Saturday 25 March 2017

Our lions are led by donkeys

Eamonn Sweeney

There's a great quote from Irish film producer Ed Guiney, the man behind the terrific The Guard among other things, in the current issue of Sight and Sound magazine. "We're not good at banking. We're shite at property. We've fucked it up. But one of the things we are good at is culture. So let's look after that and help it grow."

A lot of us feel the same way about sport, an arena apparently immune from the arrogance which brought the country to its knees. We love the likes of Brian O'Driscoll, Henry Shefflin, Colm Cooper, Derval O'Rourke and Pádraig Harrington because they display qualities which are the opposite of those which characterised the now discredited leaders of our political and business communities.

Their hard work, their talent and their humility are a standing rebuke to our erstwhile top dogs whose world was governed by the principle that being in the top job entitles you to ride roughshod over lesser mortals. Yet the sad truth is that in recent years too many of our sporting administrators seem to have been infected by the hubris of their political and business counterparts.

Let's return to the case of Wexford goalkeeper Anthony Masterson and the written apology enforced upon him by the disciplinary arm of the GAA's Central Competitions Control Committee. Eugene McGee pointed out last week that there is actually no justification in the rule-book for the punishment imposed by the CCCC, which led to the unneccesary public humiliation of the player. This has backfired because there can hardly be a GAA fan in the country who doesn't have sympathy for the Wexford goalkeeper.

Yet we will probably wait in vain for an explanation from the CCCC as to why its disciplinary members perpetrated this act of irredeemable lousiness. It's unlikely that the committee or any of the members responsible for disciplinary procedures will deign to explain the rationale behind their decision. By not doing so, they leave themselves open to the accusation that they regard themselves as being above criticism.

The same attitude holds sway among the GAA's referees. There was, for example, never a word of apology from Martin Sludden for robbing Louth of a historic Leinster final victory last year. In the wake of further appalling decisions this year, referees supremo Michael Curley informed the media that he was standing by the officials in question. These statements were irresistibly reminiscent of those moments when Brian Cowen would tell everyone that the latest minister to make a balls of things had the full backing of the Taoiseach. And we know where that got Fianna Fáil.

It was kind of missing the point. Because when your county gets shafted by an awful decision your first thought is not, "I wonder if he has the backing of Michael Curley, chairman of the GAA National Referees' Committee," but, "in the name of God are they ever going to improve the standard of refereeing."

That an incompetent referee will suffer no penalty at all, and in fact go on to be awarded other big games, whereas a player who comments on the incompetent decisions will be punished by the GAA is, if you think about it at all, profoundly illogical.

This attitude is not confined to the GAA. Last Saturday, Sligo Rovers manager Paul Cook had this to say about the penalty awarded to Bohemians in The Showgrounds by referee Alan Kelly. "With the best will in the world I think that the less we say about that the better because I will just get into trouble."

Cook's predicament is a familiar one. Any League of Ireland manager who complains about a referee lays himself open to disciplinary action. Yet why should this be the case? Why is it decreed that the fabric of the game will be rent asunder if a manager complains about a refereeing decision?

In case you think I'm displaying my bias as a Sligo Rovers fan, on RTE's always excellent Monday Night Soccer programme all the panellists stated that they had watched the action replay several times and saw no reason whatsoever for the award of the penalty which gave Bohemians an equaliser with 15 minutes left in the game.

This was the Marie Celeste of penalties. Pushing forward in search of a winner, Rovers were sucker-punched on the break and lost 2-1. With all due respect to Bohs, the decision cost Rovers victory. The week before against Dundalk they were undone by a sending-off which the MNS boys also found utterly mysterious. Prior to that they'd been top of the league.

In fairness to the GAA, the poor refereeing of the last two seasons has been a big story because up to then officials had done wonderfully well in keeping tabs on fast moving and physical games. Poor refereeing in the League of Ireland, on the other hand, is about as newsworthy as "rainy day in Ireland" or "Pete Doherty takes drugs". The only disagreement between fans of the league lies between those who think that referees are biased against teams from outside Dublin (Derry City manager Stephen Kenny for one believes his team have suffered from a geographical bias) and those who feel that the incompetence is more generally distributed and that Dublin clubs have gotten plenty of raw deals too. Few would argue that the refereeing is anywhere near acceptable.

I'm not at all suggesting that there is anything corrupt or conspiratorial about the refereeing of the domestic league. But I know this. Last Saturday my brother brought his four-year-old son to his first game in The Showgrounds. I went to my first game there at the same age. The reffing was shit then. It's shit now. And it'll be shit when my young nephew is bringing his kids there. Because, by concentrating their fire on managers who criticise appalling decisions rather than the officials who make them, the authorities have ensured that any close League of Ireland title race is less a rational sporting competition than a kind of lottery ultimately decided by the men in the middle.

God knows I've done my best for the League of Ireland. I've followed it for 40 years, I've banged on in these pages about its attractions like some demented preacher trying to attract passers-by into his dilapidated little church. But last Saturday night I truly realised why so many people can't take it seriously. Not being Paul Cook I can say what I feel.

Everywhere the administrators cover their backs. The confusion over the Irish Amateur Boxing Association's team for the World Championships continued when 16 boxers were sent to the pre-championships camp in Assisi. The camp should have been for the fighters who were participating in the championships but there were two fighters present in three separate weight divisions and three weltereights, all waiting for the decision of yesterday's IABA meeting on the composition of the team.

At the time of writing, European champion Ray Moylette, World silver medallist John Joe Nevin and European silver medallist Darren O'Neill still didn't know if they'd been selected. Five fighters were due to be disappointed at the 11th hour because of uncertainty about the selection procedure. What this will do for team morale we will no doubt find out.

Meanwhile, one of the country's most promising young boxers, Michael O'Reilly from Portlaoise, was in the High Court last week challenging the IABA's decision to leave him out of the forthcoming European Youth Championships. O'Reilly won his case and this victory is a terrible indictment of how the IABA treated the young boxer.

Generally, I don't like slagging off either administrators or referees. Because anyone who ends up on a governing body put in their time training youngsters, lining pitches and washing jerseys.

But sometimes it's as though the lads at the top table all have that old pub sign, "The boss may not always be right but he's always the boss," hung forever in their mental wardrobe.

Perhaps no administrator comes in for as much stick as John Delaney. I personally think the FAI president hasn't done a bad job, particularly as regards the promotion of the game at grassroots level. Yet his salary of €400,000 does seem grossly inflated. It's an example of how sport got caught up in the general Tiger era malaise of exorbitant salaries. The same malaise was present when Athletics Ireland decided to reward their new CEO John Foley with a bonus simply for doing his job, a phenomenon familiar to any observer of the Irish business world. That Foley had the good sense to turn down this bonus doesn't absolve Athletics Ireland of their sins.

Athletics Ireland is a prime example of an organisation where sporting achievement has been undermined by administrative wrangling. The saga over the appointment of Mary Coghlan as CEO ended up in the High Court after she was fired, costing the organisation a great deal of money which would have been better spent on athletes, and diminishing the reputation of the sport in the public eye.

The Coghlan saga featured a stand-off between Athletics Ireland and the Irish Sports Council, an organisation which has also crossed swords with the IABA, and has been inclined to get involved in turf wars with other bodies. But the Sports Council itself is also a symptom of another problem within Irish society, the quangofication of government. The organisation seems to exist largely to distribute funding from government to the various national sporting bodies. Which begs the question: why can't government do that itself rather than interposing another layer of bureaucracy between it and the sporting organisations?

And what's the point of the Olympic Council of Ireland? Why do we need a body specifically to prepare our sportsmen and sportswomen for the Olympics? Why not give the money to the national sporting bodies and let them do it themselves? Or why not just hand over the money to the competitors themselves so they can go about their preparations without worrying about when their funding will be passed down the chain? If you're responsible enough to get yourself into world-class shape, you're surely responsible enough to look after your own money. For that matter, how many more swimming pools and sports centres might be built if the bureaucracy of sport was slimmed down?

These things shouldn't matter. It's much more pleasant to forget all about them, to concentrate instead on Paul O'Connell restored to health and rampaging through the French, on the panther-like elegance and ruthlessness of Lar Corbett and on Gary McCabe's super slalom through the Serbs in Tallaght. But at a time when highly educated kids are having to emigrate because of bad decisions made by greedy men three times their age, poor administration in sport also has the potential to do plenty of damage. There's always a price to be paid for slobbering at the top. And it's usually not the guilty parties who pay the price.

It's time for sport's arrogant top dogs to realise that they are not the superiors of the ordinary members of their associations. They are your representatives. They're your servants. And you deserve better from them.

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