The GAA: Real Amateurs

by | Jun 10, 2016

“Tell you what. Saturday afternoons are bulls**t when there’s no football on,” tweeted 200%’s master craftsman Ian King last weekend. Mark Murphy spent the afternoon watching hurling and disagrees, for a very specific reason.

Ireland’s Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) are no sham amateurs, as an ongoing controversy from Saturday’s GAA activities made embarrassingly clear. There’s a lot of money in Gaelic sports. And running the biggest teams costs big-money, when it comes to physical conditioning and travel and other expenses. Financial strategies need to be ruthless (the GAA was called the “Grab All Association” during the 2000s, for reasons with which I will not bore you here). Players and managers, however, are amateurs. One leading hurling manager, a teacher, is managing in this year’s championship while on…parental leave (logical, perhaps, in soccer, given the emotional immaturity so often on display). And last Saturday, some of the game’s administrators were especially amateur, leaving the destiny of a major trophy in on-going doubt.

Hurling is Ireland’s national sport. However, Irish is the country’s national language. And Irish people are only fluent at either in small parts of the country. In a well-intentioned effort to make hurling a true national sport, the All-Ireland Championships have four discrete competitions. Al Irish counties, plus Lancashire, Warwickshire and London, participate. The main All-Ireland final is traditionally held on the first Sunday in September, while the other three finals are on the first Saturday in June, all held in the GAA’s 82,800-capacity Croke Park, in North Dublin.

This gives hurlers of all shapes and sizes the chance to play in the country’s biggest ground (and I MEAN all shapes and sizes… Louth won this year’s fourth-tier final with a goalkeeper who’d be played by James Corden in the movie), similar to Wembley participants in FA Trophy and Vase finals. This year, Meath played Antrim in the second-tier final and despite Antrim being almost unbackable favourites, Meath recovered from being outclassed for the first third of the game to prevail with a classically-dramatic stoppage-time point. Or so we thought…

With ten minutes left, Antrim were four points up (22-18), a retrievable lead for a Meath side 11-2 behind after twenty minutes. Four points is, to use a common phrase, “nothing in hurling,” where scores can be taken from almost any distance with a bit of luck and a following wind. (NB: Hurling scores are usually expressed in goals AND points. A goal is worth three points and a point is…well…guess. So, Antrim were leading by 1-19 to 1-15 at this stage. However, some of my English friends can’t multiply by three when faced with hurling scores. So, I’ll stick to points here).

I was watching the match on my PC, on the GAA’s official stream of Irish language channel TG4’s live coverage. But by this stage, my attention was diverted by SKY TV’s build-up to All-Ireland football champions Dublin’s first game in their title defence. So when the scoreboard showed Meath only 21-19 behind, I thought I’d missed a couple of scores (“nothing in hurling”, remember) rather than a shape-shifting comeback from 22-18 behind. And I had the sound down, so I didn’t hear the commentators’ puzzled tones, which would have revealed something was unusual, even though I understand very little Irish. I watched more closely as Antrim stretched their lead, then lost it to a late goal and a point (four points) from Meath’s Sean Quigley, who came on as a substitute with six minutes left. Woooh, I thought. And switched the PC off to concentrate on the football on SKY.

Three hours later, a story appeared on my twitter timeline from the website of Ireland’s national broadcaster, RTE, headlined Antrim to review video after result against Meath. Meath’s afore-mentioned comeback was, apparently, as ‘unlikely’ as it seemed. The story, posted at 10.26, read “Antrim will review a video of the one-point loss…before deciding whether or not to appeal the result after conflicting reports about the final score. While the Croke Park scoreboard and the TG4 graphic had Meath as winners, many reporters…had it down as a draw.” Indeed, Irish News journalist Brendan Cross tweeted at the final whistle: “There is something wrong here. Entire press box has it level.” And many website reports on Meath’s 24-23 “victory” included a list of Meath scorers/scores which only added up to 23.

RTE also reported: “Referee John O’Brien from Tipperary later told TG4 that his report confirms the result in Meath’s favour.” It therefore seemed, to me anyway, that O’Brien had genuinely recorded an extra Meath score. However, RTE focused on the ever-changing scoreboards, offering an almost frame-by-frame account of the discrepancies between ground scoreboard and TV graphic, concluding that Meath were awarded a point that Antrim had scored and that TG4 recorded the phantom Meath point while, eventually, also recording Antrim’s real point. Oh…and TG4 interviewed match-winner Quigley after the game accompanied by a graphic which gave him an extra point.

I was puzzled. First by O’Brien’s insistence that he had the score right. If so, he could surely account for the time of Meath’s 20 scores. Second by the lack of a stir from Antrim staff, who thought it was a draw. Manager Dominic McKinley said he “told the linesman ‘there’s a score missing,’” yet had to be prompted to address the issue in his post-match interviews. And they weren’t animated by Meath players cavorting around Croke Park like rank outsiders who’d clinched a dramatic win, while Antrim players were in various shapes of slump, like hot favourites who’d suffered a dramatic loss. And third, as I tweeted at 11.10: “Surely this video review won’t take long. Shouldn’t even take until now?” After all, the game lasted 75-ish minutes and anyone with access to the TV recording and a workable fast-forward button could have analysed all the necessary information in under an hour.

After some thought, and to prove both my point and that I have…no…life…whatsoever, I undertook the exercise, using the GAA’s own live stream, available outside Ireland on their “GAA GO” website. This lacked a workable fast-forward button. Yet I had the match carefully checked in about an hour. So, at 12.40 on Sunday morning, I knew the sides finished level (I since discovered that Irish News journalist had done likewise and tweeted at 8.07: “Watched Christy Ring final back on fast forward. Definitely finished (level)”). The only doubt came on 40 minutes when Meath appeared to score a point from near the main (Hogan) stand sideline. The crowd, barely 10% of capacity, were all in the centre of the Hogan Stand and ideally placed to see if it was a score.

Those who made a noise cheered and TV cameras cut to scorer Sean Heavey. However, the cheers turned to groans and Heavey had his arms outstretched, as if appealing. This suggested a wide (miss) had been signalled by the match umpires alongside the posts. The TV commentator twice said “Hawk-Eye,” the technology used for disputed scores/misses, for which there is no Irish word. However, play restarted, with the scoreboard unmoved. I therefore tweeted: “If the ref gave that point (about which the ideally placed crowd were convinced), Meath won. And that took me just under an hour to figure out. I should get out more, shouldn’t I?” I posted my theory on the RTE story comments section. The response was widespread agreement… that I should get out more.

The general response, aside from the disappointingly few who said the match was drawn and should be replayed, was to blame TG4, who were not involved in the official scoring, the GAA for “typical lack of respect for smaller teams and lesser competitions” and Meath for… well… being Meath. Resentment still lingers about Meath’s footballers beating Louth in a big match in 2010 with a clearly illegitimate last-second goal. Goals must be scored by clearly striking the ball but Meath’s Joe Sheridan caught the ball two yards out and rolled…ROLLED onto the line before pushing/throwing it into the net (imagine Harry Kane scoring the winner at the Euros…no, come back…by doing just that).

The goal stood and Meath won as a direct result. The referee eventually admitted his error but had already submitted his report, which meant a replay could only happen if Meath offered one. They didn’t. Saturday’s referee also eventually admitted his error, a dramatic volte-face which should garner more attention. And the GAA ordered a replay this Saturday. But arguments persisted. Meath manager Martin Ennis insisted: “We have no intention of paying the price for a mistake of the GAA,” momentarily forgetting that Meath won because of that mistake. And he hinted at something more: “We sought clarification about Sean Heavey’s perfectly good point but…they never even looked at that score. I requested that the officials look at the point with Hawkeye at the time. Why did they refuse?”

He also suggested Meath couldn’t prepare properly for Saturday because, according to the Irish News: “Many of Meath’s players spent the remainder of the weekend socialising.” Ahem. Meath’s county board issued a written statement (literally at first, tweeting a semi-scribbled note asking readers to “excuse the handwriting, the meeting is just over”). They agreed to a replay but only at Croke Park “as befits…a national final,” on June 18th. This seemed reasonable, except for the fact that Antrim are due to play an Ulster Provincial Hurling Championship match on June 19th. So, naturally, Antrim rejected Meath’s almost literally back-of-fag-packet proposal. And Antrim’s secretary Frankie Quinn said they would appear on Saturday regardless.

This raised the spectre of Antrim starting on their own. And it would have been in keeping with the week of farce if Antrim missed their first shot and, with no Meath player around to restart it, the game had to finish scoreless. Mercifully, something near common sense prevailed. The GAA today (Thursday) considered a “formal request” from Meath (typed, presumably) “for a postponement” of the replay. “Given the unique circumstances,” the GAA reset it for June 25th at Croke Park. At the time of typing, no objections have been raised. But anything could yet happen. Sadly, “unique circumstances” is neither the euphemism for farce it first appears, nor true. Scores have been miscounted or incorrectly allowed/disallowed before and replays ordered many times before. And referee O’Brien’s contradictions over his match report have not been adequately questioned. Unless he co-incidentally made the exact same error as the scorers, he’s being economical with the truth somewhere.

Instead, scoreboards are the scapegoat. Scoreboard operations are not the GAA’s direct responsibility. But only a cynic would link these two points. GAA players’ amateur status is a source of genuine pride. Players truly represent where they were born or live purely for the love of the game and do so to a highly-professional standard (hurling at its best IS the best field sport in the world). The amateurism of so much of the rest of the GAA’s operations is too often a source of genuine shame, as the fiasco this week has highlighted.