John Fogarty: GAA edges closer to all-out referee strike

Annual Congress in February must be a watershed moment for the GAA where they illustrate once and for all that respect for referees is not just obligatory but mandatory
John Fogarty: GAA edges closer to all-out referee strike

WATERSHED MOMENT: A general view of Croke Park. Annual Congress in February must be a watershed moment for the GAA where they illustrate once and for all that respect for referees is not just obligatory but mandatory. Pic: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

It’s 10 years now since an organisation to represent the needs and interests of GAA referees was established.

Living in south Tipperary, Limerick man and umpire Alan Nash was prompted to set up the Gaelic Match Officials Association after strong responses to a welfare-based questionnaire he issued to referees across the country.

Nash had also been moved by the attack on Antrim referee Ray Matthews in a 2011 U21 football semi-final in Ballymena. The injuries Matthews sustained required hospitalisation and Antrim’s competition control committee recommended a ban of all St Mary’s, Rasharkin teams from above minor level for 2012 but it was later reduced on appeal to the Ulster Council.

Antrim also handed out stiff individual bans and the club were thrown out of the U21 competition but the provincial council decision compelled Matthews to quit refereeing and Nash to try and stand up for the men and women in black, offering legal counsel in taking civil actions arising from assaults.

“The attitude of the clubs is the attitude of the supporters, ‘if the referee gets a slap it’s part of the game. If he took up the whistle what did he expect?’” Nash said at the time. “That’s the prevailing attitude. But if a referee is assaulted and put out of the game and he can’t pay his bills that’s not part of the game.”

Fast forward 10 years and what has changed?

Only that the physical and verbal abuse of referees has exacerbated to such a point that Wexford chairman Micheál Martin declared it had reached “crisis point” yesterday.

After a second such incident in the county in the space of six weeks, it would have been difficult for Martin to call it anything else.

Enough should have been enough long before the hospitalisation of referee Kevin Naughton following an incident in Ballyforan last month.

A 96-week ban has been recommended for the St Aidan’s mentor involved in that, while a 72-week suspension was issued to a Naomh Éanna member after a flashpoint in Oylegate, Wexford last month.

As Martin rightly pointed out on RTÉ Radio on Monday, the lack of respect for authority is a cultural and it transcends the GAA, and yet because the association is such a reflection of Irish society it is becoming increasingly evident. 

However, reports of assaults on rugby match officials at club games remain negligible. Yes, the numbers of such fixtures pale in comparison to the multitude of football and hurling matches played across the country but the respect is vehement.

It’s only now when refereeing has become as popular as the priesthood that the GAA is getting serious about recruitment and retention. The warning signs were evident as far back as 2014. The small amount of time and money they have invested in the area to this point underlines their ignorance if not negligence of what referees have had to endure.

In withdrawing their services for a weekend earlier this month as a show of solidarity and protest at what happened to Naughton, Roscommon referees hoped their message that they were as mad as hell and they weren’t going to take anymore would resonate with fellow match officials. They gave the county board a taste of what it would be like without them.

Referees mightn’t be the most united group but they are talking to each other more and more. Matthews, who eventually returned to refereeing a couple of years ago, was asked recently about the Roscommon strike. 

“I know some people were asking why didn’t all referees, every county do the same thing?” he told The Irish Mirror

“If referees across all 32 counties stop games for a weekend, it would send out a message to say ‘enough is enough’.

“Referees are taking abuse on a regular basis when they don’t have to be. Nobody is perfect. Referees are never correct all the time. We don’t always get it right, but nothing justifies what happened to the referee in Roscommon.”

It is Matthews’ belief that had the Ulster Council upheld Antrim’s punishments for St Mary’s, it would have been “a deterrent for future instances”. Punishing the individuals who commit these deplorable acts goes without saying but their clubs may have to feel the pain too if the crisis is to be averted.

Annual Congress in February must be a watershed moment for the GAA where they illustrate once and for all that respect for referees is not just obligatory but mandatory. But that’s five months away. Between now and then, there are plenty of games to be played and there may very well be an escalation of industrial action. The GAA should be bracing itself for unfortunate if righteous consequences.

Funding mess needs to be addressed quickly

Funding, it seems, isn’t as sexy a topic when Dublin aren’t winning All-Ireland senior football titles but that’s not to say the lack of it right now isn’t an important story.

Last Saturday week, the Irish Examiner revealed the divvying out of the increased €12m pot would not take place as had been agreed on October 1 because of downright bureaucracy or to be more precise, Croke Park attaching conditions late in the process.

On Saturday last, Central Council delegates were informed that the distribution of money had been delayed indefinitely. The reaction to the announcement, as much as it had been flagged, was hardly going to be positive.

Similarly, the reasons behind the delay being withheld for fear delegates would leak them didn’t go down well.

One wonders if counties would have signed up to the GAA’s games development strategy instead of the John Connellan plan had they known what was to come.

That’s not to say the GAA initiative isn’t a strong one — the criteria and formula that the model is based on looks sound — but the implementation of it has been a downright mess. Make no mistake that counties need this funding at the start of the financial year. Only two counties — Dublin and Antrim — are receiving less money than the last normal year of 2019.

In total, Munster counties are due to receive almost €1.5m in total core funding — Cork €555,067, Tipperary €214,519, Kerry €207,365, Limerick €204,560, Clare €168,694, and Waterford €134,418.

Asking counties to produce plans for how they intend to go about spending the money as late as July when they were given no guidance as to how to put them together was too much. It is unusual that 25% of the funding is released on receipt of special projects proposals when information about how to put together a strategy for them was not exactly forthcoming.

The GAA have some tidying up to do — and quick.

GAA’s global audience to grow

Thanks to Moira Dunne as well as Tim Murphy in San Francisco who reminded the column that this past weekend marked the 50th anniversary of the first All-Ireland final to be televised live in North America.

What a novelty it must have been for expats in the US to take in the draw between Kerry and Offaly in real time.

Thanks to modern technology, such things are almost taken for granted but the GAA are keen to get even more eyeballs on their biggest games.

The deal last year to provide live coverage of the All-Ireland senior football semi-finals and finals on Galician TV in northern Spain, where they can be watched by 100,000, was an indicator of the organisation’s expansion ambitions.

Earlier this year, this newspaper reported BBC are to be among the big winners in the GAA’s next round of media rights, which should be revealed in the coming weeks.

Croke Park’s commercial department are determined that football and hurling’s showpieces, the senior semi-finals and finals, can be watched by as many people as possible and BBC’s international platform is considered the ideal vehicle to do that.

It mightn’t appease those who claim the GAA promotionally is cutting off its nose to spite its face by bringing forward the finals to July but more of the world is going to be watching.

Email: john.fogarty@examiner.ie

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