Sport Gaelic Football

Saturday 20 January 2018

Minnows deserve level playing field

Westmeath appear to have gotten a very raw deal from referee Martin Higgins of Fermanagh against Kerry last Sunday. You might expect losing manager Pat Flanagan to lambast the officiating and even Bernard Flynn's colourful description of the ref's performance as "outrageous," and "a travesty", could possibly be explained away by the former Meath great's time with Mullingar Shamrocks.

But alarm bells really start to ring when Tommy Carr, a man with no dog in the fight who's well known for his fair mindedness, says about the controversial free which gave Darran O'Sullivan the chance to score a match-changing goal, "You ask me why the free was given. I don't know and I'd say there's 7,000 or 8,000 people don't know. Only the referee knows. But I actually wonder does the referee know . . . The Westmeath players turned, arms out in dismay, and the ball was kicked in quickly and Darran O'Sullivan got the goal. And that was the turning point of the game."

To add insult to injury, the kick was taken from the wrong place by Colm Cooper. And so Westmeath's chance of a historic win went by the wayside.

Meanwhile in the Connacht final, Mayo were awarded a point to put them into the lead late in the game when the shot by wing-back Colm Boyle was clearly wide. They also benefited from a couple of doubtful frees awarded by Meath referee Cormac Reilly at crucial moments in the closing stages. Had Boyle's point not been allowed, Sligo would have been able to try for an equalising point rather than being forced to go for a goal.

What Sunday's debatable decisions had in common with the most notorious example of refereeing injustice in recent years, Martin Sludden's allowing of Joe Sheridan's blatantly illegal winning goal for Meath against Louth in the 2010 Leinster final, is that they benefited the hot favourites at the expense of the outsiders.

When Bernard Flynn observed, in relation to the Kerry v Westmeath game, that "the lesser team gets hammered", he was saying something many GAA supporters have felt for a long time, namely that an inordinate number of borderline decisions go the way of the more fancied teams.

I'm not for an instant suggesting that there's anything underhand or sinister about this. But the more these decisions go against the minnows, the more I think of the explanation suggested by an inter-county player of my acquaintance years ago. "You see," he said, "if the small team wins, then there's a big hullaballoo about it and everyone wants an explanation. And one of the first things they look at is the refereeing. And the referee subconsciously wonders if he might be doing something wrong because the game isn't turning out like it was supposed to. So he unwittingly starts leaning the way of the stronger team."

I've always thought that was a persuasive argument. All the minnows want is a level playing field. But far too often they're not getting that either.

In the words of the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 13 verse 12, "for the one who has, more will be given and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away."

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