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Meath facing hardest call

AND so, the nation held its breath and Navan kept us waiting. No decision from the Meath county board, for now at least. More fiddling while Louth burned with rage and recrimination.

Meanwhile, the country at large absorbed the ramifications of the most unsatisfactory end to a major event in Croke Park since the unfinished Clare/Offaly hurling semi-final in '98. In truth, Sunday was more calamitous still: the only saving grace is that it could, in terms of potential injury, have been far worse.

As we write, everyone is still awaiting the next call from the men of Meath. In many respects it's an impossible choice but one that will have to be made -- and quickly.

It's a stark choice but here it is. If Meath decide to keep hold of the Delaney Cup, on the grounds that they won it on the pitch, they will be on entirely legitimate rule-book grounds.

But that decision will come at a cost: their first Leinster SFC title in nine years will be forever tainted by the circumstances of its attainment. It will come with a giant asterisk attached. And it probably won't do this team any favours in the long run.

The alternative scenario is that Meath graciously offer a refixture. In that scenario they will either win at the second time of asking, without any caveats attached -- and maybe even rediscover the form that deserted them so alarmingly last Sunday.

Or else they will lose the cup that Nigel Crawford has already lifted -- a horrible choice to contemplate, tempered by the realisation that they wouldn't be left entirely empty-handed. And we're not talking about 'fair play' awards (enough to drive any self-respecting player potty) but something less tangible: the country would come to love Meath.

While all of us await this seismic decision that now lies in the gift of Barney Allen and his fellow officers, county board delegates and more especially Eamonn O'Brien and his players, the wider GAA community must accept it has a problem. Make that several.


The biggest problem of all? The latent capacity for lawless behaviour, bordering on violence, that lurks within the soul of certain football and hurling fans -- a tiny minority, for sure, but still too prevalent for the authorities to blithely dismiss as the actions of a mindless few.

It all stems from a refusal to accept authority -- not just the actual authorities who continuously plead, in vain, for supporters to desist from these pitch invasions that happen in no other sport.

First and foremost, too many of us have a wanton disregard for the authority of the referee. And so we have disgraceful incidents such as happened in Tipperary last April, when former inter-county referee Willie Barrett was assaulted by a hurl-wielding spectator at a club match.

Or we had the All-Ireland club semi-final in Limerick last February, when Sligo whistler Michael Duffy required Garda protection to get off the pitch as various Portlaoise folk vented their fury at his decision to flash an early red card.

In essence, Duffy and Barrett were blackguarded for doing their job. We could go you but you get our drift.

Now we all appreciate that Martin Sludden produced a cock-up of epic proportions last Sunday ... but that cannot remotely excuse the moronic actions of those fans who attacked him, or the 'supporter' who hit Mark Ward, or the one who accosted Sean Boylan in the stand.

Even the Louth players who made a beeline for the referee must reflect on their actions, rightful and all as their anger must have been.


Sunday's Croke Park fiasco was at least the fourth example this summer of a football championship match dogged by one or more bad calls of a serious nature.

The early weeks were blighted by the new hand-pass controversy (remember that?) but the GAA's decision to introduce a new, untested rule for the start of championship was compounded by Derek Fahy's over-zealous and sometimes plainly wrong application of same during the Meath/Offaly game.

Next up, Armagh whistler Padraig Hughes was responsible for a sequence of high-profile gaffes during Meath's recent demolition of Dublin.

Three erroneous calls -- Barry Cahill's phantom 'double hop', a blatant foul on Conal Keaney that wasn't spotted, and Graham Reilly twice fouling the ball -- played as pivotal a role as dodgy defending in the build-up to Meath's first three goals that afternoon.

Another week, another controversy: Westmeath whistler Pat Fox let Tomas O Se stay on the pitch against Limerick despite committing two offences warranting yellow cards and another meriting a straight red, all during the first half of the Munster final.

The CCCC had to tidy up that mess, and now O Se misses their All-Ireland quarter-final while Limerick are left to ponder what might have been against 14 Kerrymen.

Gaelic football isn't the only sport where players escape censure because of lax refereeing -- consider the leniency of Howard Webb and some earlier referees to Holland's horrendous attempt to 'van Bommelise' their way to World Cup glory.

To its credit, Croke Park is constantly trying to curtail such disciplinary excesses and yet chronic calls of a technical nature -- Sludden's the most glaring - have put refereeing back in the spotlight.

You can forgive the Tyrone official for not being fully up with the play at the end of 74 energy-sapping minutes, but his perfunctory consultation with just one umpire was an even bigger error than his original instinct to award Joe Sheridan's 'goal'.

Yes, we all appreciate that these referees are amateur volunteers doing their best; that human error is an intrinsic part of refereeing in all sports; that the match official's dressing-room must be the loneliest place on earth when there's a gauntlet of hate outside and it slowly dawns that maybe you've made a bags of it.

Sympathy, then, should be taken as a given. But that doesn't diminish the bigger picture, one that suggests Croke Park still has a major problem with refereeing standards.


SO you think the GAA has a problem with referees? Then try the umpires! In the last few weeks of the hurling championship we've had a Galway wide awarded as a point (versus Offaly), a Galway point flagged as a wide (the Offaly replay), and a Cork free (versus Waterford last Sunday) that veered wide but was duly given.

Two of those games finished in deadlock: ergo, bad umpiring decisions are having a major bearing on things this summer.

We won't even mention the last-minute bout of myopia/panic that afflicted Sludden's umpires -- enough columnists have done so already.

Suffice to say, though, that surely the concept of inter-county referees going through all this rigorous training and assessments, only then to be allowed bring along their own quartet of umpires from home, must surely now be called into question.