In the eye of the storm
All-Ireland hurling final referee Brian Gavin gives Damian Lawlor a personal account of his big day
Published 11/09/2011 | 05:00
8.30: Brian Gavin was awake early in the Castleknock Country Club, thoughts racing through his head. "I woke up last Sunday morning content, even though there was nowhere to hide.
That's what you work towards. I'd been there or thereabouts but maybe I was a bit raw four years back. This was the right one to get."
At 34, Gavin had 12 years of inter-county refereeing experience registered when the call finally came to take charge of the third instalment of an epic Kilkenny-Tipperary saga. A thunderous showdown was expected and Gavin's laissez-faire style of refereeing meant he was the perfect man for the job.
Downstairs he joined his team, father Michael and brothers David and Noel, all umpires, for breakfast. His other lieutenants William Flynn from Clara and PJ Lawlor from Belmont were already there as were linesmen Barry Kelly and John Sexton and Johnny Ryan, the minor final referee.
"It was light -- cornflakes, tea, brown bread and some fruit. I went back up to the room to relax, ended up watching some dating/cookery show that passed a half hour for me."
It was all a far cry from the humble beginnings to his refereeing career.
The first assignment was an under 14 football game between Tubber and Shamrocks. He had no car, whistle or black jersey. "I went to Kelly's, the local shop, bought an oul' policeman's whistle; a long silver yoke. It did the job."
Gavin jogged to Castleknock GAA pitch for a 20-minute session. "It was important to get the lungs working," he notes. "And it passed time too." Showered, he changed into his official attire and gathered his team for a short meeting. He asked for full concentration and for them to enjoy the day as well.
Fun had always been part of refereeing for Gavin too. Sure, it's a serious business but . . .
'Catch' Buckley was his first sounding board. Buckley, who recently retired from officiating after decades of service, was subjected to vicious abuse during the infamous 1986 Battle of Aughrim between Laois and Wicklow, but continued to officiate at club level for decades after, despite leaving Aughrim courtesy of a Garda escort.
Years later, Gavin jokingly conceded that "in hindsight, maybe 'Catch' wasn't the best person to get advice from.
During those early years, naturally enough, the yarns rolled at a reasonable pace.
"One Saturday night I got a call from Martin Minnock asking me to do a junior B semi-final between Durrow and Daingean. I had no car -- didn't get one 'til I was 24 -- and needed a lift. I asked a lad called Ger Cunningham who lived in Clara but was playing for Durrow, who were also in an upcoming junior football final and he agreed.
"Ger left his mark on that game -- and on a lad called John Greene. With minutes left John went on the attack until Ger met him straight across the chest with the hurl. John fell in a heap and after much thought I gave Ger a yellow card. John got up and roared: 'Is he your fuckin' brother or something?' He walked away, disgusted but sure I couldn't have sent Ger off. I'd have had no lift home. And he'd have missed the football final too."
As the big stage beckoned, though, Gavin worked earnestly to carve his reputation. He took the 2004 All-Ireland minor final replay, the 2005 club and 2006 under 21 finals and also officiated in three senior semi-finals and two Munster deciders before last weekend.
An eight-seater taxi arrived to transport the team to Croke Park. En route, they were met by a Garda escort which only underscored the magnitude of the day. "'Twould have taken an hour with all the traffic but the escort opened the road up like the Red Sea."
Once in their Cusack Stand dressing room, Gavin went for a sandwich but an old friend was no longer there. "Paddy was his name, he was from Clare; always looked after us for tea. He recently passed away and it was very sad. Paddy and I always had a lovely chat. It was lonely without him."
He left his seat in the stand where he had been watching the minor final to tog out. His father had laid the umpire gear out and with the heavens leaking they opted for wet suits. They switched on their microphones and tested them.
"We hit the pitch earlier than usual because the toss was shown live on TV. Walking out we did a host of sprints, just three or four 40-yard runs to get the lungs opened up again."
Gavin called the captains in. The hurling world expected sparks to fly and bodies to be broken but the Offalyman decided against laying down the law.
"I've never felt a reason to do it. You get respect from the way you manage a game -- if you tell them something beforehand and then don't do it the players will quote you. Brian Hogan and Eoin Kelly were relaxed enough and didn't need me on their case."
Still, he took no real chances.
With the band still piping away in the corner of the field, Gavin threw the sliotar in.
"It was on my mind all week -- don't turn my back on the players and start it quickly. The longer you leave it, the more wound up players get. I knew the ball wouldn't reach the band. It helped me also that the teams huddled which delayed their chances of tearing at each other.
"The Tipp forwards were bunching together while the Kilkenny backs lined them up individually. That was none of my concern. I just got the game going."
Eoin Larkin almost flicked home a goal but Paul Curran halted the ball on the line. Gavin's father Mick was on the spot to call it. No goal, but a worrying cameo, nonetheless, for the referee, particularly with his dad involved.
"Dad stuck the head out like a racehorse at the line and it was 100% the right call. But, yeah, I was relieved," he accepts.
With Kilkenny leading 0-5 to 0-2, Patrick Maher was fouled and a skirmish broke out. Gavin was right up with play and stepped in, only to be on the receiving end of Tommy Walsh's hurl. If Walsh had connected with a Tipp man, he was in trouble. Gavin was keen to downplay the incident. He started bleeding, however, and play was delayed for three minutes.
Unknown to him, he suddenly began 'trending' on Twitter. One English spectator tweeted 'this is some sport; they've just hit the referee'. Meanwhile, the incident quickly received 3,000 hits on YouTube. But Gavin was simply concerned about staying on the pitch. He refused to head to the sideline to for treatment.
"Brian Hogan got a shock when he saw it but it actually calmed the players down when they saw the blood," he reckons. "It was just a freak of nature -- one of them things that we might never see again. Lads are holding lads' arms and lads' hurls, I suppose. It might have been a high hurl, but he was trying to break away and these things happen.
"Maybe I learned a lesson too. I'd gone in bit quick. I used to be slagged for not being up with play. You can't win. I got a fierce shock though and was worried there might be internal bleeding but the doctors were brilliant."
Kilkenny proceeded to build up a 1-8 to 0-5 lead but deep into first-half injury time Patrick Maher was impeded by a stray leg en route to goal. Gavin saw the trip but not the offender and a free was awarded. The Tipp players were just relieved to have another score on the board and didn't argue further.
"Really, there wasn't a bad word said to me all day. One player roared during the match but I roared back. That was as bad as it got."
During the interval the doctors spent a further six minutes attending to Gavin's nose until duty called once more. "I reminded the lads that we were half-way there, just to keep focused. There was no outside interference; in fairness there never is.
The next contentious incident arrived in the 47th minute when Jackie Tyrrell was incorrectly penalised for over-carrying. Gavin didn't see the defender slip the ball quickly on his hurley before returning it to the paw. Tyrrell was incensed but quickly got on with it.
Perhaps if decisions like this can be reviewed instantly with the use of video technology it would be better for the game? Not so, he says.
"I'd be a real die-hard GAA man and personally I'd hate to see it come in. The GAA is a balanced organisation where the club is just as important as inter-county. You can't have a system for one level and not the other. Also, we're an amateur group; mistakes are part of and parcel of us. They give us plenty of debates and topics.
"I didn't see Jackie putting the ball on his hurl because he was on the endline and someone stepped across my view. That's life but I made the call and it was dealt with there and then.
"Video evidence might undermine referees without meaning to. Someone who has five or six camera angles at his disposal will make a call. But 'twas only the following day that I saw Jackie hadn't over-carried.
"There are so many camera angles now that a ref and his family can face difficult times if they make a genuine mistake. The scrutiny that we're under on TV on a Sunday night is fierce."
One aspect of the technology that Gavin has embraced, however, was the 'open mike' system between him and his officials. When his father awarded Kilkenny a '65, Gavin was able to overrule the call through that microphone, as he had seen, from a different angle, the ball spinning off Henry Shefflin's stick before it trailed wide.
The game was blown wide open when Pa Bourke's goal left Tipp just four points down. Gavin knew the dice could now roll in any direction.
"I just kept improving my concentration. When it's so close, your earlier decisions are forgotten about. Instead, it all hinges on the last few minutes. That's where the hard work comes in. I'd been in the gym three times a week since November, lost a bit of weight, improved my fitness and done well in the three official tests. I was well up with the play and sharp."
Gavin blows the final whistle. Although he forgot to fetch the match ball, Gavin was just thrilled to have come through the biggest test of his life with his reputation still intact. He enjoyed the aftermath.
"Stopping those pitch invasions was the best thing that ever happened, because everyone can enjoy it. My over-riding feeling was savage relief. I was on the Hill the day of Jimmy Cooney's unfortunate episode (1998) and it was easy to isolate him. He was whisked off the field too quickly with no chance to rectify the situation. Jimmy was a bloody good referee and a great hurler but he never got a chance after that. It's happened over the years that lads are written off after something. I was aware of all that."
He knew the slightest mistake or misjudgement could have altered his life. "Savage relief that it didn't. I didn't want any praise; no referee does. I just wanted to get out without a serous error.
Later . . .
He went upstairs to level four for a post-match meal with the respective officials and administrators and towards the end of the reception Brian Cowen approached his fellow Clara man. "I'm very proud of you kid," the former Taoiseach said.
While Gavin was widely praised for his handling of the final, some reckon that he and other hurling officials let too much go. With little such leeway in Gaelic football, observers feel hurling is almost reckless because players sense they can get away with most things.
Given that it was Tipp-Kilkenny, however, there was almost a pre-match demand to let them at each other. Gavin took it that way anyhow and only blew the whistle four times in the opening 10 minutes. In total, he awarded just 23 frees; an incredible statistic for a final.
"I was always going to let the game go because that's my style. People are paying good money for tickets and don't want to look at a ref. I wanted to let the game develop for the players' sake too, no point in frustrating them.
"Now I don't stand by and allow thuggery but I let the game flow and I understand hurling. People want to see great scores or defenders catching balls, taking almighty hits.
"But I knew I'd be under pressure as well -- both managers would know my style and there's a fine line too. I think we did okay. Some people mightn't like my methods but I won't be changing."
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