Referees have not made a good start to the GAA championship season. For all Meath's internal difficulties, and for all the possession enjoyed by Kildare, last Sunday's Leinster quarter-final meeting between the two teams was largely decided by a pair of questionable decisions from Syl Doyle.
You could make a case that any player who raises his hand to an opponent is putting himself at the mercy of the referee, but Brian Farrell still seemed very unlucky to walk for the kind of swipe which is often passed over without even a yellow card being shown. And, while it's very hard to give a definitive verdict on Graham Geraghty's disallowed goal, Doyle's decision to overrule two umpires who seemed pretty certain the score should stand seemed dubious. That one of those umpires was the ref's son and gave the whole contretemps a John McGahern Oedipal short story flavour was neither here nor there.
Meanwhile, up in Omagh there was a kind of karma at work. Because after a week when Meath GAA people had been troubled by the behaviour of a Monaghan man named McEnaney it was the turn of a Meath man, referee Cormac Reilly, to severely annoy a Monaghan man named McEneaney. Reilly handed out 13 cards in a fussy performance, the most controversial moment of which saw him dismiss Dick Clerkin for what looked a harmless challenge on Tyrone's Seán Cavanagh. The Clerkin sending-off forced Monaghan to play over half the game with 14 men which, given that they lost by just two points, may well have cost them a famous victory. Reilly also contrived to book Tyrone's Martin Penrose for playacting when the attacker had clearly taken a blow to the face.
Things haven't exactly been hunky dory in hurling either. The Leinster championship match between Dublin and Offaly got under way with an Alan McCrabbe shot which had clearly gone wide being signalled as a point. The sending off of Offaly's Derek Molloy by referee John Sexton, which proved crucial in the Faithful County's late comeback falling short, was also highly debatable.
You could argue it's a bit early in the championship to be sounding alarm bells about the standard of refereeing. But the worrying thing is that 2010 was an annus horribilis for championship referees. Martin Sludden's decision to allow Joe Sheridan's goal for Meath in the Leinster football final against Louth presented us with the nightmare scenario of a team being denied major honours solely by one terrible refereeing mistake. This should have set alarm bells ringing for the GAA hierarchy yet they reacted with a certain insouciance and seemed more bothered about making the argument for barriers at Croke Park in reaction to the crowd trouble provoked by perhaps the worst refereeing decision any of us will ever see.
There was also the blatant square ball missed by Pat McEnaney which allowed Benny Coulter to score a goal for Down against Kildare and change the course of the All-Ireland semi-final between the teams, the unjust sending-off of Graham Canty, later rescinded, which cost Cork victory in their Munster football semi-final replay against Kerry, the mysterious free awarded to Waterford in the Munster hurling final against Cork which resulted in a match-tying goal, similarly questionable frees being given to Kerry in the Munster semi-final and to Galway in their Connacht semi-final against Sligo, which resulted in those games also being drawn, a very poor refereeing display in the All-Ireland minor football final between Tyrone and Cork, the missing at the time of offences by Paul Galvin and Tomás ó Sé which led to belated disciplinary action that engendered a great deal of bad feeling and the incorrect disallowing of Killian Young's goal for Kerry at a crucial stage in the All-Ireland quarter-final against Down. There were simply too many mistakes which changed the outcome of too many games.
Go back a year further and you could argue that the destination of both 2009 All-Ireland finals were decided by refereeing mistakes, the hurling decider turning on the award of a penalty to Kilkenny by Diarmuid Kirwan and Kerry benefiting from Marty Duffy's decision not to send off Tadhg Kennelly in the opening seconds of the football game.
I've made the point several times in this column that there's no excuse for supporters and mentors who abuse referees and that we should bear in mind that human beings are always going to make mistakes. Yet the amount of mistakes has now reached critical mass and is greatly undermining the credibility of the championship. We're all spending far too much time on Monday morning talking about the referee.
But there doesn't seem to be any urgency in dealing with the lamentable standard of reffing. This complacent attitude is most clearly illustrated by the decision to retain Martin Sludden on the championship panel this year. Martin Sludden may be a very nice man for all I know but the fact remains that he perpetrated a terrible injustice against Louth last year. It was as bad a mistake as you can imagine a referee making. Yet he remains a senior inter-county official. Which makes you think that if a decision like that can't get you removed from the championship panel, nothing can.
Talking to a former All Star last week I was struck by his point that these days players are always held accountable for their actions. If the officials miss it, the cameras catch it and the misbehaving star finds himself facing an inevitable suspension. Yet a referee can be shown to have performed well below the acceptable standard and face no retribution whatsoever.
This player believes the notion that the referee appears immune to scrutiny is having a bad effect on the GAA at grassroots level. Because whether it's the deployment of a third midfielder wearing number 13, the construction of a swarm
defence or the playing of a big man at full-forward, the club game often takes its lead from what happens at inter-county level. And if club referees see that inter-county referees can get away with the most terrible mistakes, it reduces their initiative to do the right thing. Because at the moment the attitude of the GAA seems to mirror that old bumper sticker, "the boss may not always be right but he is always the boss."
Frankly, I don't believe the corps of inter-county referees we have at present is the best available. But if they are, the GAA should take a hard look at how it's training its officials because players and fans deserve better. The introduction of something like the Hawk-Eye system used in tennis or the TV replay utilised in rugby would help, which is why it was a pity to see Christy Cooney apparently ruling out such options last week. It's not good enough to make the you-win-some-you-lose-some argument. I may be wrong but I suspect it will be many years before Louth are in the position they enjoyed before Joe Sheridan made his crucial intervention and Martin Sludden okayed it.
We all make mistakes. And we'll never cut them out completely in any aspect of our lives. But all we can do, in the words of Samuel Beckett, is "try again, fail again, fail better." If refs just did that, it would be enough. Then we could focus on players rather than officials which is as it should be.
Because the best referee is the one you don't notice.
Sunday Indo Sport