Thursday 19 July 2018

Comment: You can't keep blaming the referees - managers must look at themselves

Meath manager Andy McEntee (right) is restrained after confronting the referee following the SF qualifier match against Tyrone last week. Photo: Stephen McCarthy. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Meath manager Andy McEntee (right) is restrained after confronting the referee following the SF qualifier match against Tyrone last week. Photo: Stephen McCarthy. Photo: Stephen McCarthy

Eamonn Sweeney

Poor inter-county managers. Poor, poor inter-county managers. They work their fingers to the bone without officially getting a penny in return and when they lose it's never their fault. The referee is always to blame.

In Navan last Saturday, referee Paddy Neilan was apparently responsible for Meath's loss to Tyrone, with home manager Andy McEntee insisting: "These fellas put their lives on hold and then the whole thing gets decided by a couple of very poor decisions. That's the hard bit. Those fellas, they make a mistake, they pay the price out there. They miss a free or they drop the ball, they pay the price. What's the price for what went on out there today?"

It was the same story later that evening in Kilkenny where Davy Fitzgerald declared: "That's not right, I'm wasting my time in this job. There's frees given in one half and they're not given as easy in the other half, that's fact. I love the way Kilkenny play but we might as well waste our time if it's not one hundred per cent across the board."

And when Derry got hammered at home by Kildare on the same day their manager Damian McErlain had no doubt who was to blame. "David Coldrick had a poor game and I can't figure him out at all. He lives far too close to Kildare. He is a Leinster man. He shouldn't have been appointed."

It's scandalous really that all the work a manager has put in with his team can be set at naught by the perfidy of a single sinister figure clad in black. So convinced are Messrs McEntee, Fitzgerald and McErlain that an injustice has been committed against them it seems churlish to suggest they might be wrong.

Neilan certainly should have given Meath a free in the last minute of extra-time when James McEntee was shoved in the back. But his failure to do so doesn't mean Meath were robbed of victory. For starters they'd actually have had to kick the free. They'd had two frees in similar positions near the end of normal time with Ben Brennan scoring one and striking the other off the upright. It was hardly a gimme. Had they pointed it, they wouldn't have won the game. They'd have been forced into another two periods of extra-time where Tyrone, as the slightly stronger team, would have been favourites to prevail.

Meath also felt they should have had a penalty when Cillian O'Sullivan was taken down nine minutes from time. It was a borderline call but did look a penalty on closer inspection. Then again, so did a similar incident at the start of injury time which merely yielded a 14-yard free for Tyrone.

It's quite a stretch to claim the Royals were cheated out of victory last weekend. And their previous championship defeat, by Longford, was accompanied by similar protestations from McEntee who on that occasion said the whole game had turned on an incident where Graham Reilly hadn't been awarded a free.

There's something traditional about Davy Fitzgerald's impassioned lamentations over the standard of refereeing. You can imagine them as a sean-nós song, Caoineadh Dáithí MacGearailt. Yet he had even less excuse than usual when criticising James McGrath last weekend.

Wexford actually got more frees than Kilkenny in the Nowlan Park game and while the Cats scored more from frees than the visitors, 11-7, this discrepancy was hardly great enough to indicate that the fix was in. The tirade is Davy being Davy. Suggesting he should have more sense would not just be futile, but cruel.

In the case of McErlain, the manager of a traditionally strong county with good clubs and underage teams who has just presided over relegation to Division 4, the earliest possible exit from the championship and seven defeats from nine competitive matches should take a long hard look at himself rather than the referee. Instead he opted for a cheap shot at one of the best officials in the game. In reality, you could have put Phil Coulter refereeing that game with Nell McCafferty and Eamonn McCann doing the line and Kildare would still have beaten Derry.

Some people would say that managers who slag off refs like this aren't doing any real harm. But that's not true. The match in Navan ended with the referee being brought off the pitch under Garda escort. Incidents like this sometimes seem to be regarded as an indictment of the official involved when they should actually be a source of deep shame for the GAA.

Too often we see a ref flanked by guards while abuse is heaped on him. It's part of a culture of indiscipline in the GAA which also manifests itself in pitched brawls like the one at the end of the recent Tyrone-Armagh under 20 Ulster Championship match. There are always plenty of excuses at the ready after such incidents but players shouldn't engage in the kind of fights which would land them in court if they happened outside a takeaway rather than on the pitch and referees should be allowed to do their job without fear of physical attack. The guards don't escort them off the pitch for the crack.

This kind of thing is a much bigger problem in Gaelic games than it is in rugby or soccer. Pointing this out can sometimes draw a defensive attitude from GAA people with rugby's higher standard of discipline being decried as a poncy middle-class affectation. Soccer, these people would tell you, is played by mercenaries who lack that passionate pride in the parish which encourages some young men to punch others in the back of the head and middle-aged amadáns to attack referees.

There's something self-pitying about the insistence on a right to indiscipline in the GAA. It's as though players simply can't be expected to observe levels of sportsmanship regarded as unremarkable in similar games. Their worst offences are excused, their most ludicrous complaints treated with respect. They are never to blame for anything on or off the pitch. It's not good for them.

Nobody, on the other hand, cares what the referee thinks. He is an unglamorous figure and by necessity a silent one. Yet he is indispensable. There are far fewer inter-county referees than inter-county players and theirs is the nobler calling. The referee's contribution to the GAA is almost entirely altruistic. He will not land sponsorship deals or score a new car. He will never be chaired off the field or cheered to the echo. Fans will not stop him in the street to tell him how well he did on Sunday. There is little glory in being a referee.

Yet the best of them do their job remarkably well. They are under much greater pressure than any player because they have no allies in the crowd and it is their mistakes which will be scrutinised in the greatest detail afterwards. How exposed they must feel at every moment of the match.

Making things worse is the fact that almost every player on the field, in football especially, is trying to hoodwink the ref. They catch an opponent by the arm and tumble to the ground in the hope of winning a free, they hold a forward by the jersey when the ball is 60 yards away, they obstruct players in the most subtle of manners, they haul them to the ground to prevent them joining in a move, they dive, they feign injury. Goalkeepers signal shots wide which they know have passed between the posts, mentors crowd round linesmen to try and bully them into wrongly awarding sidelines to their side, players protest vehemently against the award of frees which they know were entirely justified.

The referee is like a tourist in some unpleasant foreign city where he is surrounded by con men and has no-one to turn to. Should he show a black or red card to try and instil discipline he will be excoriated for ruining the game or destroying the dreams of a player who has 'put his life on hold'. His task has gotten steadily more difficult because managers and players now think absolutely everything is permitted in the pursuit of victory.

Lee Keegan's throwing of a GPS unit at Dean Rock in last year's All-Ireland football final should have been regarded as a new nadir for cheating in Gaelic games. Instead pundits tripped over each other to praise Keegan for his ingenuity and indomitable competitive spirit. What can refs do in such a rotten climate?

There's a photo taken in Navan last Saturday which shows Cillian O'Sullivan of Meath physically restraining Andy McEntee from approaching Paddy Neilan. The good and bad of the GAA is present in that shot. O'Sullivan was actually the player fouled for the possible penalty and is by far the younger of the men but he is the one acting like a grown-up. Tomás Ó Sé said McEntee has, "madness in his eyes." It's a form of madness pretty familiar to any parent who's had to steer a child away from the sweets at the check-out. This is what refs have to deal with.

The GAA should protect its referees better. It could start by saying that any ground where a referee has to walk off under Garda escort won't be hosting any inter-county matches for the next 12 months. Meanwhile, managers should stop taking the easy way out and blaming the ref. Maybe it's not the ref's fault your team fell short. Maybe it's yours.

Maybe you're just a poor manager.

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