Sunday 18 March 2018

Joe Brolly: It was an amazing sight... a ref and a 14-year-old fist fighting in spring

Referee Martin Sludden is escorted off the field after the Meath v Louth Leinster final in 2010 impact Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Referee Martin Sludden is escorted off the field after the Meath v Louth Leinster final in 2010 impact Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE

Joe Brolly

'For fuck sake referee, have you never heard of the advantage rule? Jesus, what was the point in bringing the rule in if you're not going to use it? He was through on goal and you pulled him back, how the fuck is that punishing the defender? Jesus Christ man, have a bit of wit."

The adult coach had lost his temper. His tirade drowned out everything else. The referee raised his arms at the man wearily and said, "It's an under 16 game, come on. I had already blown for the free. Give me a break."

The referee is our club ref Cathal McDermott, a great lad. It was his third juvenile game in a row on Sunday morning at the new Ozone pitch on the Ormeau embankment. He threw the ball in for the first match at 10. He blew the final whistle on the last one at quarter to two. By then he was exhausted. All three games involved St Brigid's teams and Cathal was doing them for free. Who would be a referee?

In March last year, Joey Mansho, a 27-year-old South African referee was walking to a shop close to his home in Pretoria when he was approached by three armed men and forced into a waiting car. The men drove him to his house, took his mobile phone and car keys, brought him to a remote location in Mpumalanga in the Veld and tied him to a post. The next evening, the men returned, knocked him about a bit, then let him go. The kidnap had been perfectly timed. Joey was due to be married to his fiancée Nomanya on that Saturday morning. As he staggered back towards his home, he got a text from his beloved saying, 'You have spoiled my life. I never want to see you again'. Joey's crime? A controversial penalty award in an amateur league game.

I know what you're thinking. It could never happen in our game. Think again. When I was in America playing summer football many years ago, a referee in Philadelphia was bundled into the boot of a car after a game by a group of disgruntled players and supporters and driven upstate before being dumped on the roadside, dazed and confused. Afterwards, the referee was only prepared to identify two of the weekend warriors, out from Belfast. They were banned for two years. The rest walked free.

The idea behind Croke Park's Give Respect Get Respect campaign is a good one. It is impossible to disagree with it, in the same way as it is impossible to disagree with a crusade to stamp out hunger. But the culture of disrespect, particularly towards officials, is so deeply entrenched in the psyche of GAA people that it will take more than a sugary PR campaign to change things. Referees wearing jerseys carrying the strapline 'Give Respect, Get Respect'. Handsome posters. Feel-good photographs of officials sharing a laugh with the opposing captains. It's not that the 'Respect' campaign has failed. More that it needs to be re-targeted. The real culprits are the parents, coaches and supporters.

In our culture, GAA officials are as popular as wheel clampers. Like clampers, they need to have the skin of a rhinoceros. At all levels, from under 10 to the adult grade, they run the gauntlet of constant criticism, verbal and even physical abuse. It is no surprise that over time the job has become less and less palatable. It has got to the stage where you need to be perverse to want to do it. What sensible adult would touch it with a bargepole?

St Brigid's under 14s played a game a few years ago at the all-weather pitch on the Grosvenor Road. One of the opposing players was a big gangly lad. At one stage, the referee gave a free. The young lad squared up to him. The referee told him to back off. At which point the 14-year-old hit him on the nose, sending him staggering backwards. Not for long. The referee got stuck in. It was an amazing sight. A referee and a 14-year-old fist fighting on a sunny spring morning in West Belfast.

To field an adult team, a club must provide a referee. So, like the priesthood, clubs and counties take what they get. The vast majority of referees are disliked even in their own clubs. It is the done thing. When they take to the field, is it any wonder that sometimes they take their revenge? We complain bitterly that small-minded officials are destroying the game. Yet it is our behaviour that dissuades enlightened people from taking the job. It is a vicious circle.

Three years ago, when Moy referee Simon Brady blew the final whistle in the Tyrone ladies final between Carrickmore and Augher, he was poleaxed from behind by a supporter. Unconscious, he was taken by ambulance to Enniskillen hospital and detained overnight. It was the beginning of a very difficult time in his life. Brady suffered flashbacks and a loss of confidence. Like many victims of serious assault, he was traumatised. His assailant later stood trial at Omagh courthouse. Brady told me recently it took a full two years to get over it. That case came hot on the heels of the two Louth supporters convicted of assaulting Tyrone referee Martin Sludden after the Leinster final in 2010. Sludden became a pariah after that. A player, no matter what he had done, would never be treated in that way.

In the Daily Telegraph last week, Jeremy Wilson wrote a depressing piece about juvenile soccer referees in England. The theme was how they are being terrorised by parents, coaches and supporters. Clive Steward, a veteran grassroots referee from Swansea, told Wilson the story of how he was assaulted by a parent after an under 13s match in 2009. "He hit me once from behind and ran off. I was hospitalised with a broken nose. I had 19 stitches. For several years it came back to me in the night. I was 63 years old at the time. My attacker was 37."

There were similar stories in the piece. The English FA is reporting that referees are being hounded out of the game because of the increase in abuse and violent attacks. In February, at an underage game in the Surrey Youth League, a linesman was headbutted, two parents fist-fought and a supporter threatened to stab the referee. The FA are currently formulating a plan to systematically deal with this problem. They have no choice. At grassroots level, it is estimated by the FA that they are haemorrhaging 6,000 amateur referees per annum. As of the 2015-'16 season, only 80 per cent of amateur games have an official referee. The rest must toss a coin.

In our club, we have found ourselves begging for referees to come forward. It is a serious problem throughout the country and getting worse. In Antrim, for example, the dearth of referees is having a serious impact on fixture scheduling. It is unsurprising, given the culture of disrespect. Ray Matthews rang me a few years ago. He had been refereeing an Antrim under 21 semi-final between Rasharkin and Lámh Dearg. As he made his way off the pitch at Ballymena, he was attacked by a mob of Rasharkin supporters. Terry McCrudden and Frank Fitzsimmons were the Lámh Dearg coaches. Two hardy boys, they ran in and got between the group and Ray. Terry told me afterwards it was one of the scariest things he was ever involved in. Along with a few other Lámh Dearg stalwarts including Barney Herron, they had to fist-fight to get Ray to the safety of the changing rooms. Two club members and one of the Rasharkin coaches were subsequently expelled from the Association.

Rugby provides us with a road map out of this cul de sac. In rugby, merely questioning an official's decision is taboo. My second son plays Gaelic football for St Brigid's. He used to play rugby for Malone. At Malone, a single word of complaint to the referee results in instant dismissal from the field. The son of a friend of mine who plays Gaelic for Bredagh also plays rugby. In each of the first three rugby games he played, he was sent off for opening his mouth to the referee. His team-mates and coaches weren't happy with him and made their views very clear to him on what was expected if he wished to remain a Malone player. 'Ah come on ref' quickly disappeared from his vocabulary. The other big culture shock for me was that at the rugby games, the parents leave the officials alone. The referee is anonymous.

We need to create a situation where like rugby, this is taboo. Why is it we can zip it at rugby on Saturday morning, yet on Sunday - in a sport half as physical - we feel free to argue the toss over every call? The reason is that from the cradle to the grave in the GAA, it is open season on referees and officials. The starting point for the massive change required must be a zero-tolerance approach at every level of the game. It is time for the GAA to introduce a compulsory code with severe sanctions. The voluntary Give Respect, Get Respect initiative is, as Páraic Duffy has conceded, not working.

My own club St Brigid's have instituted such a system at underage level. The basic idea is in training, we sin-bin the players for a criticism of the referee or coach or fellow player. In a match, they are taken off altogether. We also speak to the parents about what is required of them at games and training sessions. The children have learned very quickly. They are no longer the problem. It is the coaches and the parents who are struggling to comply.

As for that coach roaring at Cathal McDermott last Sunday morning as he kept over 100 young players between the ditches? That was me . . .

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