Ciarán Murphy: If GAA are unwilling to back referees then the system needs to change

Emotion and compassion should not cloud judgment when it comes to disciplinary matters

It’s an unfortunate fact of the slightly compressed GAA season of the last number of years that the All-Ireland hurling final build-up often gets overshadowed in the early part of the week by the All-Ireland football semi-finals that are usually on the weekend before.

That was very much the case this week as Dublin’s demise, and Mayo’s extraordinary comeback took up most of the GAA’s bandwidth.

One of the hardy perennials of the GAA preview menu is a long-running suspension saga, as one county or another tries to overturn a red card – no matter how egregious – picked up in the semi-final.

But this year we couldn’t even muster up one of those, as Peter Casey’s suspension for the red card he picked up in the semi-final against Waterford didn’t even survive into All-Ireland week. It was overturned eight days ago, to barely a ripple of surprise.


If the shots of Casey sitting disconsolately on the bench after his red card were genuinely affecting, someone could at least have reminded him that this is the GAA, and getting semi-final red cards to stick has proved beyond plenty of refereeing teams in the past, and so it came to pass again.

I don't know what else the referee John Keenan could have done in this situation. He spoke to his linesman, who recommended a yellow card. He spoke to his umpires, who recommended a red card.

He made a judgment call with all that information in his mind, and with a clear knowledge of what a red card could meant for Casey. He didn’t make that decision lightly.

Casey was, according to the Irish Examiner last week, cleared on the basis that the referee went with the advice given by his umpire, not his linesman who was the closest official to the incident. There was mention of supplementary video evidence, and perhaps that was definitive.

If it was definitive, one would have thought it would have helped Casey’s case for it to be as widely disseminated as possible (they could have asked former Limerick resident Rassie Erasmus for tips on how to subtly get it out into the open), but I wouldn’t wait up for that.

For the record, from what I could see, there didn’t seem to be much in it, particularly when you’re talking about a potential headbutt involving two players wearing helmets, and Casey playing on Sunday isn’t going to cost me a minute’s sleep.

But our referees have to be trusted to make a decision, and then backed when that decision is questioned. This isn't about Peter Casey. It's about referees being constantly undermined by the judicial system of which they are the first line.

Hanging them out to dry like this, as so often happens, is pretty unforgivable, and yet the referees, publicly at least, don’t seem to mind.

Fitzgibbon Cup-winning coach Jamie Wall made a novel suggestion to me this week. If the referee makes a decision to send a player off in an intercounty championship game, then that is as far as the referee's jurisdiction goes – the player is sent off for the duration of the game.

On the following Monday morning, a panel convenes to look over the two or three red-card incidents on a given weekend in the intercounty championship. They look at the infraction, and they make a decision on what suspension should be handed down.

Whatever process the referee went through to get to his decision is immaterial. The case is then judged solely on its merits. If the panel decides the red card doesn’t deserve any further sanction, beyond missing a portion of the game, then at least the referee isn’t being publicly told that his decision was incorrect.

If teams want to appeal a decision then they may, but not on the sort of frivolous ‘process’ grounds that we’ve seen from counties before. If you have incontrovertible evidence, then let’s see it . . . but the burden of proof has to lie with the appellant.

It’s not just the GAA that struggles with this, as the appeal culture is fairly well embedded in rugby also. But at least in rugby appeals, when the idea is offered that the offender in the dock is “not that kind of player”, that judgment is offered as mitigation, not as an excuse for complete exoneration.

The failure of the GAA to enforce a disciplinary system that backs referees to make decisions and help those decisions stick is such a disappointment. It creates the impression that decisions are made based on emotion, and compassion.

If it happens in a league game in February, we can act. But if it happens when the stakes are high, the calculation is different. The rules of the game don’t make distinctions for All-Ireland semi-finals, and neither should the disciplinary process in place to enforce those rules.

Emotion and compassion are very laudable human qualities, but they have no place clouding the judgment of those involved in the enforcement of justice . . . not even in All-Ireland final week.