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Maybe Davy was right

When Carlow and Dublin met in the 2010 Leinster U-21 football semi-final, the nature of Dublin's narrow win necessitated another garda escort to protect a referee from enraged supporters.

Understandable frustration does not necessarily make it acceptable, but in Luke Dempsey's mind, there was no grey area in referee Joe Curley's decision not to award Carlow a late free. With 90 seconds remaining in extra-time, Brendan Murphy brilliantly fielded a sideline kick and then, according to Dempsey, "the Dublin full-back caught him around the neck and pulled him to the ground". Four defenders surrounded Murphy, who was then pulled for over-carrying.

The Carlow manager said at the time that there was still a minute remaining when Curley suddenly "blew the whistle" because he "just got terrified and bottled it". And Dempsey told Curley as much when he confronted him afterwards.

In Gaelic games, there has always been a difficulty in accepting tough decisions and a destructive tendency to abuse referees for taking strong action. That stems from not having developed a culture of compliance to rules or the spirit of the rules.

The prevailing culture in Gaelic games feeds on pushing the limits of fairness, discovering what you can get away with.

In that environment, referees have an extremely difficult job. But in the context of what happened to Dempsey's U-21 side, it was easy to understand his frustration because it wasn't the first time his underdogs suffered late heartbreak.

He was Longford manager in 2008 when they led Dublin by two points in injury-time of the O'Byrne Cup final.

"Then for a reason that remains a total mystery, the referee gave a free against David Barden for an alleged throw," recalled Dempsey a couple of years later. "When I stopped the DVD afterwards, it was clearly visible that the referee couldn't even see David Barden. And from that resultant free, Dublin got the goal to win the game."

There was no suggestion that the referees in either instance showed bias towards Dublin. But there is a feeling amongst many counties that referees regularly, and disproportionately, favour the stronger counties.

That issue raised its head again last Sunday when Clare manager Davy Fitzgerald reacted to what he felt was biased refereeing towards Kilkenny.

"How come it's always the Clares that get those (decisions) against us?" asked Fitzgerald. "I am fairly certain he (Eoin Larkin) turned three times with the ball and your man (Matthew Ruth) was inside on Patrick Kelly (goalkeeper) when he made the save.

"That goal killed the game and it came from a sideline ball (which Fitzgerald felt was a Clare ball) and (then) the amount of turns. Are referees afraid to make a mistake when it is the big teams at stake? Are they afraid they won't get a bigger match or stuff like that?"

That is nothing new in sport. How often do you hear Premiership managers suggest after games with Manchester United that the referee failed to make a hard penalty call in their favour at the Stretford End? After Fulham were denied a penalty against United in a 1-0 defeat at Old Trafford last month, Fulham manager Martin Jol said that referees needed to be "brave" to give a visiting team a penalty at Old Trafford.

Although Carlow were at home in that Leinster U-21 semi-final two years ago, Dempsey outlined the point afterwards.

"I think in games between strong and weaker counties, it's in the referee's psyche -- almost preordained in his mind -- that the big team is going to win the match. Even though he (Curley) had done quite a good job, I still think that deep in his psyche he always felt Dublin were going to win. And when he didn't give the free, he took the easy option."

In a social psychology of sport study carried out in 2005, Martin Hagger and Nikos Chatzisarantis concluded that the quality and profile of team members may affect match official bias.

A referee may unconsciously bias the decisions towards the home team and star players because they have an expectation that the home team and star players will perform better.

A study on figure-skating by Findlay and Ste-Marie in 2004 found that judges gave significantly better marks to skaters that were known to them, which suggested that prior expectations and reputations are likely to bias decisions of referees rather than audience effects.

In a similar context, you often hear GAA players complain at how referees react on the field to the main players in the top teams. "We were done by a referee a few years back when he should have sent off one of the top players in the country at a critical stage of the game," says one well-known hurler.

Stroke

"It was stone-wall second yellow and the referee chickened out of it. Then one of our lads pulls a dirty stroke and the ref couldn't get the red card out quickly enough. On the same day, the referee was almost apologising to some of their top players after they questioned frees he gave against them."

Former Limerick footballer John Quane once had this to say about his experiences in games against Kerry: "I always felt that referees would benefit Kerry because of their big names. I always felt they could influence a referee by talking to him during a game, whereas Limerick wouldn't have had the same big names."

There is no doubt that GAA referees are influenced by the 'halo effect'. Of course, the big teams will argue otherwise. Kerry have had some desperately harsh calls made against them in the last two championships. Kilkenny could even argue that Larkin had a perfectly legitimate goal called back last Sunday when the referee blew for a penalty.

From a statistical analysis, Kilkenny could even point to the fact that the opposition have been awarded 176 frees to their 143 frees in their last 12 championship matches.

Kilkenny, though, don't look for frees or expect to get them because that is how they have been programmed to play in training matches. Plus, the advantage rule in hurling suits Kilkenny's style and raw power, both when they have possession and when the opposition have it.

On one hand, it's easy to argue that managers, players and supporters have a perception of fair play and that they won't react to hard calls within those parameters. That is open to interpretation and it's not acceptable to blame raw passion for targeting referees. But referees also need to realise that they can't be influenced by a subconscious star system.

Because that definitely exists in the GAA. Just like it does in almost every other sport.

Irish Independent