Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 23 August 2014

Joe Kernan: Time is ripe for an elite group of referees

Mark Ward of Meath is struck in the face
Louth players confront referee Martin Sludden after Joe Sheridan's goal
Louth manager Peter Fitzpatrick appeals with referee Martin Sludden at the end of the game

It has become increasingly clear in recent seasons — and certainly within the last two — that the microscopic detail in which the major championship matches in both football and hurling are assessed has brought a whole new dimension to the overall coverage of our fixtures.

Not so very long ago even a man of the match award was something of a novelty but in essence nothing more than a slight distraction from what constituted the bigger picture.

Today, though, every aspect of games is examined in minute detail as commentators, analysts and writers bid to feed the hunger of a demanding public.

All this intense media spotlight imposes huge pressure on those at the heart of our games — players, referees and officials. And this being the case, the GAA is currently finding itself having to adapt to new circumstances, deal with fresh problems and yet retain its amateur status and volunteer ethic.

This week, the association is squaring up to its biggest test of character for some time. The furore that has accompanied the outcome of last Sunday’s Leinster football final between Louth and Meath is almost unprecedented given that traditionally most provincial ties — even finals — and any fall-out from them tend to remain talking points within the parameters of a particular province.

But this week we are confronted with what is being viewed as a national sporting scandal after the manner in which referee Martin Sludden allowed Joe Sheridan’s thrown ball into the Louth net to stand as a legitimate goal in the dying moment of what had been an absorbing contest.

That goal gave Meath a 1-12 to 1-10 victory — and then all hell broke loose on the pitch and in the media.

The disgraceful scenes after the unfortunate Sludden sounded the final whistle brought no credit on those so-called fans were who involved nor indeed did they do anything for the image of the GAA as a whole.

But they should help to focus minds on what needs to be done to ensure that such happenings do not occur again. And in this respect I am convinced that the GAA needs to select an elite group of perhaps 12 referees who could be remunerated with generous expenses to ensure that they can give total commitment during the Championship season.

I will go further — I would like if at all possible to see some former high-profile players recruited to the ranks of our high-profile referees and included in this group.

I know the cynics will say this is not possible but then the same cynics might well have taken the view that we would not have so many superbly-floodlit venues, that international soccer and rugby would have found a haven in Croke Park and that county teams would actually take strike action in support of what they felt were legitimate goals.

My reason for seeking the recruitment and inclusion of some top players who might just be past their sell-by date is quite simple — they would be used to the pressures of a big occasion, well accustomed to the barbs of fans, unlikely to be unduly fazed by having to make big calls and comfortable in their own ability.

And these elite referees would still need the assistance of the TV eye in the stand which I alluded to recently. Perhaps had this been implemented last week the sorry events at Croke Park would not have taken place but that is conjecture — the reality is that the GAA now needs to look even more closely at adopting modern technology as an aid to referees.

Straight away the cry will go up that if this is going to be the case then it should apply in all matches at all levels. Clearly, that is not possible nor might it be even feasible.

Let’s be honest, the major championship games form the GAA’s shop window — these are the matches that people of all creeds, class and colour take an interest in and indeed the games in which contestants and officials from other sports immerse themselves. I know this for a fact as I talk to many folk .

Therefore the onus is on the GAA to show its top-line products in the best possible light. We simply cannot afford another faux pas along the lines of last Sunday’s shambolic episode between now and the end of September.

As things stand, Louth lost an important match last Sunday but there is now a real fear that the GAA could lose something which cannot be bought on the open market — credibility.

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