Over the past two week we have seen all the colors of the GAA rainbow out in full force, we’ve seen some extraordinary games of hurling, some shockingly poor games of football, some big upsets in qualifiers and questionable refereeing decisions that have ultimately dumped counties out of the championship for 2018.
While there has been lots of talk about referees in the GAA and how their decisions are costing counties their place in the championship, it’s very important that we don’t go to overboard in our criticism of these servants to GAA, speaking of one of those servants you can check out our interview with Carlow ref Patrick Murray from last week here.
Now let us cast our mind back to 1998 where refereeing decisions had a major impact on that year’s hurling championship and the impact the wrong decision can have on the life of a referee.
Let’s start off with a bit of background on the 1998 All-Ireland Hurling Championships and how it all ultimately crescendoed on a Saturday evening in Croke Park during a semi-final replay, which still lives long in the memory twenty years later.
Clare faced off against Waterford in the Munster final that year, while the first game ended in a draw it was the replay a week later that became one of the most controversial games of hurling ever played.
Before referee Willie Barrett had even thrown in the sliotar Clare midfielder Colin Lynch was swinging recklessly across Peter Queally and Tony Browne. Fights were breaking out on the ball and off the ball all over the pitch, Clare’s Brian Lohan and Waterford’s Michael White were sent off and the bad tempered game finished with Clare winning their third Munster title in four years.
After the game was over there was a huge outcry from the public that disciplinary action should be taken against Clare for the behaviour of their players. Nine days later the Munster Council charged Clare’s Colin Lynch with repeated striking with the hurley, another incident between Lynch and Tony Browne wasn’t picked up the referee or the TV cameras and on the advice of his linesmen Willie Barrett booked both Lynch and Browne and the incident was included in the referee’s match report.
Clare appealed against the ban that was expected to be handed down to Lynch and two days before the All-Ireland semi-final a Munster Council meeting was held to decide Lynch’s faith.
The Clare County board went to the High Court to try and get the Munster council meeting postponed and allow Lynch to play in the semi-final, the High Court rejected Clare’s application and Lynch was banned for three months. The people of Clare were appalled at the decision believing a witch-hunt was in place with Ger Loughnane criticizing the GAA for their handling of the case.
Clare were to face off against an Offaly team that had been surrounded by their own controversy’s earlier in the championship. Babs Keating had been appointed Offaly manager in late 1997. Offaly had earned a reputation as a team who were lazy when it came to training and after a defeat in the Leinster final Babs called the Offaly players “sheep running around in a heap”.
Offaly players took offence to Keating pinning all the blame on them, a few days later Babs was gone after the county board backed the players. The relatively unknown Michael Bond took over and guided Offaly to the All-Ireland semi-final.
On August 9th in the first semi-final Offaly dominated against the reigning All-Ireland champions, but thanks to a late free from Jamesie O’Connor, Clare were able to secure a draw and a replay was announced for two weeks time.
In the replay on August 22nd Clare were the dominate side leading by ten points at one stage in the second half. Offaly began to stage another of their famous comebacks and had got the deficit down to three with two minutes of normal time and three minutes of injury time remaining.
Then it happened, referee Jimmy Cooney blew his full-time whistle as Clare players began to celebrate, Offaly players began remonstrating with Jimmy Cooney as officials whisked him off the pitch the realization dawned on Cooney that he had blown the full time whistle early.
Cooney wanted to go out and restart the match but officials wouldn’t allow him, in the meantime Offaly supporters had invaded the pitch and were refusing to leave. Cooney was told for his own safety he was to wait in the dressing room until everyone had left Croke Park.
While both counties had been involved in controversies that summer this one certainly took the biscuit. GAA officials announced that match would be re-fixtured for the following weekend in Thurles, Clare claimed that this was all part of the witch hunt against them, ultimately Clare lost the re-fixtured match and Offaly went on to become the first team to come through the back door system to win the All-Ireland.
Due to the controversy surrounding his mistake in blowing up the match early Jimmy Cooney was made aware that he may receive threats on his life. Sadly Cooney did receive many threats on his life via phone calls to his home that were sometimes answered by one of his young children, who would be told that there Daddy was going to die and that there house was going to burn down and that if they didn’t tell him they would be killed as well.
The Cooney family received those threats for a few months and although thankfully the threats were hollow, in the subsequent twenty years this has not stopped more referees from receiving similar threats and some from even being assaulted for the decisions they make on the field.
It seems nothing has been learnt from incidents like Jimmy Cooney’s. Yes they make the mistakes because they are human and most will admit to it afterwards, what they don’t deserve is the level of abuse they get from fans, players and management.
The actions by the likes of Andy McEntee and Dan Shanahan towards the referees and umpires over the last few weeks being particularly hard to watch and it does nothing to promote the game to young children watching at home, so maybe it’s time for the big wigs in Croke Park to open up the treasure chest and give their referee’s a dig out.
I know GAA people hate the game being compared to other sports and this is an old point but it bears repeating, look at the impact video technology has had in the game of rugby, and the way the referee is respected so much on a rugby field, it’s amazing to watch. If there is a decision that a team isn’t happy with or the referee is unsure of, then send it to the video referee for further analysis.
Now the installation of Hawk-eye has been a success, but ultimately it hasn’t gone far enough. Hawk-eye is only available in Croke Park, Semple Stadium and Páirc Uí Chaoimh at the moment, that’s leaving 29 other counties without a system that could ultimately decide if there county wins or loses.
For proper change to come about to the way referees officiate games then the GAA will have to introduce Hawk-eye and other video refereeing applications to every county ground in the country and not just in the big stadiums.
For the people who say the money isn’t there for the GAA to introduce video refereeing the GAA’s revenue increased by €5 million last year and will most likely increase again this year thanks to the new championship structures.
So the money is well and truly there for the big wigs in Croke Park to do something to help their referees out before another referee is in fear of their life.
GAA columnist with the GAA Wrap.