Belfast Telegraph

Tyrone manager Mickey Harte deserves apology from GAA president

By Declan Bogue

Picture the scene. A post-match interview, reporters surround the losing manager. He will give his take on proceedings, where the game was lost and where to from here.

But that's not enough. Reporters want more, readers want more. So you always ask the referee question. How did he do? How did it impact on the game as a contest?

Some losing managers will genuinely let it wash over them. On Saturday night, Down manager James McCartan watched Tyrone defender Ronan McNabb drag Donal O'Hare to the ground by his jersey as he made a dart for possession. The linesman was right in front of this and did not bring it to referee Cormac Reilly's attention.

On the line, McCartan was literally hopping up and down with rage.

Later on Kevin McKernan was adjudged to have fouled McNabb and conceded a penalty, although any contact was merely minimal, after the chance had passed.

Yet when questioned, McCartan replied: "It's a no-win situation, I have no qualms about referees. Tyrone went up and beat us on the scoreboard..."

On a wider scale, refereeing decisions have been a constant debate since the dawn of sport. It's not something that is ever like to go away, so why take anything like that personally?

All this rancour is not fabricated exclusively by inter-county managers. If that were the case, then the 16 referees of the grade-one panel would not have been summoned to an unscheduled visit to Croke Park tonight to discuss issues arising out of the first few weeks of the football Championship.

There have been some simple errors, and some that have no relation to the rulebook whatsoever. In that environment, managers are perfectly entitled to give their views.

This is sport, recreation time and all that goes with it but it is also something that matters deeply to those taking part in it and the thousands that pay money to witness it.

After the first game between these two, Tyrone manager Mickey Harte appealed for consistency in refereeing, a fairly common call across the board.

"I'm not talking about blaming referees – it's just that the inconsistencies are very difficult to understand," Harte said.

"They weren't the rules that were played through the National League. Somebody needs to bring clarity to what's going on."

A straightforward opinion.

However, it was answered by GAA President Liam O'Neill with: "In fairness to Mickey Harte, he doesn't leave much negativity out. If there's something negative to be said, Mickey will say it and he's consistent on that."

It's not the first time O'Neill has said something that on reflection he might regret.

There was the episode when a harmless enough tweet from Meath's Seamus Kenny suggested the Championship draw might be rigged that generated an angry response. Even answering something that originated on Twitter should be beneath the GAA President.

Then there was the recent unfair humiliation the GAA took at the hands of RTÉ's primetime, where O'Neill temporarily personalised the debate when he needed to hold his head.

What conclusions we draw on O'Neill is that he either sees no great worth in engaging with the media, has a distaste for it, or simply is uneasy with it.

This has led to a series of remarks that might be described as gaffes. Unfortunate gaffes, unintentional even, but remarks that weaken his leadership nonetheless.

Harte was asked to respond to O'Neill, and quite reasonably said: "If anybody checks back on the record of what I say about this association, and the nature of our games, they will find I am as positive as anybody about what we have to offer. Check the record and see if I'm that negative."

Harte takes very strong positions, but his track record is impressive. He does not believe in the International Rules for example, and who would argue that it is on anything other than borrowed time?

He spends a lot of time promoting the GAA as a potential global sport and has written many times on the possibility.

In recent years he has crossed over into statesman territory, acting as a figurehead for Ulster GAA at historic moments. At last January's Belfast Telegraph sports awards he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, receiving the most rapturous applause of any previous winner in front of a mixed audience – never underestimate the significance of that.

He has been a remarkably positive influence for the GAA, especially in the north where great diplomacy is often required.

Mickey Harte has been one of the GAA's greatest assets for years and his grace after O'Neill's comments reflected that. The criticisms were beneath him, and beneath the office of GAA President.

And that's why he deserves an apology.

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