Tuesday 22 October 2019

Eamonn Sweeney: 'The numbers don't lie - there's a cloud of a double standard around how Dublin are refereed'

Dublin will not get a bye to the Leinster semi-final
Dublin will not get a bye to the Leinster semi-final
Are Jim Gavin's men more sinned against that sinning? Photo: Eóin Noonan/Sportsfile
Eamonn Sweeney

Eamonn Sweeney

Matthew got it right in his gospel. "For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath." The more you have, the more you get.

This holds true for not just economic oligarchies but sporting ones too. Take the Dublin footballers. Not only do they have an advantage over their rivals in terms of talent, tactical nous, strength in depth and financial resources, they also seem to be refereed in a more lenient fashion.

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That seems the obvious conclusion to draw from the following statistics. In their Leinster Championship matches against Meath and Kildare, Dublin committed a total of 41 fouls to their opponents' 29. However Dublin received just one yellow card in those two games while the opposition received one black and seven yellow cards.

In last year's Super 8 matches against Donegal, Tyrone and Roscommon and their semi-final meeting with Galway, Dublin committed 46 fouls and received two yellow cards. The opposition committed just two fouls more and were hit with seven yellows.

During the whole 2018 championship Dublin committed 105 fouls and got just nine yellow and two red cards, which is a remarkably low total considering that in this year's Leinster final alone, Meath got six yellows and a black card.

What's also interesting is that Dublin seem to be fouling more this year than they were last year. Last year their average was 13 fouls a game, this year it's 17.

The numbers, obviously, don't show the type of fouls but, in terms of cards shown, they're being shown more leniency than ever by referees. In 2017 their average number of fouls per Championship game was also 17. In six games those fouls earned them a total of 19 yellow cards, an average of slightly more than three per game. But after three games this year, there's been just two yellow cards shown. Should that pattern continue it will mean a decline of almost 80 per cent in average number of yellows shown to the Dubs for the same average number of fouls.

The disparities are striking. It's hard to draw any conclusion other than that Dublin are refereed in a different way, not just to opposing counties but than they themselves were just a couple of years ago. The Dubs might not be getting away with murder, but they're certainly being allowed to foul with relative impunity.

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This doesn't mean that Dublin owe any part of their success to refereeing decisions. Tyrone referee Sean Hurson could have sent off four of their players last week and they'd still have won. There was no decision in last year's championship which swung things Dublin's way.

But there were moments when referees eagerly gave Dublin players the benefit of the doubt, most notably in the Leinster semi-final against Longford when Jonny Cooper, already on a yellow card, escaped further sanction from referee Maurice Deegan after catching Dessie Reynolds in the face.

Last Sunday, Brian Fenton went unpunished after taking out Ronan Ryan as he was about to shoot for goal. It looked like a black but Hurson didn't even think it warranted a yellow. Given the alacrity with which Meath players were being carded, a double standard seemed once more to be in operation.

That these decisions didn't affect the outcome of the game is irrelevant. Referees are supposed to apply the rules irrespective of the scoreline. We're all familiar with the underage referee who gives a few decisions to the losing team to make a game of it. In Dublin games, referees seem to go the other way.

You can play Gavin's Advocate and argue that Dublin commit very few offences which give the referee no option but to go for his pocket.

It's hard to imagine a Dublin player putting in the kind of reckless challenge perpetrated by Paul Geaney which saw Kerry reduced to 14 men at a vital time in their game against Cork.

Dublin's disciplined approach under Gavin is also in stark contrast to that of Mayo under Stephen Rochford. In both the 2017 and 2018 championship games against Galway, Mayo players received deserved red cards for foolish offences which cost them victory and forced them into the qualifiers.

Worse still, when a Dublin player was finally about to receive the ultimate sanction in the 2017 All-Ireland final, something which would have turned the game Mayo's way, Donal Vaughan jumped in to ensure he'd be walking off along with John Small.

When Mayo had two players sent off in last year's league match against Galway, they seemed to regard it as just one of those things. Dublin don't make the same mistake which is perhaps why Gavin believed the size of Diarmuid Connolly's talent mattered less than the irregularity of his temperament.

You can also point out that Dublin are usually putting the opposition defence under great pressure rather than vice versa and that this can have a bearing on the type of fouls committed. Even still, it's undeniable that Dublin are getting an easy ride from referees.

Why does it happen? Well, for one thing it's been statistically proven that home teams in any sport are treated more favourably and as Dublin are almost always at home they're bound to benefit from this. But there's also the fact that really dominant teams to a certain extent create the standard by which referees judge them.

It was a common complaint during the reign of the great Kilkenny team that their defenders got away with more than anyone else. Even when that wasn't the case, referees in charge of big Kilkenny games tended to permit a general level of physicality which suited the champions.

This isn't merely a GAA thing. The All Blacks have long been renowned for their ability to not just bend the rules, but escape without punishment for breaking them. It's a chicken-and-egg situation. Were the All Blacks the best in the world because Richie McCaw et al were allowed greater latitude at the breakdown than anyone else? Or were McCaw and his cohorts given that greater latitude precisely because they were the best in the world?

I'd opt for the former and it's undeniable that much criticism of Kilkenny, the All Blacks and Dublin emits a strong whiff of sour grapes. All the same, the big guns can exert a subtle pressure referees are unable to resist.

Consider that Fenton foul against Meath. If the midfielder did get a black card, a big deal would be made out of it. The post-match furore would include Jim Gavin being forced to answer questions around both rule and referee, pro-Dublin pundits enumerating the player's many virtues and a general presumption that a player as eminent as Fenton deserved a certain immunity.

Referees do not want to fall out with the biggest teams in any sport because these teams are likely to feature in the biggest games. A referee blacklisted by a game's giants won't take charge of many finals.

There's also a variant on the Emperor's New Clothes at play. As one fine player from one of the smaller counties once told me, "Refs favour the favourites because when there's an upset one of the first things people look at is the refereeing and they don't like to be the centre of attention."

Success validates everything, including the more dubious tactics of the successful team. Dublin were on the receiving end of this a decade and a half ago when underhand tactics by Tyrone and Armagh were excused as a new and sophisticated form of defending. No one wanted to be the rube who wasn't hip to this new style.

The transgressions of powerful teams are a kind of white-collar crime, treated more kindly by the authorities because of the superior position enjoyed by their perpetrators. This partiality is everywhere in sport.

In America, the bias shown towards the New England Patriots and the Duke University basketball team is proverbial. At the Women's World Cup, Spain would never have been awarded the penalty which tournament favourites USA were awarded against them.

Skewed officiating makes no difference in Leinster and probably won't make any in this year's All-Ireland series either. Like having two home games in the Super 8 to everyone else's one, it's something that the Dubs don't really need. But it's also something they shouldn't have.

As the great Athenian historian Thucydides observed, "The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must." It's been ever thus.

Back in the 19th century the legendary cricketer WG Grace refused to be given out and claimed the wind had blown the bails off the wicket. "Play on," said Grace, "they've come here to see me bat, not you umpire." I can imagine a Dublin player saying something like that to a referee. More importantly, so can the referee.

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