Kicking Out: Respect for officials will be earned, not given

Referee Marc Dorrian marches off after giving St Eunan's player Shane O'Donnell (on right) a red card for the incident with Jeaic McKelvey during the Donegal Senior Football Championship Final played at Ballybofey on Saturday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
Referee Marc Dorrian marches off after giving St Eunan's player Shane O'Donnell (on right) a red card for the incident with Jeaic McKelvey during the Donegal Senior Football Championship Final played at Ballybofey on Saturday. Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

THERE’S no real reason why a Division Four football game between Antrim and Wicklow four years ago should stand out in your mind, but it does.

A crisp February afternoon, the battle to get off the bottom rung of the ladder finished level. Nothing special in that, but what stands out was the way in which a linesman that day spoke to the Antrim dugout.

As he ran the line, his I’m The Boss Here approach to what was nothing untoward from the Saffron camp was very notable.

Two years previous, Cargin had played Killyclogher in an Ulster Club game.

The Antrim champions’ Tony Scullion was sent off on a second booking four minutes from time.

In an interview with The Irish News afterwards, he claimed that he had asked the referee what his second booking was for.

“His reply to me was ‘bye-bye’. I went to the linesman off the field – again, mannerly – and I asked ‘what exactly was that for? And he said ‘cheerio’.

“They (referees) have on their jerseys: ‘Give Respect, Get Respect’. We deserve respect too. We are entitled to know what the decision is…”

Give respect, get respect. Forget refereeing, it’s a good way to live life.

The overwhelming majority of the time, the disrespect on a football field all flows the same direction, coming from players and management towards the officials in charge.

Nobody is trying to whitewash it; the verbal abuse towards referees is dire and the physical abuse is just downright wrong, in some cases worthy of punishments that go beyond the arm of the GAA’s disciplinary process.

But there is a but.

St Eunan’s would have felt if they’d gotten out of Donegal, they would have had a good shot at an Ulster title this year. The terrain looks that bit flatter than it did in 2021, when they came close to surprising Glen.

Since they began pre-season 33 weeks ago, they've been on the pitch three times a week.

After qualifying for the last eight, St Eunan's stepped up to double morning sessions on weekend camps.

It adds up close to 120 pitch sessions, before you start into gym time.

On Saturday, they felt they were robbed of a county title by the decision to red card Shane O’Donnell right on half-time.

Linesman Val Murray came in and spoke to referee Marc Dorrian after an incident in the goalmouth.

After consultation with the umpires as well, Naomh Conaill’s Ciaran Thompson was booked.

The referee showed Shane O’Donnell a red card.

There was nothing close to a strike by O’Donnell. In any game, never mind a county final, you’d like your officials to be sure beyond any reasonable doubt before they issue a straight red card like that.

“There’s five or six officials watching the game and one of them is telling the referee that he sees a strike to send somebody off, and this is players who put everything they have into the year, and they send him off,” said St Eunan’s manager Rory Kavanagh after the game.

I feel really sorry for Marc Dorrian in this. In terms of the nuts and bolts, the referee had a good game. Rory Kavanagh’s gripe didn’t lie with the referee, and he said as much.

Whether St Eunan’s would have won it had O’Donnell not been sent off will remain in the ether, forever unanswered. The very least they have is a case to argue that.

It’s gone now, a whole year’s work down the drain.

If you’re to give the linesman any clemency at all, Jeaic McKelvey has to look hard at his own part in it, throwing himself to the ground holding his face after a harmless shove in the chest from O’Donnell.

That’s not enough to be a mitigating factor in the linesman’s call because absolutely nobody else in MacCumhaill Park saw a red card coming for O’Donnell. Nobody saw anything, at the time or in the TV replays, that suggested he merited it.

Officials make mistakes. Always have, always will, same as players.

But a wise friend put it to me brilliantly yesterday.

To paraphrase, he said that mistakes by officials are almost always things that missed. On this, he saw something that wasn’t there.

It was the second time in a few weeks I’d been present at a game where such a decision was made.

Cargin won Antrim last weekend but could easily have paid a heavy price for the semi-final red card for Pat Shivers, issued at the end of normal time in their game with holders and neighbours Cargin.

Yet again, the referee was going on the word of another official, in this case an umpire who was on the blind side of the incident.

Shivers had tackled the ball just after the whistle had gone. Nobody reacted, not a word said, the game went on. Next thing, normal time ends and word filters through that Shivers is to be sent off for a strike that nobody saw or knew of.

The same applied to referee Colm McDonald that day, hung out on a decision that wasn’t his.

Video evidence surfaced within hours and quickly exonerated Shivers to the point that Cargin didn’t even need to appeal it. The red card was struck out by the referee in his report.

It threw up the question of how the umpire had thought there was anything close to a red card in it.

They got away with it, but it could very easily have gone the other way and they would have had every right to feel hard done by.

The great unspoken is that there aren’t enough officials to start punishing the ones we have for errors, no matter how grave they might be.

That lack of accountability for referees is one of the most damaging elements of an area that requires far deeper surgery than the GAA’s Referee Respect day planned for this Sunday.

You’d feel sorry for referees too because it’s an impossible sport to referee. You cannot be right because even when you think it’s black and white, it isn’t. There’s too much grey in the rules and if that continues, referees will always be in the firing line.

That’s both inside and outside of games, because the disciplinary process is such a mess that things aren’t dealt with in the way they should, whether that’s backing up a referee or his decisions.

There are calls that refs get wrong and they’re just the way it is, you live with it.

But there are calls that referees get wrong that are so far wrong that they’re very hard to live with.

Part of the wonder is what path we’re going down if the GAA plans to implement draconian measures such as awarding 13-metre frees for dissent.

The freedom to question a decision has to be reworked but remain enshrined, whether it’s through a captain or someone else.

The right to a civil answer and a justifiable answer is just as important.

Accountability is imperative.

That requires more referees and better referees.

More referees and better referees will only come as a result of the game’s rules being simplified, nailed down and tightened up.

The disciplinary process has to become more transparent.

A marketing campaign and a day of handshakes will only be an empty gesture if permanent moves are not made to fix the issues.

And to fix them, there must be a recognition that not all of the issues are with players.

Respect is earned, not given.