mentor deemed abuse of officials as acceptable. No doubt the youngster will work on his vocabulary for extra impact from now on.
At a more serious level, how many clubs or counties ever take action against a player who is guilty of a serious offence which wasn't spotted? None. And even when a player is up on a charge where there's clear evidence against him, he can expect the unstinting support of club or county as they convince themselves that injustice is at work.
How sad is it that, uniquely among major field games, GAA teams can't line up in the tunnel before a game and emerge together? Try it for a big championship game and the chances are that what ensues would make a drunken Saturday night brawl look like a row in a creche.
This is not to depict the GAA as a lawless state where nobody cares. Severe punishments have been handed down over the years and the commitment of the leadership to good discipline is just as strong as in other sports. The problem lies at a more basic level, where responsibility is rarely allowed to interfere with such primal instincts as winning, domination, not being regarded as weak and, crucially, never admitting you're wrong.
It was the same when Seamus Prior considered calling off an All-Ireland club semi-final in 1993 and, sadly, it's still likely to be the same in 19 years' time. That is, unless everybody in the GAA takes responsibility rather than leaving it to a disciplinary system which can mete out punishments but which can't change a culture.
Whatever about the unfortunate fallout from the Derrytresk-Dromid Pearses affair, it can't deflect from the success of the AIB All-Ireland club championships in terms of providing an even spread of contenders.
Remarkably, at least 10 counties -- Mayo, Kerry, Armagh, Carlow, Tyrone, Galway, Cork, Kilkenny, Roscommon or Westmeath and Limerick or Antrim -- will be involved in the All-Ireland finals at senior, intermediate and junior level. It will increase to 11 if Coolderry (Offaly) beat Gort (Galway) in the SH semi-final.
That's quite a spread for six finals. And who would have foreseen a day when Carlow (Mount Leinster Rangers) and Armagh (Middletown) were contesting a hurling final at Croke Park, as will be the case in the intermediate decider on February 11?