Does the GAA have a bias problem?

FYI 1: Irish Gaelic football is divided into county teams and club teams. In any county, there will be lots of club teams. As an amateur organisation, GAA rules require that all players who play for a club or county must actually be from that club or county area – there is no transfer market. As a result, when a local club wins, it genuinely is a 100% home-grown success, and all the more satisfying because of that.

FYI 2: In Gaelic football, you can score either points (over the crossbar), or goals (under the crossbar). A goal is equivalent to 3 points.

FYI 3: A Gaelic football team consists of 15 players. It’s an offence to have 16 or more players on a field of play.

Recently, in the All-Ireland Gaelic football club final, Glen, a rural team from a Northern county (Derry), narrowly lost an All-Ireland club cup final to Kilmacud, a large urban club from a Southern county (Dublin). The losing margin was 2 points (i.e., one goal would have won it for Glen). The concluding phase of the game saw Glen attacking the Kilmacud goal, and a goal chance (which would have won the game for Glen) was successfully defended by Kilmacud, and Kilmacud ran out narrow winners of the hard-fought competition.

So far, so sport – winners and losers, etc.

There is a twist in this tale, however. In the closing minutes, Kilmacud had made a couple of substitutions. (Teams often do this when they’re defending a narrow one-score lead, to run down the clock and to disrupt the chasing team’s momentum.)

However, they did not take off the substituted players. So, when defending the closing phase of the game, Kilmacud had 17 players on the pitch. One illegal additional player did not interfere with play, but the other illegal extra player was actively assisting to defend Kilmacud’s goal-line.

The illegal extra player incident was widely reported on in Irish media – it made front page news in Ireland’s paper of record, The Irish Times, and pictures showing 16 players back defending the final Glen attack were everywhere:

The referee had done nothing about the transgression during the game, and Kilmacud was awarded the trophy.

Given the widespread publicity and photographic evidence of the incident, Glen waited to see what the GAA (the Gaelic Athletic Association, the body which administers the main Gaelic sports of Gaelic football, hurling and handball) would do about such a blatant transgression. The GAA rule book states that any such offence can be dealt with either by retrospectively awarding the game to the innocent team, or by ordering a replay, or by fining the guilty team.

But the GAA did nothing. They weren’t even coy about it:

Very quickly, the narrative was put about that, under its rules, the GAA had no power to intervene in the matter, and that it could only do so if the losing team first lodged an offical complaint.

In Irish culture, there are powerful macho social norms about “not making a fuss” and “moving on“.

In that regard, Ireland is not America. For instance, if we go to a restaurant, and the food and service are poor, we will grumble to each other in private, but we will not publicly complain. In fact, we will lie about it to the maître d’, and assure him or her that everything had been to our satisfaction, or “grand“.

So, even though Glen had been wronged in the matter, because it’s Ireland, Glen would still attract criticism even for highlighting the issue. Even if you were cheated out of something, you must not be seen to be a “poor loser“.

The GAA knew that, and may have been relying on that very Irish embarrassment about standing up for yourself in public.

However, Glen did lodge an official objection. This led to a counter-objection by Kilmacud (I understand that the basis of their counter-objection involved blaming the referee), and rumours that, if a replay was ordered, they wouldn’t even field a team anyway, thereby facing Glen with the prospect of looking like a national laughing stock for “winning” a cup after being awarded a walkover.

With no end to the saga in sight, and no sign of an offer of any replay from Kilmacud, and with some players already being called up for inter-county duty and others going off on holiday, Glen decided to cut their losses and withdrew their objection.

Nonethless, the attacks on Glen continued in the Southern Irish media.

Check out this bitter article in The Irish Independent – I don’t buy that paper, but the bit I can see for free states:

“Having done their best to take the good out of it for the winners, the vanquished scuttled away from the mess they’d created when the penny dropped that they were starting to look like poor losers.

On Friday night Watty Graham’s Glen did a u-turn because they realised they had overplayed their hand and backed themselves into a corner by pursuing Kilmacud Crokes through the committee rooms, having not been good enough to beat them on the field of play ...”

See article.

How about an alternative narrative, Tommy:

“Having won the game by having an illegal extra defender on the goal-line for Glen’s last attack, Kilmacud management (I’m sure the team would have had no issue replaying promptly if they’d been asked to do so) ran away from an opportunity to settle the contest honourably. 

Given that Kilmacud were so obviously intent on retaining the trophy by dragging the issue through the committee rooms instead of being manly about it, the whole saga was set to drag on for ages, and given that lads (on all sides) had made holiday, inter-county and other plans, it was better to draw the saga to a conclusion, given that Crokes’ management were going to need to be dragged kicking and screaming back onto a pitch.”

The mindset of the GAA’s top brass can be discerned from space – “who do they think they are, coming down here expecting to be treated as if they were as important as a big Dublin club!”

And of course Kilmacud, and the GAA top brass know that, given the unpredictable and competitive nature of Ulster club football, there is a fair chance Glen won’t be back competing at a national level any time soon, so no real world motivational advantage will be handed to them any time soon.

(My own county correctly did not even think of objecting when Dublin’s Charlie Redmond failed to leave the pitch in the 1995 All Ireland county final, but that was a very different scenario.  I was at that match, and recall that Charlie, despite being on the pitch illegally, was nowhere near / did not affect any relevant play, so his presence on the pitch was a mere technical infringement and therefore irrelevant to the result.  But it’s a very different story when the extra player is actively involved in defending the chasing team’s last attack!) 

Separately, I’ve seen it repeatedly stated, by pundits and posters seeking to excuse the GAA top brass’ refusal to intervene, that, under the rules, the GAA was “unable to intervene” as the rule book does not afford them such an opportunity. 

In other words, the poor GAA had no choice but to wait and let a team lodge an objection first.

Sounds plausible.

The only problem with that narrative is that it is 100% wrong. 

During the recent socer World Cup, I noted how FIFA clearly did not understand its own rules.

In this case, I’m more inclined to think the GAA knows its own rules perfectly well.

In any event, and despite the widespread public narrative asserting the exact opposite, under the GAA’s own rule book, the GAA top brass does have every right to intervene unilaterally without needing a team to make the first move.  

The GAA Rule Book’s rule 6.44 (b) (i) sets out the offence of “A team exceeding the number of players permitted under Rule 2.1 Rules of Specification, Playing Rules” and confirms, in black and white, in straightforward and unambiguous  language, that the penalties for such an offence are “Award of Game to the Opposing Team, or Replay, or Fine”, and that, crucially, such penalties can be imposed either as the result of “… a proven objectionor as the result of “an Inquiry by the Committee-in-Charge”. See:

There you have it – straightforward stuff – the GAA’s own rules enable one of its committees unilaterally to intervene without waiting for any of the relevant teams to object first. 

I’m sure that the relevant GAA committee is well aware of the content of its own rules.  It’s just that they did not wish to apply them. 

And I don’t imagine that everyone who so confidently asserts that the “GAA couldn’t intervene” can’t read.  It’s just that we’re largely in a post-reading age, and of course, in any event, the narrative suited them.

No anti-Northern bias in the GAA?

Perhaps there isn’t. But I wouldn’t put it any more strongly than that. .

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