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Refs on centre stage. . . for the wrong reasons

By Joe Kernan

The 'Late Late Show' has been one of the most popular television programmes in Ireland for a long time.

But the GAA appears intent on offering its own version of the late, late show given the number of crucial matches that are being decided - quite often in controversial circumstances - in the dying moments of play.

Last weekend we had three dramatic finishes to major matches.

In the second Ulster championship semi-final at Clones Donegal substitute Dermot Molloy swept home an injury-time goal that gave his team a stunning 2-6 to 0-9 victory over a Tyrone outfit that at one stage had led by a seemingly unassailable 0-6 to 0-1.

Further down the road in Croke Park Kildare fans were left gnashing their teeth in frustration when referee Cormac Reilly awarded Dublin a last-gasp free for reasons best known to only himself - a free from which Bernard Brogan landed what proved to be the winning score for the Dubs.

And 24 hours earlier an injury-time clearance off his own goal line by Down forward Conor Laverty ensured that his side departed from Ennis with a one-point victory over a gallant but extremely unfortunate Clare in a riveting All-Ireland qualifier.

The provincial and All-Ireland championships invariably highlight the very thin line that separates success and failure.

Virtually every team manager has a tale to tell in this respect. I well remember that when I was in charge of Armagh we met our great rivals Tyrone in the All-Ireland semi-final in 1995.

Tyrone were awarded a contentious free in injury-time which Peter Canavan converted and they went on to win the Sam Maguire Cup for a second time.

To be fair, I am quite sure that Tyrone manager Mickey Harte could also pinpoint instances in which his side have fallen victims to late scores although given their successful track record this does not appear to have happened too often.

But while football by its very nature will always throw up hard luck stories, there is currently a strong belief abroad that some matches are being spoiled by over-fussy and inconsistent referees.

One aspect of present-day refereeing with which I would take strong issue is the practice of some whistlers to summon errant players into their presence prior to being booked in much the same way as a mischievous schoolboy might be brought to heel by a schoolmaster.

There is no necessity for this method of authority to be deployed nor is there a need for the most trivial offences to be blown up incessantly.

Players should be treated like adults - what is there to hinder a referee approaching the offending player and booking him quickly and efficiently rather than undertaking the current laboured process which infuriates fans?

The practice of 'ticking' players as a prelude to a booking is also cumbersome but given that it is now in rule we have to live with it. Let's face it, once something is enshrined in the Official Guide, then we are lumbered with it whether we like it or not.

Yet I am sick, sore and tired of people making reference to what is contained in the Official Guide in terms of the rules of the game when it suits their particular purpose.

This has been trotted out by those who would attempt to justify decisions such as that one made by referee Reilly last Sunday, but I would not buy into this at all.

There is quite enough tension and pressure in matches without referees adding to this and while late, late frees will always have to be awarded it is vital that referees get such calls right.

Once again this week Michael Curley, chairman of the National Referees Committee, has found it necessary to go public and endorse Reilly's decision.

I know that Curley, himself a former All Ireland final referee, feels he is only doing what is right but in some cases we are now finding that efforts are being made to defend the indefensible.

We have now reached the business end of the Championship season, and that's when all refereeing decisions, particularly those late, late game-defining calls, must be spot on.

Belfast Telegraph

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