Dermot Crowe: 'Carlow suspensions underline the need to treat referees with respect at all times'
Around a year ago the GAA community, always partial to a plucky underdog story, rejoiced at Carlow's promotion from Division 4. They secured their passage with a win in the penultimate round over Antrim at Corrigan Park on St Patrick's weekend. What a difference a year has made. The penultimate round this year, also on St Patrick's weekend, also against northern opposition, provided a bitter contrast.
Although it was the final game which condemned them to relegation, a defeat to Laois, the sixth-round tie in Dr Cullen Park against Down probably best summarised a thoroughly exasperating spring. A draw would have secured their safety with a game left to play, and when Diarmuid Walsh popped over a free a half-minute over the official injury-time allocation, Carlow looked set to hail a crucial result. Instead, referee James Bermingham allowed play to continue and Down won a free from which they clinched victory. There was still time for one final Carlow raid but when Sean Murphy tumbled deep into Down territory the referee sounded his final whistle.
What happened next led to three hefty suspensions, including a 20-week ban for manager Turlough O'Brien. Coach Stephen Poacher and veteran player Brendan Murphy each received 12-week bans. "A mess," county secretary Michael Doran admitted last week. Appeals are expected.
O'Brien declined to speak about the outcome, saying he was prevented from doing so, and will be hopeful of a reduction on appeal. As things stand he is suspended until July 24. Carlow are due to meet the winners of Meath and Offaly at the end of May. Some video footage showed figures racing towards Bermingham at the final whistle, and the hostility is believed to have continued down the tunnel towards the dressing rooms when all involved were out of the sight of most people in the ground.
The GAA's Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC) had presented O'Brien with allegations of 'minor physical inference with a referee' and 'threatening conduct towards a referee'. Poacher and Murphy faced similar allegations. All three requested a hearing before the Central Hearings Committee, where the first charge was not proven. All three were found guilty of using threatening conduct and suspended accordingly.
Poacher and Murphy will not be back in time for the opening championship game unless they manage to reduce the suspensions on appeal. If the rule is applied to the letter, none of the parties involved are entitled to take part in organised training or activities while under suspension.
Bermingham, who is from Cork, doled out 14 yellow cards and three reds, two of the dismissals being Down players. "A couple of times towards the end it looked as if there were players falling quite easily and frees were being given and that frustrated both ourselves and the Carlow management," said Down manager Paddy Tally. "It wasn't an overly dirty game, it was played in a good enough spirit and none of the team got involved in anything off the ball. Some of the free-kicks were quite lenient and some of the yellow cards were uncalled for."
O'Brien and his management team declined to be interviewed after the match. The point Carlow desperately needed eluded them when they lost to Laois in the final round. They could have been saved had Sligo held on to draw with Offaly the same day, but after playing the last 20 minutes with 14 men and leading most of the way, Sligo lost in injury-time. By virtue of losing the head-to-head in Tullamore, Carlow went down and Offaly survived.
Bermingham also refereed the match between Offaly and Carlow in Tullamore in which Carlow finished with 12 players. Whether the reaction after the Down game was partly a residual effect of Tullamore is a point of speculation. But managements often speak of controlling the 'controllables'. And they have a responsibility to exercise an acceptable level of self-control on the sideline, however frustrated they feel over how officials perform their duties.
Down had more players booked and more sent off than Carlow in Dr Cullen Park. In Tullamore, Carlow's dismissals included one on a straight red, another on two yellows, and a third sin-binned after being shown a black card.
In March, Bermingham sent former Kerry manager Eamonn Fitzmaurice and Tommy Griffin, acting as manager and selector of Pobalscoil Chorca Dhuibhne, to the stands in the Munster schools final against St Brendan's Killarney.
As a result of a verbal altercation at half-time during the National Hurling League quarter-final between Galway and Wexford in Salthill, on the same day as Carlow played Down, Davy Fitzgerald received a three-month suspension. That has since been reduced to four weeks and won't rule him out of any Wexford championship games. The rule needs work as nobody truly believes a suspended manager or mentor will not be part of training activities. Nor is it likely that a county board would be a reliable ally in ensuring its enforcement.
Referees are being encouraged to take a stronger line in dealing with abuse from the sideline. "We have been harping on about situations that should be reported," says Willie Barrett, chairman of the national referees' development committee. "And we have instructed our referees where there is abuse or threatening behaviour to absolutely ensure that they report it. We probably have more in this National League than we had over the last couple of years, from memory. I think we have to give respect, show respect, and I don't think it looks good abusing our officials. The referees have taken on board what has been said. But there has been an increase, there is no doubt about that. I don't know what it is really down to. Maybe it wasn't reported in the past as much or whether it wasn't happening as much. We are every clear this year. We have told them from the start of the National League that we want any behaviour that is threatening or abusive to be reported."
The GAA still has obvious issues with verbal abuse from sideline mentors at all levels, with Barrett acknowledging the permissive attitudes which prevail around such behaviour. "I think we have to set the standards at national level," he says. "We also did a survey over the last couple of years throughout the four provinces and we asked them why they dropped out and 70 per cent of those who dropped out stated that abuse was the reason they gave up refereeing. We felt it was alarmingly high."
Willie Quinlan, a former Carlow player, has been a witness to many of his county's best and worst days of late in his role as a match analyst for the radio station KCLR. He was in Corrigan Park when they defeated Antrim to clinch a long-awaited promotion from Division 4. He was in Tullamore last May when they defeated Kildare for the first time since 1953 in the championship. And he was in Dr Cullen Park to see those last moments unfold in the match with Down.
"I can see both sides of it," he states. "I wouldn't condone a ref being approached after a game, it is the wrong move, but I can see how passionate the lads are on the field and what it meant to them. Because really they knew their last game was going to be against Laois and so it was looking like it was after slipping away - and it just boiled over."
Carlow trailed for much of the game against Down but got themselves back into contention with a late goal. Quinlan says that there were no obvious issues with the referee for the vast majority of the match that he could see. But when they made it a drawn match he felt the refereeing "seemed to change".
He reckoned the free that led to Down going back in front and winning the match, aside from the time having expired, looked "very soft". Then Carlow made one final bid to rescue a draw. "We were taking it up the field, Sean Murphy had it, the final whistle blew and then it just erupted after that."
Poacher and O'Brien followed the referee on to the pitch, and Brendan Murphy also approached him. Nobody knows what was said exactly. "It must have been a fairly strong (referee's) report," says Willie Barrett, "because the suspensions were pretty strong."
Barrett started refereeing in 1977 and oversaw his last match only last year. Several years ago he was violently attacked while refereeing a club game in his native Tipperary. "We have a culture of criticising GAA referees," he says. "I would like to think we can change that culture. We need to highlight it at national level and that makes it easier for the club referee. It is coming from the top."
In November 2017, Central Council made it an offence to publicly criticise a referee in post-match interviews and vowed to impose suspensions. What course should a frustrated mentor take, if he is genuinely perplexed by a decision? "A manager could seek a clarification from the referee, and they have been given it and there's been no abuse," says Barrett. "And that's grand. We have no problem with that. If a manager or a mentor or whatever comes over shouting at him or abusing him, that's not what we are about."
Quinlan spent two years refereeing so, unlike most commentators, he has seen it from both sides. "You actually see things differently on the field than you do when in the stand," he says. "When you are part of a team sure you want every call. It is a tough job, it is not an easy job, refereeing. And the way things are gone now, they (players) are so fit, the ball is moving so fast. I suppose they need help more than anything else."
Quinlan recalls another decision in the Westmeath match (which ended in a draw) when Sean Murphy was "clearly dragged to the ground" with 30 seconds to go - a free would have meant an almost certain point. "And that would have meant that Carlow would have beaten Westmeath and Carlow would have stayed in Division 3. Little things over the whole campaign."
And the sideline personalities are - in the euphemism often employed - passionate. Poacher is not a quiet presence on the line and O'Brien "wouldn't be one that would stand back," is Quinlan's summation.
Management, like everything else, is a learning curve and often a hard one. But maintaining a sideline composure, it hardly needs said, is a necessary part of the package. Carlow must deal with this self-inflicted crisis and learn and move on.
They hadn't much luck either, and suffered a telling loss when Paul Broderick got injured during the course of the league. They can't control that; they can't control a refereeing decision; they can control how they behave on the sideline.
"It took so long to get out of Division 4 and when it happened it was just incredible, especially for the group of players," says Quinlan. "And then this year for the way they went down really . . . they had chances against Laois as well, and didn't take them, got off to a great start and scored a goal and a point and then conceded a sloppy goal. But Laois seemed to be three to four points a better team, which they proved last year. But the Westmeath game was one of the games they should have won.
"Longford and Laois were two games where the two teams looked better than Carlow. Other than that there was never a kick of a ball between any of them. I suppose that is sport in general. You are up one minute and then you are down."
Never a truer word.
Sunday Indo Sport