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'We became the fall-guys'

Meath skipper Nigel Crawford remembers the controversial 2010 Leinster Final when the Royals denied Louth with a disputed Joe Sheridan goal

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Meath captain Nigel Crawford lifts the Cup after Meath beat Louth in the 2010 Leinster SFC Final at Croke Park

Meath captain Nigel Crawford lifts the Cup after Meath beat Louth in the 2010 Leinster SFC Final at Croke Park

SPORTSFILE

Meath captain Nigel Crawford lifts the Cup after Meath beat Louth in the 2010 Leinster SFC Final at Croke Park

The passing of time hasn't softened Nigel Crawford's position much, if at all. It's 10 years tomorrow since the infamous Leinster football final that descended into chaos as Louth's tilt at ending a 53-year famine evaporated on the back of referee Martin Sludden's decision to allow Joe Sheridan's 'goal' to stand, giving Meath their only title in 19 years and one which they scarcely deserved.

And it's 10 years on Sunday since Crawford and his colleagues convened in Gormanston for an unplanned gathering to distill the events of the previous 24 hours and get a consensus on it. On their shoulders, it seemed, in their gift, a decision on a replay rested.

It still rankles with the then Meath captain, who played for 13 years between 1998 and 2011, that they found themselves in that position on that Monday night. The decade has brought no revisionism on that front.

"We took the decision and I was very strong on this opinion and still am, that it wasn't up to the players to decide the result or to decide to offer a replay or what happens," he recalled.

"If Croke Park told us to come out and play a replay we'd have played it but we were not going to make that decision for them, absolute nonsense. And to think that Croke Park sat back and let us be the fall guys, they let us be the arbiters in this situation.

"Can you imagine after the All-Ireland final last year if Kerry or Dublin said that sending off of Jonny Cooper wasn't right, 'we need to play this game again', they'd be told no. Same with fixtures, counties can't decide when and where they play games. They're told. So why, all of a sudden, should this happen?"

Sympathy

All the sympathy then and still to this day rests heavily with Louth. Crawford appreciates that too, understands the romantic thread that ran through it. Louth haven't been to a Leinster final since in a province where Meath themselves have been subjugated by Dublin dominance.

But his background in law - he's a solicitor by profession working for Ballsbridge-based US multi-national power company Eaton - was always going to shape his thinking in a different way where proper procedure matters.

"I felt if the players made that decision and if we were allowed to offer a replay it would have been a very dangerous precedent, to this day. No game would ever be resolved in 70 minutes because there would always be that doubt at the end, 'well was there an incident there that players feel morally obliged to say it wasn't the right decision, therefore the result isn't right.'

"So for me, it was a bit of a nonsense to think that players would be deciding the rules when the referee made a mistake. Referees make plenty of mistakes in games but just because it was a romantic situation where the underdog, who hadn't won in 53 years, could have and should have won the game, that all of a sudden the players were going to decide the result and the fixture list for the GAA? In any other situation they would put you back in your box and say 'absolutely not' and rightly so.

"I really feel strongly about that precedent decision because the integrity of the game could be ruined by the fact that it could happen later in the championship or the following year and someone would say 'well last year there was a replay after that where the referee made a mistake, why can't you do it for us?' There would have been a dangerous precedent set."

For Crawford, it was an abdication of responsibility by administration between the final whistle and the Meath County Board's commitment to the result in the referee's report some 48 hours later.

"I don't regret the decision, I just don't see how we could have made it. If the GAA wanted to, I'm sure they could have done something. But if it's not in the rules, why would you change? Why would we, all of a sudden, be the one to break the rules.

"Surely if the players could mandate it, the GAA could. They have more power than the players.

"So if they really wanted it they should have made the decision and I do feel they sat back and abdicated responsibility by not stepping in and saying 'this is the position'. I know the Meath players didn't at the time and still don't today get any sympathy from anyone."

As a group, they had felt pressure to yield as the airwaves and newspapers filled with cries of injustice. Crawford admits his awareness of the controversy didn't really sink in until the following day.

"I wasn't watching the 'Sunday Game' or listening to the radio or the commentary afterwards. You are kind of in your own bubble, enjoying it and not realising this controversy was brewing. My phone blew up on the Monday. I had people ringing all day looking to talk about it. I remember being with my wife and getting these calls and listening to the radio, 'Joe Duffy' and I was laughing going 'what is going on.'

"I'm not looking for sympathy and frankly, I don't care. I've moved on from this and nor should it for anyone define them or be such a big deal. It's a sporting event.

Honest mistake

"At the end of the day, the referee made an honest mistake. I could be wrong but I think he did say he would have awarded a penalty. We were a point down. So we either put it over the bar and get a replay or chances are you score a goal and win anyway."

By his recollection, the vast majority of colleagues were on the same page too. Crawford was the only Meath player with a provincial medal won on the field of play and there was that consideration too.

"It was hard on younger players who had never won anything or played in a game like that before, they had done nothing wrong.

The memory of it fades but the reminders don't.

"I was lucky enough to win two other Leinster titles and an All-Ireland but no one ever asks me about them, the only thing I'm asked about is this one Leinster. Even people not interested in GAA are fascinated by it and what went on."