From star men to men in the middle
Few top players move into refereeing but those who have are calling for more to follow their lead
When GAA referee Paddy Russell published his book Final Whistle 10 years ago he included a letter he'd received from Dermot Deasy, then a fledgling referee but better known as a Dublin All Star footballer and All-Ireland winner. With Deasy's permission, the letter was reproduced in full. Essentially, he had taken the time to pen his appreciation of Russell's performance in the 1995 All-Ireland final. He referenced two critical calls: the sending off of Charlie Redmond and the free given against Peter Cavanan when Tyrone looked to have earned a replay.
Deasy expressed his admiration for Russell resisting the temptation to 'play for the draw' when penalising Canavan for touching the ball on the ground. He had an All-Ireland medal, he wrote, due to Russell's "integrity and sheer professionalism". Much of the feedback a referee receives tends to be negative. In this case Russell was keen to highlight a rare endorsement, a top player who went to the trouble of committing his thoughts to paper. It is rare, though, that a player with that kind of profile chooses to head into refereeing as Deasy did.
Most players needing a fix after retirement turn to coaching. Over the best part of 15 years Deasy has been covering matches around Dublin. The highest ranking game he's been given was a senior county semi-final. That irks, he'll admit, but it does not diminish his interest. "It was never a huge ambition of mine," he says of refereeing. "I stopped playing at around 38 years of age and wondered: 'where to from here?'"
His first stop was coaching. Even when he won county championships with Ballymun Kickhams in 1982 and 1985 he was also coaching the side. He spent four years, with some success, at St Finian's in Swords, getting them out of junior football. He returned home to Ballymun to coach the senior team for a while and then drifted into refereeing.
"It is an acquired taste, that's for sure, you make loads of mistakes. Every game is different. You have to concentrate for the 60 minutes. And hopefully, at the end of it all you can walk off and say you did a good job. You know yourself. If you don't you're delusional. Some days it will go well, some days it won't. Some days are easy, and some are not. But I do enjoy it, I enjoy the challenge."
Part of the attraction was that it kept him involved but demanded less time than coaching or management. But why would you do something most ex-players wouldn't even contemplate?
"Something new to do," he states. "You've played for years, you've managed, coached. You want to be able to see can you do it. Can you be successful? I can't remember ever getting sent off in my time. I never really had a go at a referee, I don't think. So I wanted to be a better referee than whatever was out there. That maybe I could improve the situation. I don't know. You get feedback occasionally, where people come over and say you've done a good job, but not very often. But when someone comes in and says it, you say, 'thank you'".
That makes it worthwhile? "It does. It does for me. I referee juvenile schools matches, I don't do club juvenile matches, and then do minor upwards. National school is a joy because the innocence of them brings me back to when I was a kid playing for my school. I had a very happy time. You can talk to them. You can explain what they did wrong. And if I needed to ask if a ball went over the bar I could ask those kids and they just can't lie."
Unfortunately he doesn't see the same honesty at senior level. Not once has he seen a player put honesty ahead of his own team's interests. "Winning is so important, obviously. People will cheat, look to gain an advantage, whatever they might do. And spectators can roar abuse at you after you make a decision against them. I have to get away from that emotion. I am the neutral party there and I am going to call it as fairly as I possibly can. And if I make mistakes they are going to be fair mistakes, if you know what I mean, I am not going to be biased."
He recalls when Manchester United used to question refereeing decisions as a matter of course on the basis that a referee would eventually turn their way. "What I find in Gaelic football is there are certain teams and clubs in this county that generally are hard work - and they give you a hard time and they will question your decisions. They wouldn't be particularly nice. They would never be grateful in any shape or form. But for me, when the ball is thrown in at the start, I don't care about what has happened previously, we are starting off afresh here. So I blank out whatever happened before that. But generally as the game goes on you find 'here we go again'. They are having a go at me again, they think I am doing them a disservice."
He talks of one club that proved such an ordeal that he asked to be no longer considered for their matches. "All referees know where the difficult places to go are, where if you go there you need your wits about you. Yeah, you want a strong individual in certain locations in this city, otherwise they get eaten up." Well, they could be intimidated. And I don't envy some people going to some places."
The GAA would like to see more ex-players, especially those with a high profile, entering refereeing. It does not follow that a good player will make a good referee but the experience has to be a benefit for the most part. Yet few do. Refereeing is often stained by controversy. Referees have not always been well protected or respected. Deasy says his past helps generate small talk before games but once the whistle blows "you are just a referee".
He tells a story about a match he refereed in north county Dublin. "I got through it anyway, the home team were beaten and I was coming off the pitch and the manager came over and said thanks for the game, paid me the money and as I walked to my car an old man came down to me and he said, 'I admired you as a player for Dublin, you were great'. Thanks very much, I said back. 'But you are a useless referee'. And he was about 79, whatever he was, and I said, 'great to talk to you'. What can you say? You have to be professional. No point in losing the cool and saying would you ever 'eff off with yourself".
You need the right temperament? "Oh yeah, yeah, and I've always had that. Always had. But there comes a breaking point for everybody. I am not there to be shot at."
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Dave Sweeney admits he was an unlikely referee. During a career that saw him play for Laois at all levels, and turn out for his home club Portarlington and later St Oliver Plunkett/Eoghan Ruadh in Dublin, he was often in trouble with match officials. He has lost count of the amount of times he was sent off. "It was into double figures anyway."
Even his father, he jokes, who was a referee, sent him off in matches as a young player in Laois. He started playing in Dublin in the middle of the last decade and the idea of getting involved in refereeing was first planted by his father and later again by a Plunkett's club man and current Dublin club referee Fergus McGreevy.
In recent years Sweeney has been involved in coaching club teams and is now a GPO in Dublin. In his first full season refereeing at the top level in Dublin he has made a quick impression and was stand-in referee for the county senior final.
"I moved up the ranks very quickly. I got a good reputation and having refereed players that I've played against, you get an awful lot of respect," he says. "They wouldn't bollock you out of it. I would always explain what the free was for. And that was something that really got my goat when I was playing. It's a simple thing, two words: 'pulled jersey'; 'high tackle'.
"Refs want to stamp their authority on a match but you have got to be understanding towards the players, not making it them against you.
"Playing has made me a better referee. It helps me in positioning because you kind of know where the ball is going to go, you can see something developing. And you know when a guy is bluffing you and a guy is genuine."
"I probably wasn't too fond of referees (when I played), that probably came from where they would not engage with you. It used to drive me mad, it made my blood boil."
He says the phrase commonly thrown his way is 'poacher turned gamekeeper'. "I always say what better man to try and put the rules across than a man who tried to break most of the rules. The response to me going into refereeing has been good. I would like to think I am always fair. I have no hatred for any club. I know some clubs up here hate each other. I don't give a shit who wins the game to tell you the truth."
Ultimately he gets a kick being involved in some capacity. "I still love being out on a field and being part of a game. To be honest I wouldn't be still at it if I wasn't enjoying it. I love the GAA and I think the players deserve a good referee. There was one time when I was over the Plunkett's under 15 team where I felt we got rode by two different referees, they just didn't give a shite, they didn't care, they wouldn't explain their actions or anything like that. I felt it was not fair on the players, and it could turn people away from GAA. I just think the players deserve someone who knows the rules and is fair.
"I would love to see more ex-players getting into it. The enjoyment is brilliant. I never thought I was going to be referee, I would have laughed in your face if you said that to me 15 years ago."
In a senior championship quarter-final this year he called a foul and the culprit told him he had done this himself repeatedly in his playing days. "I said, 'yeah, but that doesn't mean it wasn't a foul' and he started laughing."
Sweeney (44) is back in action this morning when he is due to take charge of the county minor football final in O'Toole Park.
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Seamus Quinn, the former Leitrim All Star, finished playing football at 39 and decided to give refereeing "a shot" when in his early 40s. "When I started people said, 'you are crazy to go into that', but I didn't see it that way. Once I got in I really enjoyed the refereeing."
Why did he choose to do it? "As a player when you retire there is bit of a gap there. You are kind of left out in the cold; maybe (the reason I did) it is to stay involved. Plus, I had done coaching, I have tried everything."
He was asked to do some juvenile refereeing and it took off from there. In his second season he refereed a county minor final and also covered adult senior games before withdrawing this year when becoming part of the Leitrim senior management team, as well as county junior manager. But he intends to go back refereeing when those duties cease.
"I think you have the knowledge of the game, what goes and what shouldn't go," he says when asked what benefit being a former player brings. "You get good respect off the players but people on the sideline, you shouldn't be listening, but you will hear a comment now and then. And being an ex-county player you have to give respect to players too."
He appreciates that he is in the minority. "It's hard to be honest to get fellas to do it. You will have a lot of clubs giving out about referees and they are the same clubs that don't provide any referees. For players it is very unfair to have a ref who is not keeping up with the play. When you are 60 yards away from the play, you can't call it from there.
"I actually get a buzz out of it," admits Quinn. "I would build up to a game the same as if I were playing a game, especially an important one." The minor final he took charge of tested his mettle. "I had to send two lads off on the same team. You don't like that, you would like to give them the benefit of the doubt, if you could. One of their club men came to me after and said, 'you were dead right, the two had to go'."
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After a 12-year playing career with Clare, and two years in senior management, Sean Hehir volunteered to referee on the senior club circuit in his home county. "I think the first reason was out of a sense of service," he explains. "I had a long playing career and I enjoyed my playing career and I realised that people were needed to facilitate the playing of games. And I saw my role as that. Nothing else."
Pressed a little more, he says: "I played hurling. I felt I understood hurling. I felt there were a lot of people refereeing hurling who didn't understand hurling." He didn't continue because he says the offers dried up and he wasn't interested in bidding for games. "I didn't get matches anymore. I was never told the reason."
In his view it was political with refereeing administration becoming more formalised and in his view more bureaucratic. "I had never been one of the refs who was in and out to the administrative offices and so on. If they put me down for a game I did it. I never requested a game, never looked for a game.
"I had many thoughts about it but I suppose the simplest thought was I felt that I didn't fit in with the modern system. The modern system with the paying of refs and that. It reminds me of what always comes when you bring money into things. As soon as refs got paid (expenses) you definitely had a new dynamic within refereeing."
Though it fizzled out Hehir enjoyed his time refereeing. "I had, no different to anyone else, tricky situations to deal with and some games that were a breeze. At the time there were some very good young players coming through in Clare and I made sure they were respected and protected.
"I got very positive feedback. And what I really liked was I got very positive feedback from the old hurlers. The ones who were hurling before my time and who would come up to me after a game and say it's great to see a ref who understands hurling."
He feels the current refereeing administration needs reviewing because it has become overly bureaucracy. "I think the refs have become a power block within another power block within the GAA. The first thing as far as I am concerned is that the administration of refereeing as it is at the moment should be done away with and it should be built from the bottom up again. Sure I mean some of the refereeing that is going on and supposed to be at the top level is farcical. We need to look at who is calling the shots. We need a review."
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Dermot Deasy is asked if he has enjoyed his time refereeing. He seems a bit hesitant. "Yeah, I have yeah . . . I'd be lying if I didn't say some days after 60 minutes I have felt, 'thank God that is over with'. I mean there has been days like that, no question. But generally I enjoy the challenge of it. I enjoy the fitness side. And I like to see a very good game, watching skilful players playing. But it's not always a nice day at the office."
He says there are more referees available in Dublin now than ever. "There are mercenaries, doing it three or four times a weekend, and some of them wouldn't run too far. I have no interest in doing three or four games a weekend because I wouldn't be able to run for an hour and keep up with play. I have seen people walk around. And they would have another game later on. That is what they do. It's not my cup of tea at all."
Deasy acknowledges that many clubs have a good track record in terms of discipline and behaviour at matches. "The majority play by the rules, and the mentors coach them well. Where there are problems it is usually the sideline who think it's OK to carry on like that. Whereas if I had an individual on my team who was misbehaving and making a show of me and making a show of the club I'd say, come on, I don't care, you can't behave like that. It's just not on. I'd be embarrassed. And unfortunately, some mentors they don't know how to be embarrassed."
As for his reputation as a player, he relates a story of one irritating corner-forward and county panellist who wouldn't shut up, leading to him being booked. As he was taking his details, the player said, "I see we got the B referee today." "He got on my wick," says Deasy who gave him a brief resume of his own playing accolades which easily outshone his accuser's.
I am still not sure I know why he does it though - he is part of that rare breed. "To be honest with you, I didn't know whether I would like it or not first of all. I decided I'd give it a go and if I didn't like it I wouldn't stick at it.
"I am a GAA man since I was eight years of age. So you just don't walk away from it. You get better crack out of being on the sideline or playing than you do from refereeing. But at the end of the day there is a wonderful isolation to refereeing."
Draw from that what you will.
Sunday Indo Sport