Comments by Donegal club Naomh Conaill that they're not interested in collapsing the Ulster football championship will have taken the heat out of the weekend decision by Croke Park's Central Appeals Committee to refer back to the Ulster Council the club's appeal against Donegal county committee's dismissal of their objection to the county semi-final defeat by Glenswilly.
The controversy has, however, re-focused attention on that hardy annual – the attempts of teams to invalidate the outcome of matches on the basis of refereeing error.
Naomh Conaill objected to their defeat by Glenswilly because one of their opponents, Ciarán Bonner, had been shown a black card after already receiving a yellow. The referee, Jim White, a former inter-county match official, neglected to show a red card and so Bonner was replaced on the team instead of leaving the county champions a man short.
Donegal county committee accepted the referee’s report and confirmed the final score, and when Naomh Conaill appealed to the provincial council, the appeal was ruled out of order. By now the case was becoming more tenuous anyway, as Glenswilly had lost the county final against St Eunan’s.
On the face of it, the appellants' objection didn't look too promising. The position on refereeing error is quite clear since the 2005 determination by the Disputes Resolution Authority.
A football match that year in Limerick between Fr Casey’s and St Senan’s gave rise to a challenge from Fr Casey’s, based on a refereeing error in respect of a score. The DRA ruling laid it out plainly.
“If Fr Casey’s are correct that there was a mistake in this case and that it changed the outcome of the game, then one must have sympathy for them. However, even if they are right on both of these issues, this cannot allow for an erosion of the principle of referees’ control.
“How an error at any particular stage in a game will affect the outcome is something of an imponderable, and the fact that injustice will occasionally result from a blanket protection of referees’ decisions is a consequence that must be borne by all. It is the lesser evil.”
The only exception is if “a referee is shown to have had an improper motive amounting to a corruption of his role as an impartial arbiter of fact and rule”.
Although the statement from the Central Appeals Committee (CAC) at the weekend just said that the Ulster Council had erred in ruling out of order the appeal and directed the province to hear the case, the decision was purely procedural. In other words, CAC made no finding on the merit of the Naomh Conaill case but merely stated it shouldn’t have been ruled out of order. There is perhaps a substantive case that could be made along the lines that by having someone who should have been sent off, on the field, Glenswilly were fielding an illegal player.
It’s unlikely though that such an argument would carry weight when the circumstances giving rise to such a situation so clearly flowed from the referee’s error.
This raises maybe an ethical point about the responsibility of teams to keep track of their own players and their delinquencies when reacting to an incident such as happened in the Donegal semi-final.
Is the lapse significantly different for a team mistakenly to replace a player who should have been shown a red card than it would be to send on one replacement too many – as appeared at one stage some years ago in some sort of craze?
Incidents like the one in Donegal haven’t exactly constituted an epidemic but they have arisen. Then again, we’re not yet a full year into the operation of the black card and it’s to be expected that bedding-in difficulties will arise.
Ordered a re-match
In a Munster colleges match at the beginning of the year exactly the same thing was deemed to have happened and the provincial post-primary
Competitions Control Committee
ordered a re-match. Rather than kick up over the decision, which on the face of it looks eminently challengeable, the school in question accepted the decision.
The highest-profile example of a similar situation arising at national level was probably the All-Ireland minor football semi-final between Cork and Derry in 2000. A Cork player, Kieran Murphy, was shown a second yellow card seven minutes from time but wasn't dismissed.
Derry protested and took their grievance to the old Games Administration Committee, which ruled that the match result must stand. The incident caused extreme ill-will between the counties, with Cork at one stage claiming that referee Gerry Kinneavy had accepted the first yellow card shouldn’t have been shown.
During the past 14 years Croke Park’s structures for processing hearings have been radically overhauled so it’s hard to be sure what course of action the modern disciplinary apparatus would take if asked to adjudicate on the facts of the Naomh Conaill objection or similar cases.
Presumably though, we’ll get to find out at some stage.