Louth men convicted of assaulting GAA referee

Two Co Louth men have been convicted and each fined €1,000 for attacking the referee after the controversial 2010 Leinster football final.

Two Co Louth men have been convicted and each fined €1,000 for attacking the referee after the controversial 2010 Leinster football final.

Martin Sludden had been confronted on the pitch by Louth fans after he allowed a goal to Meath in the closing seconds of the crucial match at Croke Park.

The Co Tyrone based referee later admitted he was wrong to award the score, which cost Louth the Leinster Senior Football Championship title.

Joseph Conlon (aged 24), a plumber from Marlbog Road, Haggardstown, Dundalk, and dock worker Paul Grimes (aged 50), with an address at Willowdale Bay Estate, Dundalk had pleaded not guilty at Dublin District Court to assaulting Sludden, at Croke Park stadium, on July 11, 2010.

Sludden had initially made a complaint to gardaí but later withdrew it, and the prosecution relied on video evidence.

Lawyers for both men had asked the judge to dismiss the case arguing that the injured party needed to give evidence that he had been assaulted.

However, today Judge Bridget Reilly rejected the defence arguments and held that Conlon and Grimes had a case to answer. During the non-jury trial, she had viewed footage obtained from RTÉ's sports department which she said showed “jostling, shoving and punching”.

The video evidence also showed that Sludden ran off the pitch and was protected by a number of people including a garda sergeant and one of the linesmen.

Neither Conlon nor Grimes gave evidence and Judge Reilly then found them guilty.

Pleading for leniency, Donough McDonough BL, for Conlon, said his client had never been in trouble before and wanted to emigrate to Canada to find work.

Conlon came from a respected family and had played football for Louth at under-16 and minor levels as well as for his local club. He and his family had contributed greatly to their community, counsel asked the judge to note.

Testimonials were handed in, including one from Conlon's former employer and another from Fine Gael Senator Jim D'Arcy, who was also in the body of the court.

Solicitor Sean T O'Reilly, for Grimes, said his client had been a lifelong Louth GAA supporter, “in good times and in bad”. “Unfortunately that day his team was beaten,” Mr O'Reilly said, adding: “On the day in question supporters had waited 50 years to reach a final.”

A reference from Fianna Fáil TD Seamus Kirk was also furnished to the judge. Mr O'Reilly said his client was a grandfather and had been involved in the GAA from the age of seven.

He is also involved in a local boxing club and coaches young people in GAA, Grimes' solicitor said.

Grimes had two prior convictions for public order offences for which he was fined €175, in May, 2010, Judge Reilly heard.

The judge said the 2010 Leinster football final was “embedded in the mind of people in Meath and Louth particularly”.

She recalled other notorious refereeing decisions such as when French striker Thierry Henry's infamous handball cost Ireland making it to the World Cup finals in South Africa, and the sending off of Irish rugby forward Stephen Ferris the recent Ireland versus Wales Six Nations Championship match.

But, she said “referees are human, it is a human system”. She also said the match referee is “the most immediate authority figure on the field and he or she must be respected”.

She accepted that Louth supporters were heartbroken and angry at referee's controversial decision. However, Judge Reilly said the defendants' behaviour was inexcusable, unacceptable and as role models, “one has to question where is the example to young people?”.

She fined each man €1,000 which must be paid in within four months, otherwise they will be jailed for 45 days.

She also bound them to the peace for one year and said she would liked to have banned them from entering any football pitch in the counties involved but she did not think she had the power to do so.

Earlier in the trial, RTÉ footage of the match was played in court; the clips showed supporters pouring onto the pitch and remonstrating with Sludden seconds after the final whistle. They also showed him pushed and jostled by Louth fans.

Two Co Louth based gardaí had told Judge Reilly that they recognised the two defendants when they saw television coverage of the match.

Garda Sgt Shay Roche, of Mountjoy station, was on duty at the stadium and had said in evidence that a large number of supporters were acting “erratically” on the pitch.

He brought Conlon to the players' tunnel in the stadium to record his details. Conlon was agitated and gave an incorrect address before he was walked out of Croke Park.

On a later date, Gda Sgt Roche interviewed him and showed him the TV footage; Conlon identified himself in the video and said: “I saw myself pushing the referee. I had no intention of doing anything to the referee except telling him what I thought.”

Gda Sgt PJ Reynolds had said Sludden began running and “my duty of care was to get him off the pitch”.

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