Sunday 20 January 2019

Comment: We can't keep accepting these shocking scenes as the norm in the GAA

Referee Paddy Neilan is escorted from the field following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Round 1 match between Meath and Tyrone at Páirc Táilteann in Navan, Co Meath. Photo: Sportsfile
Referee Paddy Neilan is escorted from the field following the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Round 1 match between Meath and Tyrone at Páirc Táilteann in Navan, Co Meath. Photo: Sportsfile

Dick Clerkin

After yet another sun-kissed weekend, jam-packed with action, it is a sad state of affairs that I find myself compelled to discuss the uglier aspects of our games.

I'm sure most of you by now, via social media, have seen the shocking footage from Friday night's Ulster U-20 semi-final between Armagh and Tyrone at the Athletic Grounds.

As those clips circulated among the country's smartphones on Saturday, flared tempers at the end of the Meath v Tyrone thriller saw referee Paddy Neilan leave the field under Garda escort, as the Royals' management, players and supporters strained to vent their anger.

I got chatting to the referee of Friday night's match, Niall McKenna, in Navan on Saturday evening.

As fourth official for the Meath-Tyrone game, unfortunately Niall found himself in the middle of the weekend's other flashpoint.

Niall was at a loss to understand how Friday's game, otherwise played in an exemplary manner, descended into such needless chaos.

If that was indeed the case, it makes the inexcusable behaviour by all concerned all the more regrettable.

I was on sideline duty for Sky Sports in Navan, and the Garda presence had gathered in the tunnel beside us well in advance of the final whistle, with the result still very much in doubt.

With the stakes high, and tensions even higher, contentious decisions on both sides meant that ugly scenes at the final whistle were a distinct possibility.

The Gardaí were ready, and thinking back, strangely I didn't see anything wrong with their imminent presence.

Referee escorts have become so normalised, we don't see them any more as the blight they have become in our games.

Meath boss Andy McEntee understandably cut a distraught figure at the end of the game, after his team narrowly missed out on a memorable victory.

However, our first reaction was to feel sorry for him, rather than hold him to account for his disgraceful behaviour towards Paddy Neilan.

Yes, Meath certainly could have had a free at the very end, and possibly a penalty, but Tyrone will equally feel they had a fair share of calls go against them.

We see similar stuff from so many other management teams so often.

In the same way as the final whistle scenes in Navan were nothing new, the clips we watched from the Athletic Grounds were depressingly familiar.

Far from being shocked, the most common reaction is to downplay the events; few clubs or counties have any halos to shine when it comes to looking at their own past.

And therein lies the problem. We have accepted the behaviour in Navan and of those young players in the Athletic Grounds almost as the norm.

Worse still, we provide the excuses well in excess of any acknowledgement that a drastic change in our culture is needed.

There was something very chilling watching a clip of young players brawling to the soundtrack of piercing shrieks from on-looking sisters, mothers and girlfriends - all powerless to stop the situation unfolding in front of their eyes, and terrified of its possible outcome.

With young lads stronger than they have ever been before, they may not be aware of what sort of damage they are capable of inflicting in such riotous circumstances.

Friday's scenes were something you would be appalled to see on the streets on a Saturday night, and could easily have the perpetrators up in front of a judge the following week.

Amid the screams, deeper male tones reverberated through the stands, their incendiary intentions inflaming the tensions.

As the fighting finally subsides, you clearly hear a proud 'Up Tyrone'. As if there was anything to be proud of in what he had just witnessed.

In recent years, much has been done in society to address cultural wrongs of the past. If the GAA is to be seen to be a leading figure in this society, the time has come to stamp out the abhorrent behaviours associated with our games.

Quips on social media must be replaced with demand for action. For too long has a carrot being waved, when the only thing that will work is a stick. Not until the punishment befits the crime will the scenes witnessed at the weekend become a thing of the past.

Irish Independent

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