Sunday 22 April 2018

Time for 'men in white coats' to be re-assessed by tv eye

Match referee Pat McEnaney consults his umpire after Benny Coulter's goal last Sunday
Match referee Pat McEnaney consults his umpire after Benny Coulter's goal last Sunday

keith barr

ON the way into the All-Ireland semi-final between Dublin and Cork, I met a man named Chris McGinty from Achill Island heading into Croke Park to watch the Mayo minors. While we were chatting, I was struck by the incredible draw people have to Croke Park and to championship matches and their sense of pride in their county.

They come in their droves. 82,000 for the Dubs game; 62,000 for Kildare's clash with Down; another 82,000 due for the hurling on Sunday. The popularity of the inter-county game is truly staggering -- nearly a quarter of a million supporters in a fortnight.

Recession might be biting everywhere, but the GAA's gate receipts keep on rolling in.

And this incredible attraction is driving players and managers to strive even harder for success. The fitness levels and commitment of the four teams involved at the penultimate stage of the football this year was unbelievable.

Down's achievement in working their way from Division 3 of the league last year to an All-Ireland final is the story of 2010 so far.

Kildare are also a team transformed beyond recognition and their supporters and county board must show proper understanding and respect for what Kieran McGeeney has achieved.

The supporters of Down and Kildare have travelled all around the country through their qualifier campaigns.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that we witnessed the two best football semi-finals in a long, long time, the players, the managers and the supporters have been let down yet again by a failed system, one which was proved to be broken beyond repair after the Leinster final.

The use of umpires as they stand is no longer acceptable, not without the support of video and electronic equipment. This is not something that the GAA can now jump through hoops about. This argument is over.

If it requires resources, then I'm sure the millions of fans paying hard-earned cash to travel to games will be happy if they know that the margin for catastrophic error will be reduced.

And this cannot be left up to vested interests to turn down at Congress. That is not acceptable either -- the stakes are too high.

Referees making mistakes in open play is a different matter; we have to accept human error, much as it pains us at times. But not score-keeping. Find a simple system where a limited number of appeals can be made by managers or the referee with the use of video evidence and laser technology.

Meanwhile, the argument about the impact of Benny Coulter's square-ball goal in deciding the outcome of last Sunday's epic has raged all week, with Ulster folk playing it down and cancelling it out against Eamonn Callaghan's over-carrying for the Kildare goal.

You can't beat a good controversy when an Ulster team is involved because the siege mentality kicks in straight away and all of a sudden, all opposing views are lumped into one 'southern bias'.

Ulster is the only remaining province -- perhaps Connacht to a certain extent -- that really looks on itself as a separate entity. I mean, you wouldn't be expecting too many Kerrymen to be shouting for Cork on final day.

Personally, I believe Coulter's square-ball had a fundamental impact on the direction of the game, giving Down -- a side that thrives on confidence -- the belief to take the game to Kildare. Before the goal, the excellent Kevin McKernan was manfully keeping Down in touch, but they still looked all over the shop. Alan Smith's 'point' had also been ruled wide meaning Kildare, ultimately, got hammered at both ends in the first half.

After that lucky break in the 12th minute, Down exploded to life with Martin Clarke pulling the strings. They dominated midfield, particularly the breaking ball, which was swept up by Mark Poland and Daniel Hughes.

Down's football talent blossomed and they truly announced their arrival on the top stage over the next 40 minutes. They looked really comfortable on the ball and Kalum King and Peter Fitzpatrick gave them a crucial platform in the middle.

Kildare, missing Dermot Earley and then Daryl Flynn, lost their footing in the game and their approach was disjointed, with misplaced passes and fumbled balls. Crucially, they lacked composure with their finishing, which cost them dearly.

But the story of this great contest wasn't just Down's magnificent rise under James McCartan; it was also Kildare's brave refusal to throw in the towel.

If ever we wanted to know how difficult a referee's job can be, then Callaghan's goal for Kildare proved it. Listening to the analysis afterwards, pundits were completely divided. Some felt it should have been a free out for over-carrying, others a penalty, while the remainder believed the ref gave Callaghan the advantage after the foul.

However, even though Kildare's battle to the line was heroic -- and I believe they deserved at least a draw -- their approach was still flawed. Padraig O'Neill and Robert Kelly both missed point chances in the dying minutes, while opportunities to put Down on the rack early in the game were also missed.

Down played the sweeter football, no question. They got the rub of the green, not through cynicism or malice, just by the fault of the umpires. And while Coulter and Hughes stood out in a wonderful performance, I was completely taken with Clarke's passing, range of vision and stamina. We are blessed that a footballer like him chose to return from Oz because he's a joy to watch.

Clarke also takes us neatly to the final because if Cork give him the freedom he enjoyed last Sunday, they will pay a heavy price. Faced with this prospect and given the impact he made coming on against Dublin, I would imagine that Conor Counihan will opt to hand Eoin Cadogan a man-marking role on Clarke.

It will be very interesting to see what approach Cork take in this contest. Against Dublin they played into their opponents' hands by running with the ball and it took an old-fashioned hoof into the square to turn the game. Having said that, Cork finished as they started, by running at the Dublin defence, and there's no doubt it's their favoured approach.


There are big decisions for Counihan to make because McCartan's magic touch will ensure Down head into the final believing that they will follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, who never lost a decider.

I believe this stuff, properly exploited by a clever operator like McCartan, is worth as much as any talk from gurus or sports psychologists. Maybe it's the red and black jerseys, but watching Hughes, Poland and Paul McComiskey -- their movement with the ball -- I'd swear I was looking at McCartan himself.

He mightn't be there all that long, but his influence has been profound. And this influence is as important as the talent of Hughes, Coulter and Clarke because it has instilled a belief in the side that a tradition going back 50 years can be upheld.

This is why they have literally come from nowhere to contest an All-Ireland final and why few others could pull off such a feat.

This is new ground for the Rebels who, unlike Down, will carry their fair share of baggage into the contest.

For the time being, Cork remain favourites to finally end their 20-year wait but I would expect there might be movement on that as images of Down's great sides of the 1960s and 1990s are replayed in the run-up to the game.

This is one to chew over for the next fortnight. All I'll say for now is I hope that we can look forward to a match that won't be blighted by the men in white coats. We've had enough of that for one season.

PS: Could I wish the travelling supporters from Sean Treacy's GAA club in Thurles the best of luck on Sunday. A tall order but one the Kilcommon boys will be relishing.

Irish Independent

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