Referee McQuillan’s fall from grace put players at risk
This time last year Joe McQuillan, one of Ulster’s top referees, was preparing to take charge of the All-Ireland football final.
And by and large McQuillan acquitted himself very well on that occasion, even if he did incur the wrath of Kerry followers by allowing Dublin goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton to amble up and pump over the injury-time ‘45’ that secured the Sam Maguire Cup for his side after a 16-year famine.
Cluxton’s almost casual approach to what was a defining moment in the context of Irish sport in 2011 was regarded as a time-wasting exercise by Kerry and perhaps not without some justification, too.
But their ire rates as nothing more than a gentle slap on the wrist compared to the criticism that has been heaped on McQuillan following his handling of the Mayo v Dublin All-Ireland semi-final on Sunday.
A referee tends for one reason or another to become a central figure in the white heat of a high-intensity championship showdown played out in front of a frenzied 83,000 crowd.
In McQuillan’s case, the reasons were very much of a negative variety.
His failure to penalise an early trip on Mayo’s Alan Dillon might have been interpreted as a minor blip had it not been compounded by a failure to punish Dublin hard man Denis Bastick for a punch on Aidan O’Shea and excessive leniency shown to Mayo defender Donal Vaughan.
Human error were perhaps contributory factors in these omissions but McQuillan’s lack of instant punitive action against Dublin full-back Ross O’Carroll for his unnecessary man-handling of the stricken Enda Varley was surprising.
Here we had a player clearly in distress who was being unnecessarily physically abused — to be fair to McQuillan, two umpires were yards away from the incident and as far as could be observed remained oblivious to what was unfurling in front of their eyes.
McQuillan eventually brandished a yellow card in O’Carroll’s direction but it smacked of an after-thought.
If confirmation were needed that gaelic football at the very highest level now requires superhuman stamina and nerves of steel, then it was provided in spades on Sunday.
Mayo were forced to start without injured talisman Andy Moran and dynamic wing-back Colm Boyle and then proceeded to lose Lee Keegan, Kevin McLoughlin and Varley all of whom picked up knocks while full-back Ger Cafferkey was hurt in a clash of heads with Eoghan O’Gara.
McLoughlin returned to the fray — and I use that word advisedly — with his head heavily bandaged as a late substitute clearly intent on helping to usher his side over the line.
It’s through such courage, commitment and selflessness that victory against all the odds can be achieved.
And it can be helpful too if a referee is right on top of the job, particularly when players’ well-being is at stake.
Sadly, that was not always the case on Sunday.