Sunday 21 January 2018

The goad, the bad, the ugly

Here's a modest proposal for the GAA. Stop Gardaí escorting referees off the pitch. It's just not right.

Whose heart didn't go out to the passionate fans and officials of Portlaoise as they tried to get hold of Sligo referee Michael Duffy during half-time and after their defeat by Kilmurry-Ibrickane in last week's All-Ireland club semi-final in Limerick? These ordinary decent GAA people understandably wanted to vent their frustration with the referee by pushing, jostling and perhaps even punching and kicking him around the Gaelic Grounds. Yet they were denied the opportunity to do so by interfering members of the police force.

Don't these meddling coppers have enough to do? They should be out there giving false information about the sex trade to Willie O'Dea, fielding requests from the king of the organic yoghurt eaters in Dublin North and destroying the rural pub trade. Proper police work.

Instead they spend their time thwarting the legitimate desire of GAA members to wreak revenge on referees. Now it's time to shout stop.

No doubt a few whiny liberal types would object that the removal of a Garda escort might place the referee in physical danger. What nonsense. Everyone knows that fans of Gaelic football and hurling are never violent, that's something which only happens in soccer. And even if, by some miracle, a few referees were beaten up and put in fear of their lives, what's wrong with that?

This might not be the politically correct thing to say but a few hospitalised referees might actually be good for the GAA. The people who terrorise officials as they make their way off the pitch are not thugs after all. They're simply passionate about the games they love. All they want is for referees to never make a mistake or award a key decision against their team. Is that too much to ask for? Should referees be allowed to get away with anything less than perfection?

Of course not. If referees were told before a game that there would be no possibility of the Gardaí protecting them, surely that would only improve their performance and make them concentrate all the harder on pleasing the spectators. The number of controversial decisions would fall and fans all over the country would feel gratitude towards the kind of brave men, like the one we saw being wrestled away by the Gardai in Limerick last Sunday, who adopt a hands-on approach to the problem of inconsistent refereeing. What a wonderful world it would be.

The knockers who always disagree with innovative thinking may argue that my proposal would result in a drop in referee numbers. Well, who needs the kind of wimp who baulks at a bit of rough treatment anyway? Refs would have nothing to fear as long as they got every decision right and upset nobody in the crowd. How hard can that be?

I'm reminded of Greta Garbo as the titular Russian communist in Billy Wilder's great 1939 film Ninotchka commenting "the last show trials were a great success. We will have fewer but better Russians." If the GAA has the courage to carry out its own set of purges, we will have fewer but better referees.

But won't referees be humiliated by having to walk alone through hostile crowds baying for their blood, I hear the PC brigade moan? Well, is it any more humiliating than the current situation where they are perp-walked off the pitch by Gardaí like defendants in some high-profile murder case, the difference being that there is no tunnel by which the ref may leave in secret to preserve his dignity? Which is only as it should be. Because what is a trifling matter like killing your wife compared with the enormity of a missed free or a hasty sending off?

Perhaps the best argument for taking Garda escorts away from referees, and I'm being serious here, is that it would force the GAA to recognise just how disturbing this serial abuse has become. If there were no Gardaí there, it is undeniable that television would regularly show refs being punched, kicked and headbutted merely because their decisions drew the ire of this week's particular bunch of sore losers. The ugly reality would have to be faced once and for all. As it is, the problem continues to fester.

There have been so many Garda escorts at this stage the tendency is to treat it as just a routine part of the weekend's entertainment. Another Sunday, another escort, ho-hum, let's move on to the next thing. But the implications of those uniformed figures flanking the man in black and tackling his would-be assailants are actually pretty sickening. Because what you have is members of the police forced to take action so that one member of the GAA will not be seriously injured by other members of the GAA.

Garda intervention prevents the full implications of this being taken on board. It is easy to sweep the matter under the carpet and pretend that nothing would have happened anyway, that it was all just merely bluster and braggadocio. But the Gardaí do not make the decision to protect the ref for their own entertainment. And there is little doubt that, in every baying mob, there is someone who would love to inflict injury on the man in black.

The GAA is justifiably proud of the fact that its supporters can stand side by side at games without any of the conflicts which blight cross-channel soccer. But it should be very ashamed of the criminal hooliganism directed at referees which goes on year after year and which Croke Park and county boards seem

to treat with relative insouciance. It's almost as though the referee is the one who should be ashamed for bringing the wrath of the crowd down on him. It's a national sporting disgrace.

By the way, this day last week Michael Duffy was right to send Brian Mulligan off in the first minute for a very dangerous tackle. Would that more referees showed the same courage early on in big games. Portlaoise manager John Mulligan, Brian's daddy, complained afterwards: "It was a joke. If that man has a conscience, he won't sleep for a long time."

In fact, the Portlaoise boss should examine his own conscience. Because while the club will be quick to disown the dimwit who tried to attack the referee, the scenes at half-time when Mulligan harangued and hassled Duffy were just as bad. The manager's belligerent behaviour may well have licensed and provoked the yobbish outburst later on. Unlike Michael Duffy, John Mulligan let himself down badly. It was a sad day for a great club.

And the saddest thing of all is that Portlaoise's temper tantrum took the focus off the superb football played by a Kilmurry side who would have beaten the tar out of the Leinster champions even without an extra man. That's the real joke.

Sunday Independent

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