The wonder of David Clifford was overshadowed by shocking behaviour in junior final

Yet more reputational damage for the GAA as less edifying aspects come into focus

A few days rich in irony for the GAA from the casual undermining of the O’Byrne Cup in Leinster by intercounty managers, the very constituency that had bayed for its retention, to the continued appalling behaviour that erupts at club matches and the by now, familiar black comedy of “Respect the Referee”.

For an organisation so inordinately proud of all it has been doing for clubs, the GAA must at times reflect on the reputational damage routinely heaped on it by these very institutions.

The split season is acclaimed by most and has allowed the clubs time and space for their fixtures.

Taking a hit in the shape of a truncated intercounty schedule, the GAA has raised the profile of the club game and at times, the more optimistic have suggested that these local narratives can catch the imagination of a national television audience.


Further problems tend to emerge off Broadway, highlighted by social media. The increased profile comes at a price because in the absence of anything else going on, the less edifying aspects of the club game also come into focus.

So disgraceful was the treatment of match officials in the autumn that a special initiative had to be launched in October with an emphasis on respecting referees.

For the moment let’s start with a more obvious challenge: respecting yourself. On Sunday in the scabrous finale of the All-Ireland junior club football final, televised live by TG4, what was going through players’ heads?

It’s one thing to break rules in order to cope with opponents you can’t otherwise handle – cheating in shorthand – but when the best or worst efforts have failed, what is the point of making a show of yourself?

Stewartstown Harps looked very competitive with the ultimate champions, Fossa and only lost by three points but they appeared to treat the match as a lost cause in the closing minutes. How else do we explain the jaw-dropping (nearly jaw breaking) malice of Anton Coyle’s elbow smashing into Paudie Clifford’s face?

He must have known he wouldn’t get away with it. The almost simultaneous decision of Stewartstown’s Gareth Devlin to get himself a needless second yellow removed the player most likely to get the necessary goal to close the gap. He’d waited 18 years since his first club final in 2005 so why deliberately cut short the second?

There’s no point in trying to spread the blame. What was in it for Fossa, propelled into a spotlight unprecedented for junior football by the wonder of David Clifford, to turn the match into a brawl? Why hadn’t their previous matches descended into similar chaos?

There had been precedents in the antagonism apparently stirred in Tyrone by Kerry teams, like the Dromid Pearses-Derrytresk horror show of 11 years ago but equally Sunday’s intermediate final between Rathmore and Galbally passed without incident so there’s nothing irresistibly inevitable about matches between the counties’ clubs.

Thomas Murphy from Galway is an up-and-coming referee but he showed admirable calm in how he dealt with the chaotic scenes in injury time of the junior final by which point he had sent off just one player, Darren Devlin for an obvious jab at Emmett O’Shea.

Five further red cards would follow in time added-on and it was hard to disagree with any of them. David Clifford, already on a yellow, committed a deliberate foul to stop an attack building and his brother Paudie stuck his hand into Gerard O’Neill’s face and pushed it back.

O’Neill had earlier tried to pull Clifford up after he had been elbowed in the face and proceeded to confront him a number of times after he got up. That doesn’t excuse the retaliation or obviate the red card.

Another aspect of the match was the lack of sportsmanship, constant yakking in each other’s faces and Stewartstown’s provocative goading of David Clifford after he had been red-carded. To his credit, Connor Quinn appeared to be trying to instil some discipline in his team-mates by shepherding them away from the departing man of the moment.

Had injury time not taken the direction it did the match would have been an uncomplicated showcasing of David Clifford’s extraordinary year. His 0-11, eight from play, won the final in another demonstration of a priceless ability to perform outstandingly on the biggest days.

Maybe the older Clifford was still disorientated after nearly getting his jaw broken but you’d hope that he has apologised to Murphy for calling him out from the podium to take spurious issue with the red card and create the sourest of atmospheres at what should have been a celebration.

It reminded me of the time I was at a junior final and at the presentation to the referee and match officials, supporters of the losing team booed them – the very people without whom no matches could happen.

When launching last October’s “Respect the Referee” initiative, GAA president Larry McCarthy spoke of the need “to try and change the culture of the organisation”

The talk of culture change has again been in the air. It’s a genuine response to the sort of scenes broadcast on Sunday but it’s also becoming weary.

There is a temptation to deploy a famous misquotation: “when I hear the word culture, I reach for my gun” – or its more evocative correct version, “when I hear the word culture, I release the safety on my Browning”.

That’s because chronic, bad behaviour is only changed by the most stringent punishment, measures that penalise any miscreants so heavily that the behaviour is no longer in their interest. Such penalties clearly aren’t in place.