Belfast Telegraph

Footballer who kicked opponent in face and punched ref during 'feisty' game weeps as judge jails him

Niall Lavery was jailed for an attack on an opponent and referee during a football game. Pic Pacemaker.
Niall Lavery was jailed for an attack on an opponent and referee during a football game. Pic Pacemaker.

By Paul Higgins

A bad-tempered footballer who kicked an opponent in the head during a match before punching the referee who was about to send him off has been jailed.

Standing in the dock of Craigavon Crown Court, 32-year-old Niall Lavery repeatedly wiped away tears and his wife wept in the public gallery as Judge Patrick Lynch QC ordered the “obviously talented” player to spend 15 months in jail and a further 25 months on licence following his release.

He told Lavery that while he accepted his “profound regret” over the incident, behaviour such as his “had no place” on a sporting field.

“Your conduct on the 25 March 2017 has disgraced yourself and disgraced your sport,” the judge told Lavery, “there is no place in such sporting conflicts, whether it be a rugby field, or football field or Gaelic field for fiendish activity as this, an unprovoked assault in the most violent manner upon an opponent.”

With a jury sworn in and ready to hear evidence in the trial on Friday Lavery, from Bowens Mews in Lurgan, changed his plea and confessed to unlawfully and maliciously causing grievous bodily harm to Gary Hill on with intent to cause him grievous bodily harm and the assault of Joshua Porter, the match referee that day.

Opening the facts prosecuting counsel Ian Tannahill told the court the offences arose during what was described as a “feisty” cup match between Lavery’s team Silverwood and Mourneview Mill, who won 2-0 in the end.

He said there was “some indication” as to Lavery’s temper earlier in the match when, having missed a penalty, he gave a lengthy, foul-mouthed rant but the incident giving rise to the charges happened in the closing minutes of the game.

Mr Hill passed the ball and Lavery, known as ‘buckshot’ by fellow players and opponents alike, swiped his feet out from under him.

According to the referee’s statement, he was reaching into his back pocket for a red card to send Lavery off for that tackle when he kicked Mr Hill in the face.

Mr Tannahill said those who saw the kick described Lavery “planting his foot and kicking the other man’s head as if he was taking a kick in the game".

It was during the ensuing melee, as players from both teams rushed to the incident and tried to restrain Lavery, that he grabbed the referee by the shirt and “punched him in the face".

After the match, Mr Hill was taken to hospital where he received eight stitches to lacerations above and below his right eye while an x-ray revealed a fracture to his “zygomatic arch,” an injury which while successfully healed, has left him with a “slight depression” on his face.

During police questioning Lavery denied intentionally kicking him, claiming instead that as he jumped over Mr Hill in the ground, his foot or knee may have accidentally struck him.

Mr Tannahill revealed this was not the first time Lavery had assaulted an opponent.

In 2009, Lavery was playing for Lurgan Celtic against the PSNI at their New Forge pitch when after the final whistle, he punched a PSNI player in the face causing his nose to bleed and two black eyes.

Lavery was given a police caution after he accepted causing actual bodily harm, said the lawyer.

“We say that sadly, the circumstances of this case are such that the matter goes way, way beyond anything that comes up in the ordinary run of sport in general and football in particular,“ submitted Mr Tannahill adding that the assault on the referee is an “aggravating factor in the overall event.”

Defence barrister Barry McKenna conceded the incident was “an appalling and disgraceful thing to do” and for which Lavery is “truly sorry".

“This particular incident is completely out of context as to how he deals with himself in his everyday life,“ said the lawyer.

During his sentencing remarks, Judge Lynch said that Lavery’s “shouting and cursing“ following his penalty miss “indicates to me a violent temper which is over and above the ordinary response to a sporting setback".

He told Lavery that his bad tackle, the “cowardly” kick to his opponents head and the assault of the referee indicated to him that this “was a continued and protracted display of bad temper...and I repeat, this behaviour has no place in any form of sporting contest.“

He said while Mr Hill had made a good recovery, the reaction of his young five-year-old son who saw the incident was “more poignant".

“The boy asked his father on the way back ‘is that part of football, are you allowed to kick people in the face?’,” revealed the judge adding “that’s the effect that people who misbehave in football have, whether in the lower leagues or on TV, they have a profound effect on young people.”

The judge revealed that Lavery was banned from playing football for a year, a punishment which gave him “a sense of surprise at the leniency” but he warned Lavery that he was considering imposing a Violent Offences Prevention Order “to ensure that you will not be on a football field” after his release.

Jailing Lavery, the judge adjourned that aspect of the case for further submissions.

Belfast Telegraph Digital

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