Tuesday 17 September 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'Referees are also entitled to fair play'

‘The general consensus is that James Owens made the right call in dismissing Richie Hogan for a reckless, dangerous and needless challenge on Cathal Barrett.’ Photo: Ray McManus
‘The general consensus is that James Owens made the right call in dismissing Richie Hogan for a reckless, dangerous and needless challenge on Cathal Barrett.’ Photo: Ray McManus
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Who'd be a GAA referee? Two incidents in the past week have shown how traducing officials is an abiding tradition of our games.

First up was the cheap and sneaky attack on the integrity of David Gough by Eamon Fitzmaurice, subsequently taken up by Aidan O'Mahony and a horde of clowns on social media. The subsequent shoulder shrugging, 'What did I say? I never said nothing so I didn't,' pretence that these were merely routine comments exaggerated by the media won't wash.

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Fitzmaurice's claim that Gough gave eight wrong decisions against Kerry in their 2016 semi-final meeting with Dublin and declaration that, "It can't be fair if you are living and working in a place that you get to referee an All-Ireland final involving that county. If Kerry get a couple of calls in the final he is going to have a miserable winter listening to the Dubs telling them he denied them five in a row," is a bit more than a casual observation.

There have been attempts at justifying this Kerry cant by portraying it as a masterly piece of psychological warfare designed to put pressure on Gough when he takes charge of the final. But Fitzmaurice made his comments before Gough was appointed. This was an attempt to prevent the official being awarded the final in the first place. It seems like a petty act of spite.

Once Fitzmaurice set the ball rolling it was eagerly seized upon by his fellow county men. A photo was produced of Gough next to the Sam Maguire when it visited St Jude's, the local club in the Templeogue area of Dublin where he worked as a teacher at the time. Look at him! He's smiling! Do you see? Don't you get it? A sinister construction was also put on the fact that Gough did a few coaching sessions with kids in the area.

The sleeveenism was strong with these ones. I suppose most of them thought that they were contributing to Kerry's chances in the All-Ireland final. By imputing bias to Gough, the reasoning goes, he'd become so keen to defend himself he might take Kerry's side. This is every bit as insulting as the charge of partiality.

‘Séamus Callanan illustrates the vision, imagination and creativity which no-one possesses to the same extent as Tipperary’. Photo: Sportsfile
‘Séamus Callanan illustrates the vision, imagination and creativity which no-one possesses to the same extent as Tipperary’. Photo: Sportsfile

David Gough will referee the final to the best of his ability and give fair play to both teams. That is what he has always done and that is why he is the best referee in the GAA at the moment and why he was the obvious choice for the final.

The attempts to deny him the appointment and to put pressure on him once it was made are a stain on the characters of those involved. They shouldn't be excused by folksy crap of the 'Yerra, those cute Kerry hoors with their charming oul banter' variety. They knew exactly what they were doing.

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This isn't the first time this kind of thing has happened. Before the 2012 All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Mayo, James Horan went on about Joe McQuillan being "familiar" with Dublin and claimed that the Cavan referee had regularly taken charge of their practice games.

It became an article of faith among Mayo fans that McQuillan was biased in favour of the Dubs. Yet after the 2013 final when the official awarded Mayo 32 frees to Dublin's 12, Jim Gavin described him as being like a 16th man for the Connacht champions. Referees can't win.

Before this year's hurling semi-final between Wexford and Tipperary, RTE pundit Ursula Jacob foolishly declared that Seán Cleere shouldn't have been appointed because his home county of Kilkenny were due to meet the winners. What the Wexford camogie great's intervention actually proved is that broadcasters should probably excuse analysts from commenting on games involving their own county.

Managers have also objected to referees being appointed because they've disagreed with their decisions in the past. The underlying message is that referees can't be trusted and are fair game for any kind of nonsensical criticism.

Witness the furore surrounding James Owens' decision to send Richie Hogan off in the hurling final. The general consensus is that Owens made the right call in dismissing Hogan for a reckless, dangerous and needless challenge on Cathal Barrett.

Those watching through black and amber goggles disagreed. Liam Fennelly accused Owens of ruining the All-Ireland final while Jackie Tyrrell claimed he'd been fooled by playacting from Barrett.

But the oddest argument of all was that while a red card was the right decision Owens still shouldn't have made the call. The fact of the game being an All-Ireland final should apparently have conferred some kind of immunity on Hogan. Referees must despair when they hear this kind of nonsense.

There's sympathy for Hogan because we feel sorry for a player who's paid such a big price for one small mistake. But most of us never extend the same kind of understanding towards a referee who gets a split-second decision wrong.

Being human, all referees make mistakes. The remarkable thing is how few the top performers make. I'm always amazed at how a decision which looks wrong when seen in real time is subsequently revealed to have been right by the action replay. Without the benefit of slow motion or action replay, the likes of Gough and Owens do better than we have a right to expect.

When a referee does stumble, it's open season on them. Managers in particular love to underline how all the blood, sweat and tears of their players have been set at nought by the misdeeds of the wretch in black. The media, by and large, is only too willing to amplify and sympathise with such complaints.

Yet the same managers and media never apply the same standard to players. The former will never accuse the corner-back who lost his man or the free-taker who lost his bottle of betraying the hard work of their team-mates. No journalist would ever dream of asking, "Do you feel that the team have been let down because your 'keeper kept getting his kick-outs wrong?" Or, "Would this have been a different game if you hadn't selected an inept full-forward line?"

We are attentive to the feelings of players, mindful of the pain of managers. But the referee is outside the loop. Neither fan nor pundit wants to be his pal. There is little reflected glory to be garnered by association with him. He cuts a lonely figure out there in the middle.

When Eamon Fitzmaurice resigned as Kerry boss he complained about the hate mail he'd received during his tenure. This revelation elicited much sympathy. But by attacking David Gough as he did, Fitzmaurice has effectively drawn a target on the man's back. What does he think the likely result of that will be if Kerry lose the final? Does he think it doesn't matter because the man is only a referee?

There are times when you can't avoid criticising referees. Seán Cleere's performance in the All-Ireland semi-final could hardly escape adverse comment. Yet it had nothing to do with Kilkenny being up next for the winners. Cleere just had, as all of us have had at work over the years, one of those days when you do your best but nothing goes right.

A lot of the most pointed criticism of referees has been utterly unfair. Mayo railed against a supposed conspiracy by former Dublin players which had pressured Maurice Deegan into black carding Lee Keegan in the 2016 final replay. In reality it was the clearest black card offence possible.

The previous year the Cork County Board lashed into Padraig Hughes for awarding a penalty to Kerry in the Munster final which they claimed ruined the Rebels' championship hopes. But Cork still led that game going into injury-time before conceding a late equaliser. They then lost a replay to Kerry and a qualifier to Kildare with Mr Hughes nowhere to be seen on either occasion.

Such criticisms are essentially childish. Sometimes I think that the resentment of referees which mars Gaelic games stems from his status as the only grown-up around. The players and managers and supporters are too caught up with their own partisan concerns to take an adult view of what's going on.

But the referee doesn't have the luxury of joining in the collective fantasy. He must eschew emotional involvement and try to do the job properly no matter whose feelings are hurt or dreams dashed. The best he can hope for is that when the final whistle blows he's a forgotten figure rather than a scapegoat. He'll be nobody's choice as hero of the hour.

The referee deserves the same fair play from us that we insist they provide for our teams. Yet the treatment of David Gough and James Owens over the last week suggests that's too much to ask for.

We have to start doing better by referees. All of us.

Brilliance of Bubbles reminds us why a hurler's individual genius will always trump the system

John O'Dwyer's goal for Tipperary in the All-Ireland hurling final wasn't just the score which ended the game as a contest. It was also the one that epitomised the qualities which make Tipp such welcome champions.

There was the involvement of Séamus Callanan, this year's outstanding player, for one thing. The way Callanan picked out O'Dwyer in front of goal illustrated that vision, imagination and creativity which no-one possesses to the same extent as Tipperary.

O'Dwyer's finish seems an even more telling elucidation of the Premier spirit. Something about the way he flicked the ball up and volleyed it seems to exude what the Italians call sprezzatura, an apparent nonchalance which makes elegance look easy.

Bubbles may have the most appropriate nickname in the GAA. He is a Champagne hurler with an effervescence about him which makes hurling look both simple and joyous.

At a time of hoo-hah about sweeper systems, playing through the lines and such like, Tipperary's strategy was refreshingly uncomplicated. Their main weapon was the ability of their best forwards to find space and that of Noel McGrath, Pádraic Maher et al to pick them out. The finish which followed tended to be instantaneous and deadly.

Tipperary's 3-25 final total has been exceeded only four times in the last 100 years, once by themselves against Kilkenny three years ago. All year they seemed more concerned with playing to their own strengths than worrying about the opposition's. There was a refreshing romanticism about Liam Sheedy's approach and it paid off.

This Tipp team exemplify not just what is best about hurling but what is unique about it. All that sweeper system stuff is to a certain extent an effort at taking hurling down a peg, making it more like Gaelic football and other relatively conventional games.

But hurling does not really resemble such games and it's precisely this anomalous status which accounts for its grip on the Irish imagination. The game's skills are not really transferable to other sports in the way that those of football, soccer or rugby are. They belong to a universe of their own.

One of the most appealing parts of the game is that no really effective system has been created to definitively curb the role of individual genius. We have a feeling that in the end the better hurler will prevail in any duel.

Seán Ó Riada famously said that individual expression was the essence of Irish traditional music. I think you can say the same thing about this Irish traditional sport. It is the off-the-cuff element, the improvisatory impulse and the insistence on self-expression which makes people fall in love with hurling and provides the moments they remember with the greatest affection.

Tipperary's victory was built around such moments. You felt that the major achievement of Liam Sheedy was in giving the likes of Callanan, O'Dwyer and the McGrath brothers the confidence to ascend once more the heights they had scaled in 2015 and 2016.

The run-up to the game featured much macho chat of the 'these boys are going to war' variety. I don't know John O'Dwyer but I suspect that when he takes the field he probably isn't thinking, 'Today I go into combat on the proving ground where a man's manliness must be tested in the moment of truth and the arena of his soul.'

It's probably more like, 'I'd love to do something spectacular today that people won't forget in a hurry.' His team-mates also seem motivated by the desire to display their skills rather than by proving they could wrestle lions to death if asked to by Ernest Hemingway.

The way Tipperary give their talented players freedom also constitutes a rebuke to the idea of sport as a place where people must entirely sacrifice their individuality to benefit the collective. You can see the appeal in this day and age of the idea that a player is just one more guy who must knuckle down to a boring job for the good of the corporation. But it's a dispiriting vision.

Tipperary, and hurling, are better than that. Much, much better.

Head injuries are no cheering matter

You'd have to be slightly taken aback at the unbridled nature of English celebration when Jofra Archer hit Steve Smith on the neck with a bouncer last week. Smith's collapse to the ground was worryingly reminiscent of Philip Hughes, who died five years ago after being hit in pretty much the same area.

Nevertheless, English cricket fans and pundits couldn't contain their delight that the world's best batsman had been forced out of the game and their joy increased when Smith was forced to miss this week's third Ashes second test through concussion.

You were left with the impression that English attitudes haven't changed very much since the infamous Bodyline series of 1932-'33 when bowler Harold Larwood targeted the Australian batsmen as frequently as the wicket, leading to a diplomatic crisis back then and a very good TV series in the '80s.

Sans Smith, Australia tumbled to 179 all out last Thursday in the first innings of the third Test with Archer taking six wickets. But the following day England were all out for 67, their worst score against Australia in 71 years. They couldn't have luck.

* * * * *

Aidan O'Brien scored one of his most satisfying victories of the season at York on Wednesday when Japan won a thrilling Juddmonte International by a head from Crystal Ocean. Apart from the importance of the race itself, the victory was significant for a couple of reasons.

It installs Japan as chief challenger to John Gosden's Enable, who'll be seeking a history-making third Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in October and easily won the Yorkshire Oaks the following day.

The other is that in a year notably short on outstanding three-year-olds, Japan has launched a late claim to be considered the best of the crop. Third in the Derby, he's since improved to win the King Edward VII Stakes at Ascot and the Grand Prix de Paris at Longchamp before landing the Juddmonte, which old timers may always think of as the Benson and Hedges Gold Cup.

* * * * *

The Irish dressage team's qualification for next year's Olympics is an unexpected bonus. The terpsichorean discipline has long been our weak spot in equestrianism and this was the first time we even had a shot at qualifying.

With one rider left to go in the European Championships at Rotterdam on Tuesday, Ireland were one place outside the qualification places. Fortunately that rider was Judy Reynolds whose Irish record sent the team through.

The Kildare rider has been Ireland's standard bearer for over a decade and two days later broke her own record when finishing fifth in the individual event. Her team-mates in Holland were Kate Dwyer, Anna Merveldt and Heike Holstein, who has competed for Ireland at three Olympics, but only returned to international competition 14 months ago after a break of 13 years.

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