Taking the ref with the smooth

Between the matches on Sunday I asked my sister’s boyfriend if he could check on his Blackberry what was happening in Croke Park. “World War III” was what was happening. The events at the end and in the aftermath of the Leinster final throw up three areas for discussion:

  1. the violence displayed towards the referee
  2. what should be done in terms of awarding the game to Louth or having a replay
  3. the quality of referring

Number 1 can be disposed of easily enough. There’s no justification for the violence meted out on Martin Sludden and it’s astounding to see the extent to which the likes of JP Rooney are doing just that. Anger isn’t a justification for violence whether it be because you’ve been robbed of a first title in fifty-something years or someone spilled your pint in a nightclub. There are tangential issues regarding the response of the Gardaí and the security staff at Croke Park, the same people who whisked Jimmy Cooney off so fast as to make a restarting of the notorious Clare-Offaly match in 1998 impossible. Then there’s the noteworthiness of Peter Fitzpatrick’s response, calmly (or as calmly as you could expect) remonstrating with the ref on behalf of his entire team and physically defending him from the fellow countymen who sought to bring shame on them all. Ultimately, it needs to said loud and clear: it was unacceptable, and hopefully prosecutions will follow.

The second issue is what should happen next. At the time of writing attitudes are hardening in Meath towards the notion of having a replay, and you can see their point. Colm O’Rourke touched on it on The Sunday Game when he wondered whether there would be the same furore if the roles were reversed. The answer to that is: absolutely not, everyone would be chuckling at Meath’s misfortune and rejoicing in how the fates had delivered a wee county from a hemicentennial famine. If we are to ask Meath to make what An Spailpín Fanach has referred to as “a truly regal gesture” then we have to accept that they have the freedom to be merely ordinary and say that no, what we have we hold. As for the Pontius Pilates in Croke Park who have washed their hands of the whole affair, you can see their point too. In an era when the GAA are habitually ridiculed for the Byzantine lack of decisiveness of their appeals procedure, establishing a precedent where every referring decision is up for grabs would be a recipe for anarchy – indeed, Ben O’Connor’s ‘point’ is even being seriously referenced as something Waterford should be able to query. Hard cases make bad law, and they don’t come much harder than this. It looks like Louth are going to have to console themselves with the reality that the back door means their season isn’t over like it would have been back in the day.

(It probably should be noted that I might not be so blasé about the phantom point if Waterford were still chasing their first Munster title since 1963. This would be entirely correct, but that only emphasises that the last people who should be asked for a lucid opinion on the Louth-Meath game are people from Louth and Meath.)

Finally we come to the more long term issue to arise from this debacle, that of the standards of referees. It’s easy to feel sorry for Martin Sludden if you look at things from the point where he frantically demands of a guard to know what he was doing as the mob descended intent on tarring & feathering him. Remember, the bottle that struck a steward on the head was directed at the referee and God knows what manner of items could have been hurled if they were available. But rewind things back a few more seconds and it becomes harder to feel sorry for Sludden. Given what had just happened the response of the Louth players was relatively restrained, mainly because of Peter Fitzpatrick’s firm handling of the situation. There were no Roy Keane-style spittle-flecked tirades. Yet there was Sludden blithely firing out yellow cards, at one stage even looking like he gave one to a supporter!

The extent to which referees exist in their own bubble of certainty is one of the great problems facing not just Gaelic games but all sports with an adjudicator. Seven years ago, I wrote about  a soccer referee who, when watching the footage of a clanger he had made in match in the 1970’s, could not bring himself to say that jeez, that wasn’t one of my finest hours. You could argue this doesn’t apply to Martin Sludden who has admitted his error, but in some ways that only makes things worse because the likeliehood is that he knew he’d gotten it wrong at the time but was too stubborn to admit it. Look at the Frank Lampard goal against Germany that wasn’t given during the World Cup. People watching it at home on portable TVs on the far side of the room could see it had crossed the line, yet the referee and linesman couldn’t. Kevin McStay criticised Sludden for not getting closer to the action, but how much closer did he need to be to see that Joe Sheridan had not kicked the ball over the line, the only way he could possibly score once he had caught the ball. Neither Jorge Larrionda or Martin Sludden should have needed video technology to tell them that the ball was over the line / not kicked over the line. I would suggest that had they taken a few seconds – several, if need be – to digest what they had seen they would have come to the right conclusion. Instead they both made their minds up instantly and insisted that reality would have to bend to their will rather than let them be seen to be weak. As Martin Sludden trotted in to talk to the umpire any thoughts that crap, I’m not sure that was a goal, were ruthlessly crushed by the mental processes that have informed referees since time immemorial.

Referees have got to realise that the tough man stance that may have served them well back in the days before cameras were scrutinising every move are long gone. Perhaps taking your time will only bring another set of problems – you only have to look at the aggro when an offside flag is late to see that – but it certainly would have done Martin Sludden the power of good.