Colm O'Rourke: If only common decency was a bit more common
Whoever conned us all about global warming must be having a right laugh this winter. Not a daffodil in sight, no birds singing in the morning: it is groundhog day, with the same weather pattern repeating itself week in week out.
It is not all bad for football with mostly dry conditions, even if it is decidedly chilly. But fields are bare, the grass is white and when it starts to rain again pitches will be in rag order. Even the crows are in a bit of a spin. The great nest-builders are on a go-slow and can see no hint of spring. Only the wheels of the GAA seem to be turning as normal with the usual suspects getting their pasting.
It didn't take long for referees to take centre stage. Last week I was a witness for the defence as I felt they had enough to contend with without being put in a position of having to review their own decisions for the CCCC. Looking at a recording in the cold light of day is entirely different to making a decision in real time, when the mood of the game and the spirit it is being played in can have a bearing on whether to clamp down or adopt more of a laissez-faire approach.
A good referee knows the temperature of a match and reacts accordingly. There is no provision for that in the rules, yet a game refereed to the letter of the law would be a mess. How else could you control a series of running skirmishes, some completely off the ball, where it is often impossible to distinguish whether the man in possession or the group of tacklers deserve the free?
On top of that, they must now administer different sets of rules in different competitions, often in the same week. A league match or one of the subsidiary provincial competitions are run under the new rules, while a Sigerson Cup or club game remains under the old rules. Human error, which causes problems in all sports, is made more likely in this scenario.
Thus referees who have made mistakes in the last week are completely forgivable. The same one caught out two of them -- blowing the half- or full-time whistle only when the ball goes out of play. In the Longford-Limerick league match and the DCU-Louth O'Byrne Cup final, the referees blew prematurely.
These sort of mistakes are inevitable for now and it is hardly feasible to replay every game. So there will have to be some hard swallows until Congress comes around and rules are the same again for all competitions.
By Monday, another referee had taken over the front page. It was back to the bad old days of a referee having to be escorted off the pitch. This was a record though as he had to get a helping hand at half-time as well. By sending off two players from Portlaoise, Michael Duffy had incurred the wrath of their supporters.
Yet nowhere did I hear or read anyone who could say that the referee's decisions in both instances were wrong. Perhaps in the case of Brian McDonald it was a bit harsh, but that was all. Certainly nobody could say it was an outrageous injustice. The plain fact of the matter was that Kilmurry-Ibrickane were the better team and their great win should not have been overshadowed in any way by what happened at half-time and after the game.
Having watched Portlaoise earlier in the Leinster championship, I thought they were certainties to win this game. Indeed, I felt they would win it outright. It can be hard to accept when a smooth passage to the biggest club event turns into an ugly defeat.
We have all experienced these days and the reason why the wheels fall off is usually much closer to home than the referee. Yet many so-called pillars of society still feel the need to abuse referees as if a foul-mouthed tirade is acceptable once it is related to a football match.
There is a big difference between disputing what might be perceived as a bad call by a referee and what happens very regularly all around the country. This is the biggest challenge of the year for the GAA, the notion that respect for officials is to be taken seriously. In the past, the GAA at all levels has been at best lukewarm in meeting this challenge, but it is an issue that can't be dodged forever. Usually it is at the lower levels of the organisation that most of the big problems emerge, refereeing at the big games in Croke Park in summer is usually up to a high standard. Yet the real test of discipline in a club, by officers, players and supporters is a bad referee in a local match. That brings out the worst in normally placid citizens, especially if they have one of their own playing.
There is no easy answer to the idea that any unit of the GAA has control over their supporters. Certainly no club should have to be responsible for people who may support them, but are not members of the club. They are beyond the reach of the GAA. The best any club can do is to have a policy on respect for all members of the GAA, including referees. It may not sound like a lot, yet all great journeys start with the smallest step.
Just in case you might feel that I've gone a bit soft, I still maintain that referees should be subject to the same scrutiny as players, but clear demarcation lines must prevail between criticism of performance and abuse. As for this year, there is one very simple thing I would like all referees to do. Could they all signal quickly and clearly what way a free is going. Either be decisively right or decisively wrong. Instead of that we have referees running up to the ball while trying to make their mind up. With all the meetings of officials and all the assessment and analysing they undergo from within their own ranks, that should be an easy one to get right.