'Assaulted' ref praises stand from Croke Park
The referee at the centre of the storm that engulfed the business end of last year's Galway hurling championship, Christy Helebert, has hailed the "justice" delivered to officials in the wake of Croke Park's intervention in the case this week.
Helebert, a former Galway inter-county hurler, has broken his silence to recall the harrowing experience he endured at the end of the Galway semi-final between Loughrea and Mullagh last October.
He revealed that he was "hardly able to get out of bed" on the morning after the game as a consequence of the blows he claims to have received.
Helebert is considered one of the up-and-coming referees in Galway, taking up the challenge two years ago following his retirement as a player.
Earlier this week it was revealed that three Mullagh players, banned for 48 weeks following an investigation into the incident by the Galway Competitions Control Committee (CCC), would have to serve the full duration of those suspensions after intervention by Croke Park.
A Galway hearings committee decided, after the original suspensions were imposed, to reduce the trio of 48-week bans to just 12 weeks.
That decision sparked a furious reaction from Galway referees, who threatened to strike and sent Helebert on the road in search of justice.
And this week he believed that justice has been delivered -- not just for him, but for every referee and official in the country. "I believe it's a very important decision made by Croke Park. Justice has prevailed at long last. We're (referees) going to stand up and be counted from here," said Helebert, who felt the hearings committee reversal of the original ban "belittled" his version of events.
The three Mullagh players suspended -- current Galway senior panelist Conor Dervan, 2009 All-Ireland winning minor Davy Glennon and John Rafferty -- can appeal this latest decision to the Disputes Resolution Authority. But Galway County Board have decided to drop the matter.
As a hurler with Galway, Kinvara and Ballindereen, Helebert had a reputation as a tough and durable defender and he needed those characteristics in the wake of extreme abuse on the day of the match on Sunday, October 18.
In a tight match, Helebert awarded a late free to Loughrea when he deemed a Mullagh player had over-carried and Niall Keary fired over the controversial winner.
It sparked a furious reaction from Mullagh players who surrounded him at the final whistle and where, Helebert has alleged in his report, he was assaulted.
The level of verbal abuse that followed as Helebert awaited a garda escort to get to his changing room has been captured vividly on a YouTube clip, painting a disturbing picture of what he faced that afternoon.
"It was terrible," he said. "I'll never forget the day. I'm a tough individual myself and that kind of scenario doesn't bother me. I have a nine-year-old daughter who was in the car with me on the way to the game that day. Just by chance we were passing the grandparents' home and I said 'maybe we will leave her here'. Now imagine if I had her brought to that game."
The following morning, Helebert said he could hardly get out of bed, but managed to make it to his local doctor's surgery for an assessment. The medical report was a key part of the documents that he subsequently sent to Croke Park.
"I'm a blocklayer by trade and I didn't work for up to five weeks after that," said Helebert who revealed, when asked, that he didn't receive compensation.
When the hearings committee in Galway reduced the ban, referees in Galway threatened to strike. But in the end they agreed to continue on until the end of the season officiating at games "under protest".
Helebert went his own way, however, contacting the National Referees Administration who, in turn, put it in the hands of the national CCC.
"I felt belittled by the decision (Galway hearings committee). We (referees) could have gone on strike if we wanted to. A few of the referees wouldn't hear of it, so I said I would go my own road. I rang Croke Park and they took the case on from there," he said. "There are some people who still don't seem to believe my story."
Helebert has praised the backing of Croke Park. "Justice was all I wanted. At the end of the day that's why I chased it. If I didn't, what would it have been like again next year?" he asked.
He now plans to resume refereeing and took charge of two club challenge games last Sunday. He quit playing for Galway after their 1995 All-Ireland semi-final defeat to Clare and spent 10 years playing in Kinvara. It was at Kinvara that his refereeing career took and within two years his rise had taken him to that ill-fated county semi-final.
His determination to continue is evident. "I don't want to be remembered for that game, so I'm available if they want me. If I get the games I'll do them. Maybe they won't want me," he said.
Helebert now wants to put the incident behind him and get on with his new career that continues his involvement in hurling.