Thursday 23 March 2017

One more for the scrapbook

Images like this have become all to familiar to GAA followers, says Damian Lawlor

WILLIE BARRETT dreads the day that a Garda presence is required on sidelines for club hurling and football matches, but he fears it might not be far off.

"I'd hate to see it happening," admits the long-serving referee, "and yet it's definitely moving that way, pretty quickly too. You simply can't leave referees to endure attacks and verbal assaults for much longer. Something needs to be done."

Barrett is speaking in the wake of an especially dark month for the Association in terms of crowd and on-pitch violence. Recent unsavoury incidents in Tyrone and Kiltoom have put the issue of spectator unrest and referees' protection firmly back in the spotlight.

Pat McEnaney, who stepped down from the inter-county roster this season after turning 50, has a pretty straightforward solution to the emerging crisis. "Too many people on the sidelines," he notes. "Get them out of there. That directive has to come from the top. There are so many positive things about the club championships but these incidents are putting a negative slant on the Association. Get everyone possible off the sidelines -- access is way too easy."

Barrett knows it only too well.

He doesn't like drawing upon his own experiences, but over a year and half ago he was struck twice from behind with a hurley whilst trying to referee the South Tipperary SHC clash between Carrick Davins and Ballingarry. The game, staged at Kilsheelan, was 40 minutes old when the assault occurred after a Carrick Davins 'supporter' ran onto the pitch and struck the highly-respected official twice with a hurl, forcing proceedings to be abandoned. The incident evoked shock and outrage, made national headlines and mobile phone footage of the attack appeared on YouTube, receiving over 45,000 hits.

Former Kerry footballer and referee Weeshie Fogarty described it as 'the most cowardly incident in the history of the GAA' and there was a general consensus that such an atrocity could never happen here again. The Gardaí were involved; the Tipperary County Board condemned the attack and punishments were meted out.

Barrett, who has been refereeing since 1977 and featured on the inter-county list from 1983 to 2004, admits it was the first time he was ever affected during his many years in the middle.

"It was definitely the first occasion I was frightened," he recalls. "You'd have to be. It just wasn't a good situation to be in and it damaged my confidence. You'd like to look at the person who's attacking you and ask what they are doing there -- are they directly involved with their club? A lot of the times they're not, but that's not much use to you when you're being chased off the pitch."

Four months later, the Ardfinnan man, who officiated in the 1994 and 2000 All-Ireland finals, was forced to abandon another game when an under 21 hurling divisional semi-final descended into a mass brawl. This time he wasn't in danger, but that's hardly the point. The fact is that while there's no shortage of young inter-county referees making their way through the system, there's no scarcity of unpleasant incidents facing them either.

It's not just confined to referees; both the Tyrone County Board and the PSNI spent the last few weeks investigating the crowd brawl during the ACL Division One league final recently which resulted in a man having part of his ear bitten off. The brawl erupted in the stands during Dromore's clash with Carrickmore after on-pitch tensions spread into the crowd, and resulted in numerous injuries to spectators.

The pictures that captured that row sent further shockwaves rippling through the GAA world. One particular shot shows a supporter with clenched fist about to strike another man. Horrifyingly, just two rows back, a young child cries in his father's arms while directly in front of the father and child is a mother clutching her young son in her arms, trying to cover his face while hell breaks loose. To their credit, the Tyrone board wasted little time chasing the aggressors. On Friday, they issued bans totalling 452 weeks in response to the events of that day.

The GAA is built on an ethos of non-segregation and a generosity of spirit but it is now far too tolerant of such violence that regularly blights our games.

Here's a casual list from the last 12 months starting with last Sunday when former Roscommon goalkeeper Shane 'Cake' Curran had to step in to escort Mayo referee Liam Devenney off the pitch at Kiltoom after St Brigid's one-point Connacht championship victory over Corofin. Devenney was confronted by furious visiting supporters and the young, inexperienced official was shaken by the incident whilst one of his umpires sustained a bruised eye.

Some people blamed the Connacht Council for appointing a relatively untried official to such a major game, but Barrett says that's beside the point.

"The Connacht Council felt that Liam was worthy of that game and the only way you can get big-match experience is to take one. He took plenty of steps along the ladder so the Council would not have put him in there had they doubted his ability," he counters.

It was unedifying to see Devenney rushed off the pitch while being roared at by a so-called supporter in a bright green wig just a week after the Tyrone melee.

Surely now it's time the GAA launched a unified, all-inclusive system to deal with the aftermath of such fall-outs. At the moment, bans are dished out separately by clubs, county boards and provincial councils and in many cases appeals are successful and suspensions halved.

"It would be great to see a universal system of punishment implemented across the board," Barrett concurs. "I'd be in favour of more severe punishments, life bans, like the Antrim County Board dished out lately."

That Antrim reference centres on another recent referee attack, this time following an under 21 championship match between St Mary's, Rasharkin and Lámh Dearg. The county board recommended the expulsion of a St Mary's player, two club members and a member of the team's coaching staff. In total, 10 people from the club were hit with sanctions ranging from four-week to life bans.

In May, a minor football league match between Truagh and Scotstown in north Monaghan was abandoned after referee Xavier Doyle was assaulted and the Gardaí were again contacted. Two months later, GAA administrators in Tyrone were investigating a case that left two officials unconscious following an assault at a ladies' football final between St Macartan's and Carrickmore at Beragh. One of the victims was the match referee while the other was an official trying to intervene. Both were stretchered off.

Last year, a young Donegal referee was hospitalised with a broken jaw after a spectator attacked him following an under 16 Division 3 championship final in which Milford beat Lifford side Naomh Pádraig. Two Lifford players had been sent off towards the end and the official, in his mid-20s, received a blow. A fight ensued and he was taken to hospital. Meanwhile, the Dublin board faced a similar incident in 2010 when man in the middle Philip Fitzsimons was verbally abused and spat upon following a game between St Peregrine's and St Anne's which was decided by a late penalty.

Speaking at Croke Park last week, Christy Cooney said there was now an extra onus on clubs to help wipe out the threat. "There is a responsibility on clubs to be part of the solution and if they're asked for information to be up-front and identify the culprits if that is required."

Asked whether they could do more to protect the safety of referees following games, Cooney responded: "There shouldn't be a need to protect referees after games. It's about showing a bit of respect and that's the bottom line."

But it increasingly looks like there is a need to protect officials. Barrett, chairman of the Munster Referees' Council, fears that a Garda presence might soon be needed to deter sideline fracas from breaking out. McEnaney fears the same.

"Last Sunday's Connacht football game was really entertaining and I thought the pitch was excellent too, but it's all overshadowed by what happened at the end. County boards need to make it harder for people to access the sideline. Once that happens things will improve," the Monaghan whistler says.

Apart from enforcing such a system, the GAA could also help to create a new culture at underage level. In youth and schools rugby, young players are taught to respect the referee from day one. If a controversial decision arises only their captain can approach the match official.

"That's a lovely structure and it would be great to see it in the GAA," Barrett adds. "You're dealing with a person who has the confidence of his club and they see him as being a figure of responsibility and we could learn a lot from that in the GAA.

"In our juvenile games, parents are going nuts on the sidelines and this is the atmosphere players are growing up in from the time they are seven or eight. Obviously, things are only going to worsen as they get older. That's part of the reason we're in the situation we're in. Another reason is that clubs can't exactly stop certain personnel from attending matches and very often it's these people -- not always members -- who are in trouble.

"Overall, we need one unit to deal with these incidents, we need more decisive action to boot this violence out and players should be taught to respect officials from a young age like in rugby.

"At the moment we're going down a very slippery slope. Referees are only human and we make mistakes. I can remember exactly every mistake I ever made. Sometimes during a game, I'd admit to a player that I got a call wrong and in fairness it would totally defuse any tension. The game would end and all would be fine but now you must worry about what's coming from the sidelines.

"Unless we act quickly, in a few years' time it will be totally acceptable to have a go at the referee after a game. That's my biggest worry."

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