Sunday 19 November 2017

Comment: It's not the referees Davy, it's you

Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald. Photo: Sportsfile
Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald. Photo: Sportsfile

Dermot Crowe

Last December, in an innocuous challenge match between Wexford and Dublin in Bray, Davy Fitzgerald demonstrated the kind of short-fused personality that has repeatedly landed him in trouble. A pre-Christmas workout against a Dublin team packed with trialists had him absurdly emotive and antagonistic at times, according to witness accounts. In recent years Fitzgerald has claimed that he has toned down his behaviour but when a decision doesn't go his way he still finds it difficult not to react.

An inability to curtail this impulse has left him with a three-month suspension which means that if, as expected, Wexford reach the Leinster semi-final against Kilkenny, in Wexford Park, he will not be able to patrol the sidelines. In 2012, a three-month suspension proposed by the Central Competitions Control Committee, after he was cited by referee James Owens in his report on a Waterford v Tipperary league match, was reduced to one month by the Central Hearings Committee.

There have been many other brushes with authority to the point where it is now almost a personal trademark. In 2004, he was suspended for two months by the GAC (Games Administration Committee) for criticising referee Pat Horan and bringing the game into disrepute. He was still playing for Clare at the time. The comments related to a Fitzgibbon Cup game in which the LIT team he managed was involved. He branded Horan an "absolute disgrace". If people judge him to be confrontational and a thorn in the side of match officials, they do so on the evidence before their eyes.

On Sunday last he went on the pitch after Tipperary scored their second goal, which followed a bad decision from Diarmuid Kirwan when he failed to give James Breen a free after he was fouled, at least twice, by opposing players. Fitzgerald's frustration was entirely understandable - we are with him on that. His response was not acceptable - we lose him at this point.

He breached an essential understanding, and rule, that mentors do not cross that white line separating them from the play. It is like putting a cat into a bird cage.

Sunday's sequence of events began with a referee who made a bad decision. A week after the 2009 All-Ireland hurling final this newspaper carried a comment piece on Kirwan's refereeing, which appeared to have a philosophy undermining it that the less one heard of the whistle the better. In spite of the decision in Tipp's favour for their second goal last Sunday, he awarded virtually every free that followed to Wexford. For a time in hurling it became fashionable to let blatant fouling go unpunished for fear that to do otherwise might not be in the game's interests.

That is another debate. A referee has a stinker; it is not the first time it has happened and it won't be the last. The men who choose these officials have a responsibility to choose wisely. The GAA also has a duty to review stringently and objectively each performance, and if necessary to penalise with a loss of appointments. Poor refereeing performance can infuriate but it doesn't lessen the onus on mentors to behave with some integrity.

Interference from the opposition line, at any level, in any shape or form, be it verbal or actual physical encroachment, has the capacity to create chaos and spark a riot. It is one of the most provocative actions imaginable in getting under a player's skin. They have no business being there - there are no exceptions to this rule and none should be excused by bad refereeing. And that includes interference where county board officials knock on a referee's door at half-time or on the way off the field during the interval seeking to work their influence. That is equally despicable - worse actually for they should know better.

In this case Davy Fitzgerald should accept his suspension and take a good honest look at himself and ask why he has found himself in this situation. Is it because of Diarmuid Kirwan or is it because of Davy Fitzgerald? Which one of those two is he responsible for? The Wexford manager has free will. He is in the predicament he finds himself in because he elected to enter the pitch and create a tension and potential for conflict that was entirely unnecessary.

Which brings us to Jason Forde, who has been proposed for suspension for getting involved with Fitzgerald. Forde's frustrations are understandable, like Fitzgerald's, but Forde too has a duty to keep his own discipline in check. Getting involved with an opposing manager showed a lack of self-control. Niall O'Meara showed the necessary restraint and walked away. The later comments by Fitzgerald are at the nub of the problem, in the attempts to justify his actions by claiming they were of some value to Wexford. Are those the kind of values they wish to espouse?

The GAA had no choice but to suspend and a suspension doesn't have much weight if it doesn't hurt. Missing the Kilkenny game, if that materialises, will hurt Fitzgerald and Wexford. In the first round of the league in February, Wexford benefited from a decision by Kirwan not to give a penalty to Limerick. Instead of possibly falling further into arrears, Wexford went on to win and begin a run which led them to a league semi-final. Ironically, had Kirwan got that call right we might not be where we are now. John Kiely, the Limerick manager, was no less frustrated than Fitzgerald was last Sunday.

The difference was in how the two men responded.

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