Friday 22 November 2019

Tomás Ó Sé: A brutally solitary existence...Why would you want to be a ref? Honestly?

Roscommon referee Paddy Neilan is escorted off the pitch by Gardaí and stadium officials after last Saturday's All-Ireland SFC qualifier between Tipperary and Armagh at Semple Stadium Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Roscommon referee Paddy Neilan is escorted off the pitch by Gardaí and stadium officials after last Saturday's All-Ireland SFC qualifier between Tipperary and Armagh at Semple Stadium Photo: Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

I think it was Bob Hope who came up with the line that if you had no charity in your heart, then you'd got the worst kind of heart trouble.

Well, it's been a rough week for football referees and, you know, I've zero interest in climbing aboard any bandwagon now. Actually, I happen to believe the standard of refereeing in the GAA is improving all the time, I'd just question the work-load they now face, the amount of scrutiny and stress endlessly coming their way.

Because more and more I find myself thinking how the inside of a referee's head must be a place of regular carnage. Why do they bother doing it? To get praise? How many refs do you hear being praised from one end of a season to the other? Just doesn't happen.

They go into these big championship days wrestling with every bit as much pressure as those they're policing, yet the players are - at least - trying to win something. If they succeed, they get the kudos. It's a simple equation: "If I do well, I'll be appreciated." The referee?

His is a brutally solitary existence. Yes, he has the umpires and linesmen for support but, by and large, they tend to remain in the background (recent Diarmuid Connolly incident excepted).

Remember the build-up to this year's National League final and how it carried a huge focus on the appointment of Paddy Neilan to take charge? Less than a month earlier, Kerry and Dublin had met in Tralee in a contest that wasn't for the faint-hearted. Now the dogs in the street were predicting a final bound to get saucy too and so Roscommon's Neilan - who'd not taken charge of a single Division 1 game - seemed a gamble of an appointment.

And what happened? He had a fine game.

Sure, there might have been some specific issues that Jim Gavin especially took umbrage with, but let me put it this way: Nobody saw Paddy Neilan as the story afterwards and that's probably as close as any referee can hope to get to being paid a compliment.

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Now the same Paddy took an awful bashing in Thurles last weekend. Booed by supporters and then funnelled down the tunnel through a Garda escort after Armagh's qualifier victory over Tipperary, it had to be a horrible experience for him. No question, he got a couple of major calls wrong and those calls, inevitably, came under the sharpest of white light on 'The Sunday Game'.

There were a few incidents, specifically with the advantage rule, that were hard to understand. It was probably the first programme of the season where a ref really came in for such uncomplimentary forensic and that set me thinking.

At the end of the National League, Seán Walsh - National Referees' Development chairman - justifiably said he had been extremely happy with the standard of refereeing in the competition. A lot of new talent had been introduced and that has to be a huge positive.

But I've been trying to think of high-profile former players who became referees and the only one that springs to mind is Mickey Kearins of Sligo. That surely tells us something. I mean I'd love to see more former county men get involved, if only for the empathy they'd have for today's players. But what or where is the appeal?

Me? Not a chance. I just haven't the personality, the patience I suppose.

For me, the top three refs in the country today are David Coldrick, David Gough and Maurice Deegan. In an ideal world, you'd have these men in charge of all the important games and, obviously, that simply isn't feasible. But we need to be very careful that these people feel appreciated in our game because, without them, we're in trouble.

You know I had a laugh with Pat McEneaney over in New York a few weeks ago when playing that exhibition game in Rockland County. I was running back out the field once, sweating away the hospitality of the night before. "Jesus Pat, I'm glad I'm gone!" I said to him. "But sure you're well gone yourself!"

And Pat's response was "Tomás, a ref is never gone if he just keeps using common sense!"

It's not that simple though. I know it and I suspect Pat knows it as well. The refs today just have too many boxes to tick, too many different people passing judgment on them. The black card? I'm not even going there. My view on it is well known.

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Kevin Feely added to his growing reputation

Look at Kevin Feely's situation in Croker last Sunday, maybe the best midfielder we've seen all year, walking off the field frustrated and confused. I don't even want to go there. I'm just sick of it at this stage.

The issues with the advantage rule are, maybe, more surprising.

Theoretically, you would imagine that five seconds' grace is plenty of time for a ref to decide whether or not to call back the free. But last Saturday night in Semple Stadium, that didn't seem to be the case and Neilan struggled.

Now I'm pretty certain he knows how to apply the advantage rule, but I'm equally certain his performance was down to a sense of pressure from all quarters. Pressure from players, managers, media and - maybe above all - pressure from the referees' assessor sitting in the stand.

Because every time a referee takes a big inter-county game today, he's effectively sitting an exam.

For the record, I think Neilan is a good referee. He had a tortuous experience last Saturday, but I had a few of them myself when I was playing with Kerry. The difference? My mistakes were never given the cold forensic treatment Paddy Neilan's met last weekend.

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James McCarthy shoots to score Dublin's second goal of the game. Photo: Seb Daly/Sportsfile

Bottom line, stuff gets missed or misinterpreted all the time in the heat of battle. Look at James McCarthy's goal for Dublin against Kildare. The very second it was scored, I turned to my young lad. He's sharp enough.

"How many steps?" I asked.

"Seven or eight!" was his reply.

The rule is crystal clear. Hop it, kick it or solo it, but four steps is the law. It's not rocket science, but inconsistency is the killer here. In the Ulster final, I saw Tiernan McCann penalised for diving into contact when - much later in the game - a Down man did something identical only to be awarded a free.

One decision made when the match was still in the melting pot, the other when it was done and dusted. Two utterly conflicting interpretations.

It made no sense other than Joe McQuillan maybe offering Down a kind of late sympathy vote. Human instinct.

I'd say one big issue for referees today is that a lot of the people ranting at them don't actually know the rules, pundits included. And that has to be head-wrecking.

Personally, I'd like to see two refs on the field, both miked up, each one taking a half of the field. Because two good heads are surely better than one. Now people might counter-argue that, if the quality isn't there in the first place, then having two on the field won't necessarily solve the problem. If that's the case, I'd ask two questions.

(1) Are we training referees properly?

(2) Are we overloading them with responsibility?

Think about this. You effectively have eight officials involved in every game, but the heat and the responsibility all comes to bear on only one.

Players are getting fitter and faster all the time yet, until Semple Stadium last Saturday, I don't think we've seen a game in this championship, the outcome of which you could say was directly influenced by a referee. And, even then, I think the broad consensus was that Armagh deserved to win.

Hand on heart, would you want to be a referee today? Some days I end up taking charge of school games, occasionally hurling, and the first thing that comes into my head will always be, 'Jesus, I don't want any hassle here now!'

I won't say I'm living on my nerves exactly, but I'm not comfortable. Deep down, maybe, I just know that I don't have the composure for the job if things get out of hand.

Multiply that a hundred times to the inter-county model and think of fellas like me sitting in a TV studio that night, waiting for the referee to make a mistake so that we can pick it apart from every conceivable angle. Think of the players trying to manipulate him (roar like a bear over a decision that goes against you and, often as not, you might get a soft one in your favour soon after).

Trust me, it's the law of the jungle out there and the man in the middle won't be human if, at some point, he's not inclined to second-guess himself.

And that's what strikes me now as this championship starts heading towards serious business. It's not the referees that are the problem here, it's the conditions in which they operate.

Just imagine the focus on Ciarán Brannigan today when he takes charge of the Cork v Mayo qualifier in Limerick? One of the last times we saw Ciarán, Diarmuid Connolly's hands were on his chest. Now his face is familiar to every GAA household in the country.

Do you honestly think he won't feel massive added pressure in the Gaelic Grounds to avoid becoming central to today's story? Personally, I hope he has a blinder. But to do that, he's pretty much got to be invisible. A perverse challenge in many ways.

For the record, I see victories today for Mayo and Donegal.

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