Sport Gaelic Football

Monday 26 June 2017

Training days an occupational hazard for referees

Refs can assist with a team's preparations but are they open to claims of impartiality, asks Dermot Crowe

IN 2009, the Meath referee Cormac Reilly was in charge of a Leinster championship match between Kildare and Wexford at Carlow which would see him receive a phone call afterwards seeking, effectively, to explain some of his decisions. This did not come from the referees' committee, or an assessor in Croke Park, but from the winning team, Kildare, evidently unhappy with their high free count. Reilly obliged and spent an evening in talking to the manager and players, taking questions, before refereeing one of their training games.

Reilly didn't breach any rules or guidelines but it raised an obvious question: is it appropriate to have an inter-county referee assisting one of the championship contenders when neutrality was paramount?

It was with some irony then that it happened to be Reilly who penalised Kildare's Aindriu MacLochlainn near the end of a thrilling Leinster semi-final against Dublin last summer. The defender was blown up for holding Bernard Brogan although he vehemently protested his innocence. If Reilly had ever been in danger of being favourably disposed towards Kildare, then this incident shattered that illusion as it was a monumental call. But he had left himself at risk of being too closely aligned to a county he would, in all likelihood, be refereeing in the championship at a future date.

Referees can and still do officiate at county training matches and some give lessons on the rules. It is left to each one's own judgement. There is nothing to suggest that any referee who does this will be corrupted and prone to bias if he were to referee that team in action down the line. The issue that arises is more with the optics and how he leaves himself exposed to charges of being compromised. It is also plausible that a team might have an issue being refereed by someone who had previously worked in training with the opposition. Yet there is no guideline in existence to stop it from happening.

"Kieran McGeeney asked me to ref one of their training games," recalls Reilly of that encounter in 2009. "I was kind of surprised when I got the call. I thought it was someone taking the Mick, but I had no problem doing it, no problem at all. We gathered in the middle of the field and McGeeney asked me a few questions and the players asked me a few and then Johnny Doyle said how he had gone home the day of the (Wexford) game and watched a video of the game and felt I had got most of the calls right. He had been giving out hell about me earlier on. They wanted to learn how to get the tackle right. I doubt they will invite me down next year."

Reilly didn't take any internal training matches last year but he has also helped Monaghan and Louth in the past. He is not averse to taking one this year if he is invited and remains adamant that they have no impact on his handling of future games involving the county in question. Of his approach to county training games, he states: "We (inter-county referees) all take our jobs very seriously. You do the match, get your gear, hop in the car and go home. I wouldn't stay for a cup of tea. That's how I operate."

Last year's All-Ireland senior final referee Joe McQuillan didn't break any rules when refereeing four out of six Dublin championship matches. He was hardly going to turn them down on the grounds of over-familiarity. But a referee receiving an unusually high proportion of games involving one county -- with a pool of 18 to choose from -- will invariably raise eyebrows. Any team, provided the relationship isn't soured, would be delighted to have the same referee for most of their matches. It allows them to develop a deeper understanding of how the match will be refereed.

There is no suggestion of favouritism on McQuillan's part towards Dublin but he can't stop the concern that repeat assignments might raise. In this case it is up to those selecting referees for championship matches to ensure, if there is a fear of over-familiarity, that the matches are evenly divided and no referee is too closely identified with one team's campaign.

Where a referee has more control is in the private work they sometimes do with county teams, when asked to referee training matches or give talks. McQuillan confirmed he had twice refereed Meath training matches in 2011 where high-intensity games were being staged to decide key team selections. Cavan, McQuillan's home county, borders Meath and one of his linesmen in last year's All-Ireland was the experienced referee Pat McEnaney whose brother Séamus is in charge of the Meath team. That was a factor in him being approached.

But it wasn't the first county team he has helped in this way and he sees no conflict of interest. After his involvement with Meath, McQuillan found himself refereeing that county's qualifier match with Kildare in Navan. He is certain that the earlier experience in no way coloured his handling of the game.

"As far as I would be concerned, absolutely not; I would go out and ref it as fair as I could on the day. I went in and refereed those training matches and was out the gate afterwards and there was no consultation with players. What they are trying to do is find their best 15, every one fighting for a place and these training matches could be hard enough to handle; that is why they would want an outside referee.

"In refereeing a match if you are seen to sway one way or the other, give it up, get another occupation for yourself. No point going down that road. I can't speak for any other referee, and I know other referees are doing the same, but that is my approach."

The retired inter-county referee John Bannon has been working with Kildare over the last two seasons as they strive to maintain good discipline. While he was still refereeing inter-county Bannon was invited by Kildare to talk about aspects of the game, including tackling, after a training match but he didn't do much work in that field and he sees the dangers. If a young referee were to ask him if he should help out a county team preparing for the championship, his response would be unequivocal: "I would say 'no' to that -- a definite 'no' to that. I would feel he is being compromised. I would advise him strongly not to do that. That to me would be a no-go area."

He says he heard of one county who made representations to Croke Park in order that a referee who had been involved with their next opponents would not be chosen for that game. Referees, he says, need to be vigilant and not leave themselves open to compromise.

"About four or five years ago I was refereeing a game between a Munster and Leinster county and getting a cheque for €200 and I gave it back to the person there and then. I saw that almost as a bribe. There was nothing sinister meant by it and I did referee the match but I remember giving that back straight away."

Bannon says that even Kildare's decision to use him for the purposes of having a high-level official in charge of games from another county has also presented problems. "I remember refereeing them in challenge matches on a Tuesday and Thursday and they had a training match on the Saturday and we were nearly sick of one another by then. So they got a Kildare ref in for that. I would also have my own style, so I felt it was important they got someone else for variation."

David Coldrick was invited to Kildare training in 2009 and to a Dublin training match in 2010 but didn't do anything last year in that line. He doesn't feel compromised but can see why people might think that way and would not get involved if the invitation came late on in a championship where there was a chance he would referee the same team in an All-Ireland semi-final or final.

"I would treat them just like any other game. I would get out of there just as quick. Basically, every referee has his integrity. Once you are not doing a load for one particular county I don't think it's an issue. You would only do it as it is good for your own fitness levels and in bringing you up to the pace of a championship game you might be doing later that season. That is all it is."

In 2009, the Kildare invitation came after he had refereed their championship match against Laois, which they won, but there was nothing to prevent him being in charge of a Kildare game later that year. It didn't transpire. "I answered a few rules questions they had and that was it."

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