Saturday 17 March 2018

Is Flanagan right, do lower-ranked teams get raw deal from referees?

Yes says Martin Breheny, No says Jackie Cahill

Offaly manager Pat Flanagan was unhappy with the number of frees Kildare received during their victory in the qualifiers last weekend
Offaly manager Pat Flanagan was unhappy with the number of frees Kildare received during their victory in the qualifiers last weekend

Martin Breheny and Jackie Cahill

Here's what Offaly football manager Pat Flanagan had to say after the defeat by Kildare last Saturday.

"As soon as they (Kildare) were touched, they got frees; that's what happens when you're the so-called lower team (like Offaly), you don't get the breaks. I've witnessed it before," he said.

Spot on, Pat, would be the view of many other managers from lower-ranked counties. There has long been a perception that it's easier for the higher-profile player to win a free and more difficult for him to pick up a red card.

Now, before referees scream about their integrity being impugned, let's apply the diffusing agent. There is no suggestion that referees are anything less than 100 per cent honest and diligent in their decision-making.

Nonetheless, I still side with the view that in 50-50 situations, the stronger teams and individuals across all sports get the benefit of the doubt.

It has always been recognised that playing at home is an advantage, not just because of familiarity with the ground. The wall of sound from the local crowd obviously influences referees when it comes to close calls.

Why, for instance, is it so difficult for visiting teams to win a penalty at Old Trafford or Anfield? Clearly, referees are influenced by the crowd, surroundings, the history and, quite often, the sheer weight of personality in the home dugout.

Referees are not dishonest but, psychologically, they can be influenced by occasion and personality. Some admitted as much in retirement when commenting on their encounters with Alex Ferguson.

Last Tuesday, American tennis player Coco Vandeweghe accused the Wimbledon umpire of being scared to deal with alleged bad sportsmanship breaches by Maria Sharapova. One-nil to the star name.

On Wednesday, Canadian Vasek Pospisil complained over being penalised for taking too long to serve when playing Andy Murray.

"How many times do you see the top guys go as long as I did without any action?" complained Pospisil. One-nil to the star act.

Back in GAA-land, I contend that reverence towards the big names makes it easier for them to win frees and to avoid sanctions. It's impossible to prove, of course, but then just as many refereeing decisions are marginal, it's equally fair to judge referees similarly.

I have been covering GAA games for 40 years and have long since come to the conclusion that the bigger the name, the more likely he is to get the close calls.

And since the stronger counties have more star names than weaker opponents, it follows that they do better on the overall count too.

No says Jackie Cahill

We were all pretty quick to jump to conclusions last Sunday, weren't we?

We were told that Limerick scored a goal against Westmeath in the All-Ireland hurling qualifier that was, in fact, wide.

Dónal Óg Cusack told us how unacceptable it was that the umpire beside the goal hadn't seen this when he was standing just a couple of feet away.

One discussion board thread described it as 'one of the worst decisions ever.'

Except it wasn't. It was the right call, as footage released later in the week would clarify.

When asked about the issue after the game, Westmeath boss Michael Ryan was slow to apportion any blame. Perhaps he knew something we didn't?

The claim that lower-ranked teams get a raw deal from referees is incorrect.

The problem is application of the rules in the summer, when the big hits go in harder and more often.

Divisions 3 and 4 of the Allianz Football League, for example, are breeding grounds for young, up-and-coming whistlers.

This is where they are blooded and where technical application of the rulebook, no matter how frustrating this might be for onlookers, is paramount.

With assessors watching their every move, a couple of poor games could end the career of an aspiring inter-county referee.

The crux of the matter is when teams playing in lower tiers of the league come up against the traditional heavyweights, and when games are refereed on a more liberal basis.

The fouls they were pulled for in the spring are now fair game in the summer, and frustration grows.

That black card you got in February? Not this time, no siree!

It's championship football, or hurling, and it's survival of the fittest.

The suggestion that referees are biased or unfair in any way casts doubt on their integrity - and that's a serious claim to make without any real proof.

The key to ensuring that lower-ranked teams don't find themselves wondering why certain calls are made in championship games is to bring in championship referees for in-house matches.

Talk to them, engage with them and find out exactly what's allowed and what's not.

Then, and only then, can you have a serious gripe with how a game is handled on a Sunday afternoon, if the information you have previously received is out of sync with reality.

In the 1982 All-Ireland final, Seamus Darby's shove on Tommy Doyle went unpunished and the rest is history. The big boys don't get them all, you know.

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