Sanction for Davy Fitzgerald must reflect gravity of offence

Deliberately flouting rules to enhance your own team’s chances demands firm response

The original prompt for GAA director general Páraic Duffy's discussion paper on amateur status and payments to managers was remarks made in an address titled The Challenge of Change by Professor Gearóid Ó Tuathaigh at an event to mark the GAA's 125th anniversary, seven years ago.

Duffy was in the audience and impressed by Ó Tuathaigh’s argument that widespread, irregular payments to managers constituted a major challenge to the GAA.

The address cited the fall from grace of the Roman Catholic Church within Irish society as a warning of what happens to institutions that chronically fail to practise what they preach and fail to punish those who breach their rules.

The GAA's Central Competitions Control Committee are currently considering Wexford manager Davy Fitzgerald's behaviour last Sunday but the prominence of his pitch incursion and jostling with Tipperary's Niall O'Meara and Jason Forde has made the incidents hard to ignore or trivialise.


Within the GAA there has arguably been a greater grasp of the importance of rules in the years since Ó Tuathaigh’s 2009 warning – for example the introduction of the black card to make certain rule-breaking less profitable – but still there’s enough ambiguity around to make the precise nature of punishment something of a mystery.

For instance, should Fitzgerald be charged with the infraction of physical interference in Rule 7.2 (c) or disruptive conduct at 7.2 (d)?

Again it should be obvious that the one which best describes what happened should be the basis of the charge and that means the former.

A perceived obstacle to dealing with the situation appropriately is the Wexford manager’s rapidly acquired status as messiah for one of the country’s most easily aroused counties.

The combination of his extraordinary energy levels, coaching skills and tactical acumen has worked so well that the county are back in the top division and have beaten Kilkenny and fostered high hopes that this can be repeated in the championship.

Wexford on the march to the Promised Land is a cheering sight for the GAA. Large enthusiastic crowds generate income and a sense of excitement. Interfering with that, the perception runs, is not going to be done lightly.

Major handicap

Limiting Fitzgerald’s involvement with the team for eight weeks – the prescribed punishment under 7.2 (c) II a – would be a major handicap in the lead-up to what most people believe will be a provincial semi-final against Kilkenny on 10th June in Wexford Park, assuming they win the quarter-final.

After the match Fitzgerald was emollient about the whole business, undertaking – not entirely tongue-in-cheek – not to do it again but he left the CCCC little room for manoeuvre by more or less admitting that the pitch encroachment had been calculated to try and gee up his team after the concession of a controversial goal, which should have been disallowed because of a foul on Wexford defender James Breen. This explanation removed the – admittedly tenuous – 'red mist' defence.

The problem with the incident was also that it could have led to much worse. Getting involved with opposition players might in different circumstances have incited a free-for-all.

What makes it something that demands a response though is the suggestion that in order to enhance your team's chances it was somehow worth the risk to break the rules. As former Cork All-Ireland winning captain Tomás Mulcahy observed, you didn't see Tipperary manager Michael Ryan racing on to confront people over his team's curious inability to get frees throughout the match.

Suspension for team officials is already a bit of a grey area. There is no doubt that the prescribed penalty is a ban from “all functions, privileges and competitions under the association’s control” and that clearly includes all work to do with preparing a team and not just having to sit in the front row of the stand rather than the dugout on match day.

How that is actually enforced is another matter, especially as there is nothing to stop someone from going to a training session even if they aren’t allowed enter the field and engage with the players. The match day sanctions are easier to oversee: not only must a suspended manager sit in the stand but he is not allowed enter the dressing room at half-time.

Beyond that, short of detailing a private investigator to follow the suspended individual around it is very difficult to ensure that there is no interaction with players.

There is a fund of anecdotal evidence about how rigorously these aspects of the suspension are monitored and very little of it suggests that managers are even regularly kept out of the dressing-rooms on match day let alone prevented from training teams.

The temptation to break rules for your own advantage is best countered by punishment that makes it in your best interest to obey them.

At present the penalty for any GAA member or player illegally participating while under suspension is a further suspension of 24 weeks, Rule 7.5 (m). The penalty though for teams fielding a suspended player includes forfeiture of the match.

If the association wants to remedy the current situation in the light of Professor ó Tuathaigh’s concerns, the suspension of managers should come with the same warning. Any involvement by a suspended team official on – or in preparation for – match day should risk having the match awarded against the offending team.

That would be an interesting consideration for any manager calculating the benefits of invading the pitch to razz up the lads or taking training on a quiet night while under suspension.