Why does it not seem strange for a GAA ref to need a security escort to walk off a pitch?

Cavan’s under-21 story is one of the best around but Saturday left an unpleasant taste

Cavan manager Peter Reilly confronts referee Derek O’Mahoney at the end of the All-Ireland  Under 21 Football Championship semi-final at O’Moore Park in  Portlaoise. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Cavan manager Peter Reilly confronts referee Derek O’Mahoney at the end of the All-Ireland Under 21 Football Championship semi-final at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho


Another GAA day ends with a referee ducking for cover as men in high vis jackets walk with elbows cocked to guard him from supporters. A couple of heroes hop out of the stand to berate him all the way to the sideline. One gets close enough to push him. Player after player roars abuse in his face. Something is thrown as he enters the tunnel and heads for the dressingroom.

By far the most depressing thing about the way Derek O’Mahoney was treated at the end of Saturday’s All-Ireland under-21 semi-final is nobody thinks this is odd. There’s a lot of tut-tutting, plenty of hand-wringing, endless righteousness.

There is, of course, a significant rump of people to mitigate, to blame him for making mistakes or point out – correctly, as if it matters – this wasn’t the worst of the genre. But nobody anywhere on the spectrum between condemn and condone considers the idea of a GAA referee needing security to walk from a pitch as being in any way unusual.

We know referees get things wrong in every sport in every country in the world. We know they make mistakes that affect the outcome of games, of leagues, of championships. We know they don’t see things they ought to, react to things they thought they saw but didn’t. We know some of them are too old, some too young, some just aren’t very good at the job.

We know these things because we know what human nature is. We know most sports are based on some combination of speed and skill and the best practitioners are those who can use that skill and speed to deceive. We watch Colm Cooper half-delay a solo to fool Cian O’Sullivan and Ger Brennan in the All-Ireland semi-final and we don’t hold it against either of them. Sometimes the brain and the eye and the body can’t keep up.

Judgment calls
Yet when a referee fails, we don’t sympathise. We don’t make allowances for speed and skill. We apply absolutes to what are by definition judgment calls. And we see those judgment calls through the prism of our own allegiances. He’s a disgrace. He always wrongs the smaller teams.

Everything is governed by self-interest. And, up to a point, of course it should be. Of course Cavan manager Peter Reilly should stand up for Cavan after an All Ireland semi-final. And of course Cavan supporters should feel aggrieved at how some of the calls went late on in that game. But when they pretend it’s fair play and overall refereeing standards that concerns them, they move on to shaky ground. And when they leave their seats in the stand to go and confront O’Mahoney in menace, they lose whatever sympathy there was for their plight.

Which is damn shame because this Cavan story is one of the great ones in the GAA at the minute. When we throw around an amorphous phrase like “great work at underage”, this is what it looks like. They are unbeaten at under-21 level in Ulster for four years now because they go about their business the right way. Low numbers are the curse of any small county and yet they keep their under-21s away from the senior panel until the competition is over. Even Dublin with all their bounty aren’t willing to do that.

In the Anglo Celt last week, they marked the four-year run through Ulster by listing the name of every player who had lined out for Cavan across the 13 games, with every club alongside them. It was a small, lovely thing, a reminder that wherever we all end up with this thing of ours, nothing in it works unless it’s rooted in locality and the eternal call of home. A few of them are scattered around the world by now but last week the families they left behind were able to run their finger across an old memory of a time when they were defiantly and triumphantly Cavan.

Articulate speech
If you have a spare seven minutes sometime today, go seek out Conor Moynagh’s speech after the Ulster final win over Donegal. The Cavan captain reads it off an assiduously-typed A4 sheet inside one of those little plastic folders students put in ring binders.

It’s more than just your usual winning speech. Instead of three cheers for Donegal, he asks for applause for their efforts. When he thanks the Cavan supporters, he asks them to be silent so that they players can clap them for once instead of the other way around. At the end, he calls three squad members to come up and lift the cup with him.

Cavan are like plenty of small counties out there, aching beyond articulation for one day different. Their football is bound up in them, tied with strings of local pride, desperate longing, fierce and genuine partisanship.

If you are a Cavan GAA supporter, you see this thing as an extension of you. The hope. The fatalism. The anger at them hoors up in Croke Park. And yes, you watch a referee play an advantage for Dublin with the game on the line when he didn’t play one for Cavan in the first half and it drives you to distraction.

But again, this happens in every sport. Yet for all of soccer’s history of crowd trouble, there is no culture of going onto the pitch afterwards to threaten the ref. If you did it an American sporting event, you’d leave the stadium in handcuffs.

Not here. Not in the GAA. It’s not seen as outlandish behaviour or even particularly strange. It’s just one of those things that happens, regrettable but hardly earth-shattering.

Isn’t there something just a bit ridiculous about that?

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