Footballer jailing after kicking opponent in head and punching referee

Niall Lavery at Craigavon Court on Thursday. ''Pic: Pacemaker
Niall Lavery at Craigavon Court on Thursday. ''Pic: Pacemaker

A footballer who kicked an opponent in the head during a match before punching the referee who was about to send him off has been jailed for 15 months.

Standing in the dock of Craigavon Crown Court yesterday, 32-year-old Niall Lavery repeatedly wiped away tears and his wife wept in the public gallery as judge Patrick Lynch QC ordered the “obviously talented” player to spend a further 25 months on licence following his release.

He told Lavery that while he accepted his “profound regret” over the incident, such behaviour “had no place” on a sporting field.

“Your conduct on the 25 March 2017 has disgraced yourself and disgraced your sport,” the judge told Lavery. “There is no place in such sporting conflicts, whether it be a rugby field, or football field or Gaelic field fiendish activity as this, an unprovoked assault in the most violent manner upon an opponent.”

Lavery, from Bowens Mews in Lurgan, changed his plea as the trial was about to begin and confessed to unlawfully and maliciously causing grievous bodily harm to Gary Hill with intent to cause him grievous bodily harm and the assault on Joshua Porter, the match referee.

Prosecuting counsel Ian Tannahill told the court the offences arose during what was described as a “feisty” cup match between Lavery’s team Silverwood and Bourneview Mill.

He said there was “some indication” as to Lavery’s temper earlier in the match.

Having missed a penalty, he gave a lengthy, foul-mouthed rant.

Later in the game Mr Hill passed the ball and Lavery swiped his feet out from under him.

The referee said he was reaching for a red card to send Lavery off when he kicked Mr Hill in the face.

Mr Tannahill said those who saw the kick described Lavery “planting his foot and kicking the other man’s head as if he was taking a kick in the game”.

During the ensuing melee Lavery grabbed the referee by the shirt and “punched him in the face”.

Mr Hill was taken to hospital where he received eight stitches to lacerations above and below his right eye while an x-ray revealed a fracture to his “zygomatic arch”.

During police questioning Lavery denied intentionally kicking him, claiming instead that as he jumped over Mr Hill, his foot or knee may have accidentally struck him.

Mr Tannahill revealed this was not the first time Lavery had assaulted an opponent.

In 2009, Lavery was playing for Lurgan Celtic against the PSNI when, after the final whistle, he punched a PSNI player in the face causing his nose to bleed and giving two black eyes.

Lavery was given a police caution after he accepted causing actual bodily harm, said the lawyer.

“We say that sadly, the circumstances of this case are such that the matter goes way, way beyond anything that comes up in the ordinary run of sport in general and football in particular,“ submitted Mr Tannahill adding that the assault on the referee is an “aggravating factor in the overall event”.

Defence barrister Barry McKenna conceded the incident was “an appalling and disgraceful thing to do” and for which Lavery is “truly sorry”.

Judge Lynch said Lavery’s “shouting and cursing“ following his penalty miss “indicates to me a violent temper which is over and above the ordinary response to a sporting setback”.

He told Lavery that his bad tackle, the “cowardly” kick to his opponent’s head and the assault on the referee indicated to him that this “was a continued and protracted display of bad temper...and I repeat, this behaviour has no place in any form of sporting contest”.

He said while Mr Hill had made a good recovery, the reaction of his young five-year-old son who saw the incident was “more poignant”.

“The boy asked his father on the way back ‘is that part of football, are you allowed to kick people in the face’,” revealed the judge, adding “that’s the effect that people who misbehave in football have, whether in the lower leagues or on TV, they have a profound effect on young people”.

The judge warned Lavery that he was considering imposing a Violent Offences Prevention Order “to ensure that you will not be on a football field” after his release.