Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 12 July 2014

The cancer eating away at GAA

A referee knocked unconcious after the Tyrone senior women's game yesterday between St Macartan's and Carrickmore at Beragh

Refereeing has always been described as the most thankless task within the GAA - and with good reason.

It is not through coincidence that officials and indeed in some cases members of the Garda Siochana head straight in the direction of a referee following a game in which there may have been some contentious calls to ensure he is escorted to the comparative sanctuary of his changing-room.

The occasional physical attacks on referees - thankfully small in number given the colossal number of games staged at all levels country-wide every week - is still quite rightly viewed as a cancer within Ireland's biggest sporting organisation.

And it remains one of the reasons why recruiting whistlers in all codes - football, hurling, ladies football and camogie - is such a big problem for administrators.

The serious violence which marred the Tyrone Ladies senior football final between St Macartan's Augher and Carrickmore has brought even more sharply into focus the dangers to which referees can be subjected when passions become inflamed.

The assaults on the match whistler, father-of-two Simon Brady (43), and on the Tyrone Ladies chairman Martin Conway were discussed in depth at last night's Ladies board meeting when a full-scale investigation was formally launched into the incidents.

Video evidence, which has become such an integral - indeed absolutely vital - part of GAA disciplinary procedures in recent years, is expected to be used to pinpoint participants in the assaults.

Tyrone Ladies board PRO Paddy Hunter confirmed that "vigorous steps" would be taken to ensure that justice is served.

"This whole episode has left a very sour taste in the mouth. Ladies football has made great strides in Ulster and is now a high-profile sport.

"Sadly, what happened in this particular match does not show the sport in a good light even though hundreds of matches are completed without incident," said Omagh clubman Hunter.

While Tyrone Development Officer Michael Hughes has called for further protection for referees, it is clear that they are still extremely vulnerable within the GAA as a whole.

Next month three Dundalk men are due to face charges in connection with the assault on Tyrone referee Martin Sludden following last year's Leinster senior football championship final between Louth and Meath.

Sludden allowed what was a clearly illegal Meath goal to stand in the closing stages which deprived Louth of what would have been their first title in almost 60 years and sparked considerable fury among their followers, some of whom encroached onto the Croke Park playing arena to confront the referee as he began to make his way towards the tunnel under the Hogan Stand.

GAA chiefs immediately condemned the incident but many people who viewed televised footage of the incident nonetheless thought Sludden had been guilty of a grievous mistake.

And this is the conundrum which the GAA authorities face - how to engender respect and appreciation for referees while at the same time ensuring that their errors are kept to an absolute minimum, thus reducing the threat of a hostile reaction.

GAA President Christy Cooney has already expressed concerns about the treatment which is meted out to referees which range from verbal abuse - some of which can occasionally be directed at referees' families in the aftermath of games - to outright physical assaults.

Referees, like all other participants within the GAA, are volunteers - people who feel they can make a contribution to the well-being of the Association. But given the atmosphere which currently pertains at some games, particularly when the stakes are high, the whistlers are undoubtedly coming under more pressure.

The hope though is that for the rest of this season - indeed for the long-term future - the pressure will not translate itself into the ugly scenes that marred what should have been one of the showpiece fixtures in the Tyrone ladies football calendar.

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