Nobody in their right mind would seek to justify the stupid, mindless physical attacks made on referee Martin Sludden in the chaotic aftermath to today’s Leinster final at Croke Park. Regardless of what any supporter thinks about a referee’s performance, such cretinous carry-on cannot and should not be allowed to happen on a Gaelic football field. Every effort should be made to identify those involved in the assaults on the ref – and those idiots who threw bottles down from the Davin Stand, knocking a steward unconscious in the process – so that they may be appropriately dealt with.
But if the GAA stop there and fail to examine thoroughly the circumstances that gave rise to the post-match pandemonium, then they will – once again – be refusing to recognise the serious problem they have where it comes to match refereeing. Today’s shocking performance by Martin Sludden isn’t the first time this year that a ref has failed utterly in his job and I have my doubts that it’ll be the last. Indeed, the only consistency where it comes to reffing Gaelic football is how poor it is, yet the GAA still doesn’t appear to recognise there’s any problem in this area at all.
Virtually every weekend brings a fresh batch of complaints about another refereeing stinker but all criticisms of desperately poor officiating are routinely waved away. I gather that ref supremo Mick Curley was on the radio this evening, spinning furiously in defence of the hapless Sludden, as he has done again and again in relation to other refereeing failures in the past. This is the mindset that sees Marty Duffy, who did nothing about that assault on Nicholas Murphy in last year’s All-Ireland, being pronounced as the ref of the year. Or Joe McQuillan getting to do the line at last year’s minor final, despite his woeful performance as ref in our quarter-final with Meath.
The easiest thing in the world for the GAA to do now would be to concentrate exclusively on the post-match thuggery and brush under the carpet everything that occurred during the game. At one level this would be understandable – Sludden is, like all other GAA refs, doing this in his spare time and, at a human level, he deserves some sympathy. Such feelings shouldn’t, however, be the determining factor in dealing with this case. Instead, the GAA needs to ask itself why a ref of such limited competence was handed a high profile match like this in the first instance (our sole experience of him was the 2007 U21 All-Ireland semi-final and his poor performance that day marked him down as someone you’d think twice about before handing him the reins to a big match). And it simply has to ensure that refereeing failure on the scale witnessed today has a consequence. Otherwise, the blight of desperately poor refereeing will continue to eat away at the attractiveness of the game.