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The dark side of the GAA that very few want to face

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A Mayo supporter is restrained by security staff after he tries to confront referee Cormac Reilly during the closing stages of the Semi-Final Replay between Kerry and Mayo. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

A Mayo supporter is restrained by security staff after he tries to confront referee Cormac Reilly during the closing stages of the Semi-Final Replay between Kerry and Mayo. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

SPORTSFILE

A Mayo supporter is restrained by security staff after he tries to confront referee Cormac Reilly during the closing stages of the Semi-Final Replay between Kerry and Mayo. Picture credit: Diarmuid Greene / SPORTSFILE

When he walked into Supermacs on the Ennis Road in Limerick last Saturday night he was instantly recognised. There was a cheer, and then people queued to get their photo taken with him. Mick Barrett from Castlebar was the man of the moment.

On Saturday afternoon, Mick Barrett could have walked into that same Supermacs on the Ennis Road and chances are not one person would have known him. He could have eaten his food in peace. Now, though, it was different. Now he was Mick Barrett, pitch invader, immediately recognisable to anyone who had been in the Gaelic Grounds that evening or watched the replay between Kerry and Mayo on television.

His image had been beamed around the world as he burst onto the field in the closing stages of the game. His face was red and he seemed intent on making his way to the referee. To the onlooker he seemed consumed with rage. His daughter had followed him onto the field and she screamed at him, "daddy, daddy, stop". It eventually took five men to restrain Mick Barrett and remove him from the field.

But this is Ireland, and this is the GAA, so what happened next is not what you might expect. Mick Barrett was not escorted from the Gaelic Grounds by the five men who had worked so hard to restrain him, perhaps with a gentle kick in the hole to send him on his way. No, he was returned to the terrace, pretty much back to the same spot he had broken through from moments earlier.

An Australian visitor who bought tickets to the game to sample an Irish sporting occasion was nearby and looked on in disbelief. As a fan of the Sydney Swans he knew of Gaelic football, and of Kerry in particular. The game had enthralled him, but he could not get his head around the fact that this man had been allowed to remain in the ground. In Australia, pitch invasions generally lead to hefty fines.

Within half an hour of the game's finish, the Australian happened to be in Supermacs when Barrett entered to a hero's welcome. If you can't beat them, join them, he thought, and so took his place in the queue, eventually getting his picture taken with the man of the hour. For effect, and for his friends back home, the Australian was held in a friendly headlock for the photo.

The following day Barrett was tracked down by journalists. He told them categorically, it would never happen again. He said he had no intention of harming referee Cormac Reilly, who had angered Mayo with some of his decisions, when he went onto the pitch.

"All that was wrong with me was the referee," he told the Irish Independent. "I don't know how some of it was let go." He added: "It wasn't any specific calls, but just the general play. I just don't know. I just can't understand it. I wanted to ask him what he was at. That was all I wanted to know, which I did ask when I got close to him. I asked him what he was at but he didn't answer."

One person who spoke to Barrett said he appeared somewhat taken aback at all the attention he received on Saturday night. And yet here he was being feted by Kerry fans, Mayo fans, the national media . . . even a politician got in on the act to make a laugh of it all.

Really, though, there was nothing to laugh at. Why is it people feel they can run in to confront a referee in this way? Yes, it's rare in big games, but away from the bright lights of the inter-county championships it is far from rare. Is it any wonder the GAA is finding it extremely difficult to recruit new referees.

Another incident which occurred received less attention last week as the spotlight shone on Mick Barrett. Minutes after his intrusion the field was swamped by fans when Cormac Reilly blew the final whistle. As the referee made his way from the field, protected by officials and gardaĆ­, a youth in a Mayo jersey can be seen charging for him. At the last moment a guard cuts across to head the youth off and gets knocked forcefully to the ground. Another guard then shoves the youth to the ground as Reilly and his officials run for cover.

How did this youngster come to think that it is acceptable to run on the field after a game and chase down a referee? This is the culture he has been exposed to and this is the dark side of the GAA that few want to face. These people are not folk heroes, they are cowards.

Yes, Cormac Reilly had a terrible game and yes, in all likelihood, his poor performance cost Mayo. It's not right that should happen, and more needs to be done to improve refereeing standards. That is another debate. The scenes we witnessed in Limerick should spur action and condemnation, not celebration.

It takes leadership to tackle a problem like this. And this leadership starts in the home and in the club. There is no point looking for someone to blame at the top when those at the bottom won't take responsibility. When you undertake to mentor children in sport, or to bring children to sporting events, they will learn more from how you behave because you, the parent or the mentor, are the person they most look up to at that moment. And if you think it's hilarious that a referee gets chased off the field, what's the child to think?

I'm sure Mick Barrett is an ordinary, decent man who suffered a momentary lapse of reason. But I hope I never find myself in a situation where I'm chasing after a referee with my daughter running after me shouting, 'Daddy, daddy, stop.'

jgreene@independent.ie

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