WE SUSPECT whatever faint chances Louth had of being granted a replay vanished in those minutes when some rippling specimens of Wee County manhood waddled in to leave their mark.
This story will now move beyond the in-house row over Joe Sheridan’s goal, and propel the GAA — and Louth — into a much broader controversy.
Instead of spending the week prosecuting their claims for a replay, Louth GAA officials will desperately seek to distance themselves from the actions of the small-town heroes who viewed the referee as fair game.
Doubtless, these have-a-go stalwarts will attract some support for their actions, but they have done enormous damage to Louth GAA. Long after the cheers of “fair play to you, Johnny, at least you got the ref” have died down, Louth will still be trying to tidy up the Deepwater Horizon mess left on their hands.
If the Offaly supporters had added violence to their Croke Park sit-in in 1998, they would have removed all moral authority from their claims for a replay. Everything changed in the moments when events overtook the Louth players swarming around referee Martin Sludden. Their protests were loud, and undoubtedly in breach of the rules, but the GAA has long since tolerated far too much interference with its officials.
Remember, this is a championship where one player — Cavan full-back Thomas Corr — jostled a referee on the field after getting a red card.
So, in the quarrelsome reality of championship days, Louth’s protests might have been characterised as “understandable anger in the circumstances” had not the cavalry come storming from the bleachers.
“I got here as quickly as I could, ref,” could have been their first words to Sludden, but they were clearly out of breath from the spin, and, actions being so much more powerful than words, they set to immediate work: at least threatened grave injury on himself by launching into a hopping, kicking, falling manoeuvre that had to be seen to be disbelieved.
The alacrity with which he carried out the movement suggested he has never given Peter Fitzpatrick, or any previous Louth manager, cause to save his number on speed-dial.
It got nasty, and it could have got worse. Sludden escaped unharmed. At least one steward was grounded.
Somehow order was restored. It is amazing how something so close to the brink can come back under control. Clear heads were obviously at work: indeed, we could see some Louth players displaying enough wit to put aside their own grievances and rush to the defence of the very referee they were berating seconds earlier.
But if people think this is still about a disputed goal depriving a downtrodden county of its day in the sun, they are very much mistaken. That, alas, is yesterday’s angle.
The real story now is the manner in which a GAA official was set upon in full view of the nation.
And that’s a pity. Louth could have made a convincing case for a replay otherwise. There is precedent: to name but two, Offaly/Clare ‘98, and the lesser-known Laois/Carlow Leinster SFC clash of 1995, when Michael Turley’s match-winning point was shown to be wide.
Laois offered a replay then. I suspect that instead of offering a replay, Meath will take the view that this final is best forgotten about — and, after they have been dragged through the wringer, Louth might feel exactly the same.
This event will cast a long shadow. There is an ambiguity towards violence in the GAA. There is a culture of surrounding the referee, and telling him what you think of him in language that would make even Deputy Paul Gogarty wince.
Eventually, inevitably, the line snaps. We have real admiration for this Louth team, and the misery of undeserved defeat is compounded by events at the final whistle.
It would be wonderful if all it took to unravel this mess was for Meath to offer a replay. But the horse bolted when some others from the equine family arrived to confront Sludden.
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