Cup matches are often prone to getting a little over-heated, but last weekend in Northern Ireland an Irish Cup Fifth Round match between Newry City and Larne was abandoned with eight minutes to play when a fight broke out between the two teams. Newry were leading at the time, but both teams face the likelihood of being thrown out of the competition. The incident started with a pushing and shoving contest that resulted in the Larne captain Liam Hogan being sent off. Play resumed with tempers still evidently high, and just a couple of minutes later Larne’s Alan Reid followed him down the tunnel after a late tackle.
After this, all hell broke loose. The match wasn’t videoed, but a local radio commentator caught the subsequent fight as it happened. The photographic evidence seems fairly damning against the Larne players, with one particularly appalling picture appearing to show Larne’s Anthony Lagan aiming a kick at the head of a Newry player that was down on the ground. In addition to this, the Larne manager was sent to the stand – arguably the decision that kick-started the fight – and left the pitch before returning to remonstrate the referee, Raymond Crangle. Crangle abandoned the match with fights still simmering all over the pitch.
It has been noted that there was no video recording of the match and that neither was there a fourth official in attendance. Neither of these factors should be a major issue – thousands of matches take place all over Britain without these, and they shouldn’t be required in case the players concerned have a mass brawl towards the end of the game – but the IFA, who now have the depressing task of raking through various versions of what actually happened, might find that this stymies their attempts to ensure that justice is seen to be done. They will be largely dependent on what was or wasn’t seen by the referee, and it is difficult to say what he did or didn’t see and whether what he did see was representative of what happened.
After all, while the photographic evidence against the Larne players would appear to be damning, cameras are capable of lying and it would be facile to say that everything that happened was captured on camera. It takes, says the old saying, two to tango whilst it may be convenient – some might even say expedient – to throw the book at Larne (who were losing the match in any case – by upholding the 2-1 scoreline the IFA wouldn’t even have to throw them out of the competition), but there are issues relating to the behaviour of the players and officials of both clubs that need to be examined.
The real question is this: considering the fact that national media attention is now being drawn towards the story (which has made the front page of the BBC’s football website), can the IFA afford to not throw the book at those involved? Football in Northern Ireland – as it does south of the border – continues to haemorrhage supporters to England and Scotland each weekend, with the perception of the domestic game in Northern Ireland remaining less than entirely positive. The behaviour of all concerned last weekend has done no favours to the reputation of football in Northern Ireland, and it can ill-afford bad publicity at present.
Quite what punishments the IFA will confirm are anybody’s guess. Larne have, on the basis of an interim investigation and the referee’s report (which has not yet been made public), already suspended Anthony Lagan with immediate effect, which could be interpreted cynically as a pre-emptive gesture before the IFA lay the law down or more reaonably as a reaction to some incriminating looking photographic evidence. It seems unlikely – and many would argue that it would be foolhardy of them – to make too many more public statements before the IFA has had the chance to sift through the wreckage of what was supposed to be football match.
Yet, for all of this, there is one positive that can be taken from the events of last weekend. In spite of everything that happened on the pitch at Newry last weekend, there was no report of any problems off the pitch. It would be nice to think that someone, at some level, might actually notice this and that, at some point in the future, it might be remembered that the supporters, who would be slaughtered in the press were there to be any sort of trouble on the terraces, were the best behaved people in attendance when the behaviour on the pitch was worse than anything that we are ever likely to see from football supporters. It may be, considering everything, a small consolation, but at least the supporters of Newry City and Larne can step back from it all with their heads held high.