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Warrenpoint goalkeeper suffered sectarian abuse and physical assault, says chairman

Mark Byrne

Warrenpoint Town chairman Connaire McGreevy has claimed that the club's goalkeeper Mark Byrne was "physically assaulted" and the subject of "sectarian verbal abuse" during Saturday's controversial Irish Cup tie against Ballymena United at Milltown.

McGreevy's comments follow the unsavoury events in the sixth round clash that saw 19-year-old Byrne race off the pitch in injury time and jump over the fence behind the goal into the visiting supporters.

Video footage showed the teenager fighting and grappling with United fans before team-mates and opposition players helped drag him away. Seconds later, he received a red card.

In his statement, McGreevy added that Warrenpoint did not condone Byrne's actions and that he would be disciplined. The Town chairman also urged the Irish FA to "urgently tackle" the problem of fans abusing players, which was highlighted by the Northern Ireland Football League (NIFL) last week.

After Saturday's game there were allegations from Ballymena supporters that Byrne spat at them during the match.

There were also claims from Warrenpoint followers that Byrne had suffered verbal abuse throughout and allegations that the goalkeeper's father had been assaulted behind the goal, provoking the shot-stopper to scale the fence to try and protect his dad.

Ballymena chairman John Taggart said there had been no sectarian abuse from his club's supporters but Warrenpoint claim different.

McGreevy alleges that the trouble was sparked when Ballymena scored a late goal, which turned out to be decisive in their 2-1 win.

"Following the 87th-minute winning goal by Ballymena, a number of spectators jumped the fence to celebrate with the Ballymena players," said McGreevy.

McGreevy continued: “Watching the video of the event, it is evident Mark Byrne was physically assaulted. This assault and the sectarian verbal abuse were reported to the referee at the time.

“It is important that we are mindful of the mental well-being of the 19-year-old following the vile abuse that was reported by the media present, players and spectators.

“In the video footage we have, the Ballymena ‘fans’ are clearly visible jumping up on the barrier and collapsing the barrier onto the playing surface.

“Our stewards have moved in and taken physical and verbal abuse in attempts to hold the fence back up.

“We are collecting further evidence of the events that took place after the restart of the game up until the final whistle.

“We do not condone the actions of Mark. There is no place in football or society for violence.

“This is an isolated incident at Milltown and is the opposite of the fantastic community spirit that has been at Milltown for decades including all previous visits of Ballymena United FC.

“However, there is a bad element of abuse that is emerging from some sections of ‘fans’ and we commend NIFL for calling it out last week and urge the Irish FA to urgently tackle it before it gets worse.

“Mark will be disciplined for the red card offence through our normal procedures.”

The statement added that Warrenpoint would conclude their internal investigations and work with the IFA and PSNI on any investigations they will commence.

Byrne’s father received treatment after the game for a head wound, while Ballymena stated that two of their fans had suffered facial injuries in the fracas.

Police are investigating an alleged assault at the ground.

The IFA have revealed that their Disciplinary Committee will meet this month to discuss the incident, adding that the Committee have received a report from referee Shane Andrews as well as video footage.

Ballymena boss David Jeffrey feels that football in Northern Ireland needs to learn from the unsavoury injury time scenes.

Jeffrey said: “Quite simply, you don’t want to see that happening. We are trying to attract families to our game and there were young children there on Saturday, and it was unsavoury.

“There have been various versions of events. For me, this is an opportunity to learn.

“It has been coming out that there was abuse. Abuse to players of the opposing team has been part and parcel of football, and for a time there has been an acceptance, but maybe we should say that it is not acceptable any more to abuse the opposition just because you have paid your money at the gate.

“What compounds it in this day and age is social media because people then want to take an incident and blow it up even more.

“Players have also got to behave in such a way that they don’t incite a reaction, so there is lots of learning to be done.”

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