Martin Breheny: 2012 must be year zero for ref abuse
Published 23/11/2011 | 05:00
AT 3.20 last Sunday, a group of Corofin supporters figured that the most appropriate response to their club's defeat in the AIB Connacht club final was to surround referee, Liam Devenney, venting their anger at his handling of the game.
Following the final whistle he had, for some reason, veered towards the side of the pitch furthest away from the dressing-rooms, leaving him with a long road home to safety. What happened on that journey is for the Connacht Council to unravel.
From the press box, it was impossible to discern if the referee or any of his officials had been struck, but, even if they weren't, the unruly scenes flashed out on TG4's 'live' coverage, followed by next morning's newspaper pictures, were disturbing.
Coming so soon after the disgraceful scenes at the Dromore v Carrickmore game in Tyrone, it underlined yet again that some people can't differentiate between actively supporting their team and outright lawlessness.
Pictures of referees being escorted off pitches after club games, in particular, have been embarrassingly common over the years. The discredited line, that it happens in only a tiny minority of games by comparison with the thousands which are played, should be seen for the nonsense that it is. After all, one incident is one too many.
Corofin were annoyed with the referee's performance, an understandable sentiment it must be said, since they were at the wrong end of several questionable decisions, including disallowing what TV cameras suggested was a perfectly legal goal just before half-time.
However, to take that frustration to a stage where the referee needed protection as he left the field is not acceptable anywhere except in the peculiar mindset which the GAA has never managed to change.
If the GAA had stood up to this problem years ago, the people who felt entitled to converge on the referee last Sunday wouldn't have done so; neither would those who disgraced themselves and their clubs in Tyrone a week earlier. Most of Corofin, a well-run club with an excellent disciplinary record, were appalled by last Sunday's scenes, but the fact remains that their reputation has been damaged by the actions of a minority.
How often has that been said before about other clubs and counties? Unfortunately though, it continues to happen.
The problem -- born of an endemic disrespect for referees -- can't be solved at local level alone. Instead, it requires a national drive, so that when a referee is interfered with, the punishments are swift, hard and consistent right across the discipline spectrum.
What's required here is a culture change which, unfortunately, can only be brought about by tough punishments.
The standard line about 'awaiting the referee's report' and 'dealing with it through the appropriate channels' are invariably trotted out after unsavoury incidents. And while action is often taken, it clearly hasn't been severe enough to send out the message that indiscipline will not be tolerated. Pictures of rows, during or after games, present a very negative image of the GAA, so it's up to the power brokers to take charge of the situation.
Why not target 2012 for the start of a zero-tolerance regime? That demands strong leadership from the top down and, crucially, an agreement among all the disciplinary bodies -- nationally and locally -- that those who step out of line will be punished severely. It requires clubs and counties to be fully responsible for their supporters, however difficult that may be.
There have been more distressing incidents than what happened in Kiltoom last Sunday, but it's still worrying that the showpiece occasion in Connacht club football should make headlines for post-match trouble rather than the actual game. The media are often blamed for over-hyping incidents, which is, of course, the standard cop-out. Are we supposed to ignore what happened in Tyrone and Kiltoom?
The indisputable fact is that indiscipline is bad for any sport. So, if it's in everybody's interest to have it eradicated, why is it still so prevalent in the GAA? The answer is simple: the collective will to stamp it out has never been fully harnessed. If it was, the problem would be wiped out very quickly.
Fixture-makers can play a role too. Surely, the best referee in every province should be appointed for senior club championship finals, in which case, either Marty or Michael Duffy from Sligo would have been in charge of Corofin-St Brigid's. That would probably have avoided a lot of angst. Playing a provincial final at the home ground of one of the competing clubs isn't the brightest idea either.