Billy Sheehan: Referees have it tough but their job must be made easier
Everyone wants to see consistency from officials and the GAA can help by removing flaws in system
Published 30/08/2015 | 12:50
Bill Shankly once said that the trouble with referees is that they know the rules, but they do not know the game. And while this may not be accurate, it's pretty much the universal perception when people think of the men in the middle.
Mention the word 'referee' and whatever the code the response is unanimous. "Who would want to be a referee?" Certainly in today's sporting world of forensic analysis the role of referees in Gaelic football is becoming increasingly difficult.
Mistakes will be made, crucial ones, calls that change games. From a player's perspective one of those decisions can ruin a year of sacrifice and effort. Some decisions are open to question, even criticism, but certainly not ridicule, and in this respect some managers and pundits have crossed the line this season.
Social media leaves referees open to a further avenue of abuse, with the result that referees are more frequently becoming the central figure in the game. They are often left standing in the spotlight when the final whistle is blown, or worse, escorted off the field by gardaí. And it's not just at the top level that they come under pressure and criticism. It's also an issue at underage level with mentors and parents the principal transgressors.
We all remember Paddy Russell; he had 26 years' experience as a top-flight official but retired shortly after the fallout and exposure from the incident with Paul Galvin in 2008 when his notebook was slapped from his hand by the Kerryman. After the infamous Joe Sheridan goal in the Leinster final against Louth in 2010, Martin Sludden only took charge of two qualifier games. Two years later he was removed from the referees' list.
Much is written and spoken about the sacrifices and efforts made by players at inter-county level, and they are extensive, but the requirements of a referee at this level are also wide-ranging and demanding. An examination of the rules must be passed along with a physical test twice a year, before the league and championship. Then in games they are assessed by an advisor and subsequently receive either a letter or email giving feedback on their key decisions, good or bad.
With the top-level referees scattered around the country, post-match meetings aren't feasible. Instead of a get-together, clips of their decisions, including any big card calls, are posted online for every referee to view, vote and give opinions on. All results are relayed to the referee in question along with recommendations from game advisors.
Assessment is done on a category grading system; a category one is getting a key decision wrong. If it is felt that the performance falls short of requirements it may result in a temporary stepping down from their duties. Paudie Hughes has only officiated in one game since his penalty decision in the Munster final.
Umpires are also required to undergo a training programme with a particular focus on positioning, observation and signalling. However, their main function is to signal a score or a wide. An umpire can also draw attention to incidents, and give his opinion if he is asked by the referee. So he can signal a score but he can't influence the referee if a player overcarries or fouls in the build-up to the score. The decisions of umpires also come under scrutiny so surely they should receive training and education in the rules.
In this year's championship both Pete McGrath and Jim McCorry have questioned the umpires' training and the influence they had in Cathal McGovern's red card against Derry and Ryan McCloskey's against Monaghan.
There are eight officials for 28 outfield players, that's a ratio of fewer than four players per official. It would improve the situation significantly if they were given expanded roles, which would improve communication, trust and decision-making.
'Give Respect Get Respect' is a slogan which is being promoted to try and improve on-field relations between players and referees. All players want is consistency in relation to the interpretation of the rules week in, week out. Teams of officials working together throughout the season would help greatly rather than a referee working with different linesmen and fourth officials weekly. Roles could be alternated and relationships strengthened.
The personal touch is also welcomed, and referees such as Rory Hickey, Anthony Nolan and David Coldrick have it. They rarely attract any controversy, and manage the game competently, communicating and explaining their decisions throughout the 70 minutes. As far as they are concerned, it's all about the game; they are merely facilitators. It's a style and an attitude which is appreciated by the players who sometimes feel that there is a preconceived opinion about certain players with a particular reputation.
Maybe a visit to the dressing rooms before the game to outline some key focuses might further enhance the relationship and respect between both parties. Telling both captains at the coin toss what the referee will be watching out for is flawed. Why focus on one specific rule for one specific game?
As there are many serious issues developing such as diving, sledging, and players taking another player down as they fall, the burden on referees is getting heavier season by season.
We constantly hear that there is no defined tackle, but, in fact there is one in the rule book but this is interpreted differently by many referees. Swarming players in clusters is now widely accepted as a tackle, but it hardly complies with the rule as specified. Kieran McGeeney's Armagh trained in the area of perfecting the tackle, but to his dismay they were met with different interpretations of what they could and couldn't do from game to game.
Referees are now bringing the ball up distances far beyond 13-metres for backchat. It seems now a case of the more you talk the more they'll walk and even last Sunday Maurice Deegan brought the ball forward over 20 metres when Tiernan McCann over-carried.
The black card is currently the flavour of the month, with many pundits advocating its removal. It applies to a trip by hand or foot, deliberately pulling an opponent to the ground, a bodycheck or block, and mouthing to a player or an official, an incidence which is rarely if ever addressed or punished.
It is well to remember that the Football Review Committee got 4,000 responses from the public. They conducted 10 focus groups nationwide which included players, managers and referees. Cynical play was the main issue highlighted which led to the introduction of the black card. It was a step in the right direction, but perhaps the wording needs to be revisited to allow the referee more freedom to adjudicate on what should be categorised as a deliberate or cynical foul.
The fact that some referees have had their decisions overturned on a technicality by committees certainly undermines their position and is hardly encouraging for their confidence.
In professional rugby, there is now a dedicated match officials' performance manager. And at the start of every season all referees, their assistants and TMOs (Television Match Officials) get together with this performance team for a week-long workshop which includes going through the whole process of interpretation, and implementation of the rules.
The performance manager also meets the management teams in every club before the season starts and they discuss and explain any rule changes to ensure clarity and understanding. This also builds a relationship between the refereeing community and team managements.
Throughout the rugby season management can send any queries they have regarding any decisions made in matches to the performance manager. Then, after conferring with the referee they will be provided with answers to all their questions. If some calls were incorrect, the coach will be informed. The key to all this is communication. They endeavour and encourage referees to take ownership and do a self-review first and on completion performance reviewers will then liaise with their appraisal and recommendations.
Most inter-county players are now briefed by management on the particular style a referee might adopt through research and video analysis. In fact, if anything there's too much focus on an aspect of the game which is outside a team's control and I believe it's always more beneficial to concentrate on what a team can control themselves.
Technology in the form of Hawk-Eye is the only back-up referees have. And while people are calling for the use of a TMO, that can cost between €20,000 and €30,000 per game by the time all the cameras are implemented and manned.
In the 1970s and '80s only five cameras were used by RTé for live games. Last Sunday, 12 cameras were in operation, including one pitchside and two at opposite ends which take in the entire pitch. Yet with all of the technology and vantage points there was still uncertainty and disagreement on whether the referee's decision to show a yellow card to Pádraig McNulty rather than award a penalty to Tyrone was correct.
Varying opinion was expressed during the live broadcast, immediately after, and later that evening on The Sunday Game. There were so many angles for consideration and reflection but still opinions differed. However, for Maurice Deegan there was no freeze-frame, just one angle and a split second to make his decision.
This afternoon in Croke Park the spotlight switches to Joe McQuillan with suggestions that because he has taken charge of one third of Dublin's games in the championship since 2011, it may give them an advantage in terms of their familiarity with his particular style of refereeing.
In the 2013 All-Ireland final between today's two teams, a game which Joe McQuillan also refereed, the free count was 12 for Dublin and 32 against. So while statistics might tell one person something and another nothing at all, it's safe to say that the referee today will, like last weekend, have very little impact on the eventual outcome but it won't shield him from the criticism and controversy which seems to follow referees around these days.
It's a tough job being a referee, but their lot could be improved considerably if the powers that be took steps to remove many of the obstacles which are presently hindering their performance. Removing time-keeping, extending some powers and duties to the other officials, making the colour of the card more specific and effective, and ensuring that decisions are backed up with the appropriate punishment, would all go a long way to deflect a lot of the criticism, much of which is unwarranted.
The GAA are the keepers of our games, they have a duty to protect them and also protect the people they have entrusted to enforce the rules. Inaction leads to chaos and in Gaelic games that's not what we want to see.
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