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Ciarán Murphy: The unsettling gap between the GAA rulebook and the GAA Way

The reaction to Kilmacud Crokes’s blunder at the end of the All-Ireland club final shows us, yet again, that tradition is a powerful thing

There is the GAA Rulebook, and there is the GAA Way. And stuck between the two this week was Watty Graham’s Glen GAA club from Maghera in Derry.

The GAA Way dictates that Glen had their chance on the field of play, they didn’t win last Sunday’s All-Ireland club football final, and therefore anything that happened before the final whistle doesn’t matter. You shake hands and you move on. You take your beating with good grace.

After they lodged their appeal on Tuesday night, they will hope the GAA rulebook looks on things a little differently.

The GAA Way is a powerful thing. I found my own reaction to this unfolding story very interesting. On Monday morning, I discussed the incident among friends and work colleagues, and I was entirely convinced that this would blow over – that it was an unfortunate, slightly rum way to finish an All-Ireland final, but that it was over.


And you know why I knew that it was over? Because Kilmacud Crokes had walked up the steps of the Hogan Stand. They’d lifted the trophy. They’d posed for photographs on the field. The game was over, because . . . well, look! All the things that signify the game being over have already happened!

Even now, I can feel the non-logical part of my brain emitting a general sense of unease at this game being replayed. This is the GAA Way, meddling with my cognitive processes.

The reality is, the rules were broken. A foundation-stone of the game is that it’s 15 against 15. If there’s a more clear-cut rule in the rulebook than that, you’d be hard pressed to find it. It was only for 30 seconds or so, but it was for the last move of the game, and at that moment Glen were still only one kick of the ball away from taking the lead.

You might ask how often does a goal occur in that situation. To which you could say that it happened in this very game last year, against the very same team defending a two-point lead last Sunday. You might ask how much use a full-forward even is on the goal-line . . . to which the answer would be “pretty useful”, considering he caught a David Moran effort on the goal-line in the last minute of this year’s semi-final.

This is an egregious error by the officiating team. The fourth official does not have many functions, even in a game of this enormity. In fact, making sure that substitutes are brought on and taken off in a timely fashion is pretty much the sum total of that responsibility. There was an obvious failure here.

16th man Kilmacud

But by the letter of the law, it is Crokes’ responsibility to ensure they have the correct number of players on the field. They too are at fault, for not correctly communicating to each other who was to go off and who was coming on.

Was it sharp practice? Was it a communication error? We don’t know. The rulebook doesn’t make such distinctions, but it is vague in its suggested punishment, which perhaps leaves such distinctions to be dealt with in an oblique way (ie, lesser punishments for situations which on balance appear to be honest mistakes) . . . but a punishment is merited.

If Glen didn’t appeal, the GAA was not going to do anything about it

Glen have lodged an objection, citing Rule 6.44. And so the GAA Way – which suggests that once the final whistle goes, you shake hands, and the game is over – comes face-to-face with the GAA Rulebook. But the entire story has been framed in a bizarre way.

Glen should not have been put in the position where the responsibility for this rule-breach being punished rested solely on their shoulders. But if they didn’t appeal, the GAA was not going to do anything about it. The facts of this case are well-established, and no one is arguing them. They’re self-evident. But it’s only a problem if the defeated team makes it a problem.

Another opinion out there is that Crokes should have offered a replay, saying that it was an honest mistake and this is not how they should want to win.

So at various stages over the last three days, both teams have been asked to judge the merits of this case not from a regulatory standpoint, but from a moral or ethical standpoint. They have had to navigate their path along the GAA Way, not the GAA Rulebook.

That was allowed to happen by extraordinarily weak GAA leadership. Yes, we have been stung multiple times in this country by the scourge of the celebrity sports administrator. And generally speaking, I’m in favour of administrators taking a back seat.

But sometimes you need a GAA President or a GAA Director-General to take the lead in a situation like this. It’s not a crime to say the end of this game was mishandled – everyone can see that. There’s a difference between refs being scapegoated and being held accountable.

The second the officiating team realised their mistake, the fateful 45 should have been re-taken. They were central GAA’s representatives on the field. From that moment on, it was the GAA’s mess to clear up. And whatever about the residual power of the GAA Way, the GAA Rulebook will now have the final say.