GAA Football

The umpire strikes back: Lessons have to be learned from Athletic Grounds controversy

Rian O'Neill takes Armagh's penalty during the Division One clash against Monaghan at the Athletic Grounds. Pic Philip Walsh.
Andy Watters

I WAS standing soaked and foundered behind the Monaghan goal when Rian O’Neill stepped up to take his penalty last Saturday night.

Despite what Pat Spillane said on The Sunday Game about the outcome being inconclusive, there was any amount of definitive evidence doing the rounds that proved beyond doubt that the ball did go over the line and a goal should have been given but, I must admit, I didn’t notice that it had at the time.

It was interesting that none of the Armagh players appealed for a goal either and I put that down to a kind of sensory-overload because so much action was poured into, what, roughly two seconds?

Firstly, when a penalty is being taken, you’re already factoring in what the three points will do to the state of the game and so your focus is on the net bulging. It didn’t because O’Neill smashed his shot off the bottom of the crossbar with an unmerciful thump and the frame of the goal was still shuddering when the ball hit the ground (over the line) and bounced up again. At that point attention was immediately drawn to O’Neill rushing in to punch the loose ball into the net and Rory Beggan trying to clear it.

Conditions did play a part. Yes, the ball was over the line but ‘the line’ we’re referring to here is an imaginary one on most pitches in the middle of February. The groundsmen in Armagh, Omagh or wherever else don’t have the equipment, the time or the manpower they have at Croke Park to maintain Premier League-standard surfaces all-year round.

So I have some sympathy for the umpires for not spotting what had happened - although one of them was standing behind the goal which I don’t quite understand.

As anyone who has been press-ganged into doing it at a club league match will know, umpiring is an onerous responsibility at the best of times.

You can pretend you’ve been struck deaf, or you’re having a deep and meaningful conversation with somebody, or you’re on your phone dealing with an international crisis, or whatever but sooner or later you have to look in the direction of the club official who has been patiently calling your name. “Will you do umpire?” he asks.

“Aye, alright,” you respond and so off you trot to take up your position on the post hoping that every shot goes straight over the blackspot.

This is often not the case. You have to expect the worst because at some point a shot will go way up into the air over the top of the post and you’d need a NATO satellite to determine whether most of the ball was inside it or not.

There are some characters who just love being in the middle of all of that and enjoy nothing better than giving anything borderline ‘wide’ for the visitors and everything borderline as scores for the home team but it’s not a job for the faint-hearted.

Anyway, getting back to the Athletic Grounds. The controversy over the penalty brought back memories of the late Mourne county star Breen (Brian) Morgan’s famous remark after Cavan had claimed a disallowed goal back in his day.

After Down had won the game, the Breffni county players were grumbling.

“In Down, it’s not a goal ’til she hits the back of the net,” Breen responded, ending the argument.

I’m old school when it comes to this sort of stuff and, although times have changed and technology is an increasing factor in sport, surely we don’t want to get to the situation where we have VAR poking its tiresome head into the game.

A 10-minute delay for an ‘over-carrying check’ to determine whether the forward took more than five steps before he or she kicked the injury-time winner? Please no! In that case, the cure would be far worse than the disease.

While I do have sympathy for the officials, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s their duty to get the calls right or the clamour for technology will get louder. Sensory-overload is not a luxury they have.

Referee Barry Cassidy was also in a good position to see what happened when the penalty was taken in Armagh and a point that seems to have been overlooked is that Monaghan goalkeeper Beggan was well off his line when the ball was kicked.

The previous game at The Athletic Grounds was refereed by David Gough. Gough’s umpires had an important input into his decision-making process at the end of the Armagh-Tyrone melee. There was barely a punch thrown but Gough reacted emphatically. The MMA-style machismo that we increasingly see nowadays has to be driven out of the game before someone does get hurt and Gough sent five men off.

That he was able to rely on the other officials to help him come to his decisions shows that umpires can and do play a very important role in the events of the inter-county game so, when a pivotal moment in the game isn’t spotted, the buck has to stop with them.

Lessons – and let’s start with umpires taking up proper positions when a penalty is taken - have to be learned.


THERE was a time when passing the ball back to the goalie – or backwards at all – would have meant facing a firing squad the following morning without trial.

These days possession is king and Rory Beggan’s performance against Armagh last weekend was a reminder of how much the game has evolved. The Monaghan goalkeeper continues to innovate and in injury-time, with the game level and his team down to 14 men, he was deep in Armagh territory (there was no-one in his own half) helping them keep the ball and try to work an opening for a shot.

Beggan is as good as you’ll see at giving his team an extra man as they push forward and his outfield forays are an imaginative attacking tactic designed to create space for a team-mate to try and score.

Donegal goalkeeper Shaun Patton also saw a lot of the ball out the field against Kerry the following day but you couldn’t say his involvement was particularly positive – he was just another pair of hands used to keep the ball.

Declan Bonner has a talented group of players at his disposal but they seem to be stuck in third gear without Michael Murphy. Although Donegal were trailing Kerry and needed to go on the attack, they seemed intent on damage-limitation and got bogged down in a prolonged spell of across-and-back, back-and-across possession football that went nowhere.

Goalkeepers, if you aren’t prepared to take risks like Rory Beggan, get away back into nets.

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