Belfast Telegraph

Comment: It's time to get the Irish League's refereeing mess sorted

By Billy Weir

Well that escalated quickly, didn't it? Only last week I aired my concerns that Linfield's pop at the apparent drop in the standard of refereeing in the NIFL would have repercussions.

Like a puppy standing close to a small steaming pile, the Blues, business done, got on with things with a hard-fought win over Glenavon last Friday night and yep, you guessed it, we had controversy.

I've looked at the incident in question, when striker Cameron Stewart nudges Andy Hall out of the way to head home, and technically it is a foul, but if it had been Andrew Mitchell doing the same to Mark Haughey to score, Gary Hamilton would have taken it all day long and praised his striker's cuteness.

The point is it came in the aftermath of Linfield's call for a look at refereeing, and Hamilton's post-match blast at this was not sour grapes or being wise after the event.

"I think it would be better if we had a ref from the League of Ireland come up and take charge of the game. Someone who isn't under that same spotlight. But I just hope there are no big decisions on Friday night," he said all too prophetically last week in the run-up to the game.

Referee for the night was Ian McNabb, and the pressure he was under must have been horrible. He was never going to win, unless both sides came out, played a tame scoreless draw, gave each other fluffy toys and wished all a wonderful festive period.

That was never going to happen, this was a feisty, no-holds-barred encounter played at a high tempo with the added pressure of a crowded Mourneview Park and two teams desperate to do what they could to keep the pressure on Coleraine.

In my opinion, I don't think there was enough of a push to disallow the goal, and as for ruling out Stephen Lowry's 'goal', it is impossible to tell if he controlled the ball with his hand, but there is absolutely no doubt that Roy Carroll mugged Mitchell in the box and should have conceded a penalty.

While Hamilton fumed, David Healy, a bit like that puppy mentioned earlier, sat quietly with that 'who? me?' look on his face.

"All the other clubs have had bad decisions go against them, but we've had the courage to come out, we wanted to make the statement especially after the League Cup game and we'll have to take the consequences of that, good or bad," he said after Friday's controversy.

As I said last week, I agree that Linfield have been the victims of some brutal decisions of late, but the 'courage' they showed would have been better served by getting the clubs together and going as one voice to the powers that be with a dossier of diabolical decisions.

Hamilton, never a man to shirk a challenge, was typically forthright about how things had panned out.

"Linfield Football Club is a very powerful institution in this country," he said.

"Whenever they come out and make statements, as they did last week, criticising the standard of refereeing, things happen, situations change.

"There were a lot of decisions that went against us. To be honest, we knew nothing was going to go for us. I'm not blaming the referee, I'm blaming the people who appoint referees to certain games. It's a small country. They know what's going on, they read statements."

Hard to argue with any of that, and I feel his pain and frustration, but the question is now where does this all end?

Linfield are at home to Dungannon this Saturday while Glenavon go to Ards, and automatically the poor sods who have been handed these two steaming spuds will have trouble sleeping on Friday night.

So, in Jerry Springer terms, what have we learned?

Refereeing needs to be improved, I don't think there is one person involved in the game here who would argue otherwise, apart from referees.

A lot of what David Healy and Linfield said was right, but I still think they went the wrong way about it and, as the law of sod dictates, it played out as Gary Hamilton's prediction promised, and yet again we're talking about big decisions changing big games.

And while all this has been going on, what have we heard from NIFL and the referees? Not a jot.

If we want to draw a line under this and get on with things we need a definitive statement from either or both organisations telling people to wind their necks in and get on with it or, hopefully, agree that something needs to be done and get everyone together so we can enjoy the best title race in years.

So, NIFL and refs, over to you, nip it in the bud or sort it out.

POST-EPILOGUE: While we're on the subject of Glenavon, in the midst of all the madness this week it would be remiss of me not to mention Conner Byrne's debut for the club in Monday night's Mid-Ulster Cup semi-final win over Portadown.

No easy task making your senior bow in a Mid-Ulster derby, and especially when you are only 14. I have pants older than that.

Fair play to Gary Hamilton for having the faith in Conner, who has been in action for Northern Ireland Under-16s this week, to throw him into the action.

At least we finish on a nice story. And I don't mean my pants...

Sky Blues fans have never had it so good

I began following Ballymena United as a cherubic-cheeked child after they won the Bass Irish Cup in 1981 and thought this was how things were going to be from now on.

Further cups followed in 1984 and 1989, which bizarrely earned them the moniker of ‘cup kings’ during that time, the Glens winning it five times in the Eighties just a careless oversight.

Not much followed that, 23 years of drought ending almost five years to the day ago with a County Antrim Shield win over Linfield, and Tuesday night’s semi-final win over Ards means that the Sky Blues will have been in six finals in six seasons.

That is quite an achievement, the ball started rolling by Glenn Ferguson and now kicked even harder by David Jeffrey, with the prospect of another final on the cards with the semi-final of the League Cup.

It’ll never last.

Brad is a Lyon-heart

Like a Hollywood blockbuster, things were on a knife-edge when a mysterious man in a mask appeared to clinch his best supporting role award.

Brad Lyons, only weeks after breaking both cheek bones, was back from Coleraine on Saturday when his lung-bursting run set up the chance for Jamie McGonigle to open the scoring for the league leaders.

It’s great to have him back, a super player with a fantastic attitude, but it wasn’t quite a fairytale movie ending as hometown boy Howard Beverland pounced to earn a share of the spoils for Crusaders. At least he wasn’t wearing a cape…

Red letter day for Gray

September 2, 2017, 5.13pm and Barry Gray sat in a near-deserted changing room at the Ballymena Showgrounds following a 1-0 defeat looking like a man who had won an all-expenses paid trip to Bali, with a stop-off in North Korea on the way.

Fast forward eight weeks, a 1-0 defeat of Ballymena United and the Cliftonville manager is a shoo-in for manager of the month, six wins on the bounce and not a goal conceded.

“I’ve said to the players I’ll stand by them and we’ll keep working at it,” he said back in September, and eyebrows were raised.

“The firepower everyone keeps talking about hasn’t clicked, but it will click and we’ll make sure it does, and when it does it’ll be hard to handle. Tactics can only take you so far, top class players adapt, but it will come.”

It certainly has, Barry, and your award will be richly deserved.

Final Word

And so The Oval boo-boys are back and calling for the head of Gary Haveron. I know, it’s a disaster, a team of kids missing several big players and paid for with buttons is sitting sixth in the league, four points ahead of the chasing pack. Yep, definitely time for him to go. Behave yourselves.

Billy tackles Ross Redman:

As managers often point out at this time of the season: it’s not about how you win but just winning, and I concur whole-heartedly.

 Myself and Coleraine goalie Chris Johns mustered a miserly three points between us from last week’s predictions but, thanks to Ballinamallard and Warrenpoint sharing the spoils, I clinched a 2-1 win. It could be crucial when the prizes are handed out later.

 Glentoran defender Ross Redman has been a frustrated injured figure on the sidelines recently and, in an effort to kick a man while he is down, I shall be challenging him this week!

 The usual rules apply, three points for an exact scoreline and one for predicting the correct outcome.

Carrick Rangers v Coleraine

Saturday (3.00pm)

You have to see a Coleraine win. At the minute they are riding on the crest of a wave. I think they have been unlucky in some of their results, against Linfield and against Glenavon, and they are definitely the real deal and they will be there at the end. They’re a young, fit side, which always helps, and they’re scoring goals which is the main thing.

Redman prediction: 1-3

Weir prediction: 1-2

Ards v Glenavon

Saturday (3.00pm)

This will be a tough, tough game for Glenavon. I’ll go for Glenavon as they always seem to score. I think they’ll bounce back after the Linfield game and winning during the week against Portadown in the Mid-Ulster Cup semi-final. Ards are a strange team as they can turn it on and sometimes they just don’t turn up.

Redman prediction: 0-2

Weir prediction: 1-1

Linfield v Dungannon Swifts

Saturday (3.00pm)

I don’t think Linfield were ever in crisis and have picked up two great wins against Coleraine and Glenavon. But Dungannon like to play football so it should be a good game.

Redman prediction: 2-1

Weir prediction: 3-1

Warrenpoint Town v Cliftonville

Saturday (3.00pm)

Warrenpoint have been unlucky in their last couple of games but you can’t really see past Cliftonville because they are on a great run. There were always going to score goals because of what they have up top, it was just about keeping it tight at the back.

Redman prediction: 0-3

Weir prediction: 2-2

Ballymena Utd v Ballinamallard Utd

Saturday (3.00pm)

You really have to go for Ballymena in this one. Ballinamallard just can’t buy a win even though they aren’t playing the worst football in the world. They just can’t get over the line, especially away from home. I suppose their luck has to change some time, but not this time.

Redman prediction: 3-1

Weir prediction: 4-1

Season’s standings: Players 7 Weir 5

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