Howard's way: Leinster SFC epic between Dublin and Meath
It’s 20 years ago this month since the openingchapter of what was to become a Leinster SFCepic between Dublin and Meath kicked off. Here,referee for all four matches in the amazing series,Tommy Howard, relives his memories of the saga
THE referee. Who loves the ref? Anyone? Anyone at all? Just think the word 'referee' and the moronic refrain that is chanted, particularly at soccer grounds, comes to mind: "Who's the b*****d in the black?"
Pleasant little ditty, eh? And that's one of the more polite of the genre.
Mostly, when the fans sing songs at the ref, the content is way more personal and offensive.
In the GAA, many incidents have been highlighted of ref abuse, ranging from being struck by supporters, having to shelter in dressing-rooms until Gardai restore order and, in the infamous Wicklow incident, Johnny Price (RIP) being bundled into the back -- not the boot -- of a car by disgruntled fans.
Who cares that, at any level, no ref means no game? Certainly not the losing manager, players or fans.
The ref is the scapegoat for all the failings of players and management and is never on a winner. If the match is a disaster, it's his fault; if it's a classic, nobody mentions the referee.
Such is sport, such is life, and Tommy Howard, referee for the epic four-game series between Meath and Dublin in 1991, had no complaints 20 years ago and has none now.
We are sitting in the kitchen of his neatly appointed home in Old Kilcullen, Kildare.
Tommy has finished his shift as a postman and we are there to discuss his memories of '91. Context is relevant. In '91, the game was far more physical than it is now.
The Meath and Dublin players' attitude was that no matter how hard you were hit, you tried to get up and not show how much it hurt.
Mick Galvin played through most of the first game with a suspected broken jaw; Colm O'Rourke defied all the odds by coming back on to the pitch after a ferocious collision with Eamonn Heary and Keith Barr in game four; Charlie Redmond was flattened off the ball at the end of the first game, but never complained.
Today's onus on the refs to show a yellow card for relatively minor technical offences would have resulted in wholesale dismissals 20 years ago, a point not lost on Howard, who retired from refereeing in '95, with the '93 All-Ireland senior final also on his glittering CV.
"There is no common sense now. Everything has to be done by the book. I don't think I'd like to be refereeing now," says Howard.
"I enjoyed my time and I loved every minute of it. I always felt that the players were the most important people in the game.
"They were the ones who were playing the match, and if some of the lads walked by saying 'you got that one wrong,' I'd always answer them.
"I'd say something like 'I'll try and do better the next time' or maybe 'you're not doing so great yourself' -- whatever came into your head at the time.
"But I never liked to ignore any of the players. The game wasn't about me, the referee, it was about the players."
In the second match a number of players went down with cramp late in extra-time, and so did Tommy, but Meath physio Ann Burton was quickly out to help him resume and finish the game.
Howard's was a lonely station. Looking back on reports of the game, the referee only got mentioned in terms of being described as inconsistent, or too lenient -- whichever team won, nobody was going to love the ref.
Through the series, mentions of Howard in Irish Independent reports were not exactly complimentary.
"It was a terrible game, handled badly by referee Tommy Howard and will be remembered only for the excitement generated by Meath's rally in the second half, which earned them another chance to defend their title," wrote Donal Keenan in his report of the first match.
"...Tommy could have sent off six players and not been deemed reactionary. But Tommy chose the lenient course and was damned fortunate it did not backfire..." said Vincent Hogan, again commenting on the first game.
"Some of his decisions smacked of inconsistency, and I, for one, was confused, when he awarded Meath a line ball rather than give a free to Dublin when he sent off Mick Lyons," said guest writer Kevin Moran of the second game.
"Unfortunately, referee Howard must again come in for criticism... it is, however, fair to point out that he did not imagine all of the 90 frees awarded yesterday over the 100 minutes which detracted hugely from the game as a spectacle..." wrote Donal Keenan of the third match.
Tommy reflects on the reports of the games and gives a little chuckle.
"The comments that were made -- I didn't take any of them to heart. You couldn't. I knew myself when I had bad games.
"If I had a bad game, my drive for the next match was to be better than that, to give a better performance. I was always striving to do better. I often got reports back from assessors and Croke Park and they could be hard-hitting.
"We'd go to seminars in Croke Park and they'd have snippets of matches on video. They'd stop it and say, 'why didn't you do this,' and they did that with those matches.
"All you could say was, 'that's what I did on the day, that's what I did on the spur of the moment,' but if you took all the little things that were said to heart, you wouldn't move at all."
Howard had been a player with Kilcullen GAA club's senior team until the age of 27 when he decided on a change, and opted for refereeing.
A fit man -- "I always loved training on my own" -- he had at that time a bicycle for his duties as a postman on a circuit of around 16 miles, which helped with the stamina.
He rose from Kildare county matches through the ranks to join the Leinster and national panel of referees, and when he got the call for Dublin v Meath, Leinster SFC first round, to be played on June 2, 1991 he was delighted.
Howard did not do the job alone -- he always refers to 'we' when he discusses the matches.
"I had a panel of umpires in my career. If there was one lad missing, I had another lad willing to go. There was Johnny Goulding, Mikey 'Porky' Lambe, Paddy Barker, Christy Howard, my brother, Michael Behan, and John O'Brien.
"I was never nervous before a game or in front of crowds. The first match, was probably going to be the toughest one to control.
"These teams got to know each other so well that they knew exactly what they could do, and then they got to know what I was going to let them away with as well.
"I could have sent six or seven off in the first match and probably destroyed the whole game. It was very hard-hitting, but I wouldn't say those lads were hard to referee.
"At that time, I had to bring my own linesmen... I think Mick Stynes from Suncroft was one, and Denis Melia, he had a men's shop in Naas. They were the two for those matches.
"As it turned into a saga, we always met the night before, more than likely up here or in one of their houses in Kilcullen, and we talked about what we were going to look out for and could we do anything better than we did the last time.
"But they were brilliant. If something happened behind me, I could go in and they would tell me exactly what happened.
"We had our own signals. Like, if I turned around and one of the lads (umpires) had his hand up against the post, I knew that at the first opportunity I had to go in because he had seen something.
"If two players were messing down the field, I'd see the signal, and get back down and find out what had happened. I'd just tell them, 'lads, look, you're in the book, and if I have to talk again, you won't finish the game.' Little things."
It wasn't so much for the quality of football in the Dublin v Meath series, but as match after match was drawn, the players, the referee and his team, and the public became absorbed in this fascinating physical and mental struggle that seemed destined to go on and on.
And let's not forget the players and officials were amateurs.
"You still had to go and do your work during the week. The phone never stopped ringing," recalls Howard.
"Then you had cameras coming along, videoing me riding the bicycle around the road doing my rounds. It was non-stop from one week to another.
"There was so much adrenalin, excitement and expectation from everyone. In the middle of it all we wondered would it ever end," he said.
When he blew the final whistle at the end of game four, Howard's emotion was relief, but he will forever be linked with one of the greatest sagas in GAA history.