Barry Kelly is not a popular figure in Kilkenny hurling. In the lead up to last Sunday's All-Ireland final Eddie O'Connor expressed a fear that Kelly would spoil the game by imposing himself too much on the action.
And the referee faced further scrutiny after the match. On The Sunday Game Eddie Brennan, clearly unhappy with Kelly's performance, mentioned how Kilkenny did not have a good recent record in games refereed by the Westmeath man. Presenter Des Cahill took him up on that comment, but Brennan remained firm in his stance.
Throughout last Sunday's exciting final, Kilkenny supporters expressed their anger at a number of decisions, but in one of the best hurling games ever played, Kelly played a key role, calling just 19 frees, letting a game which did not have a lot of fouling flow, and making lots of right calls.
After 35 seconds he summoned Hawk-Eye when Colin Fennelly's shot was waved wide by an umpire. The score detection system showed Fennelly's shot was a point, Kelly was proved right and off to a great start.
But that credit didn't last long. When he penalised Eoin Larkin for going to ground too easily instead of giving him a free. The Kilkenny fans roared their disapproval.
It was the wrong call, hence the ironic cheers in the eighth minute when Seamus Callanan clearly fouled JJ Delaney, and Kelly made the right call to award Kilkenny a free out. Two minutes later Kieran Bergin took a hit to the head and was also rightly awarded a free. Despite the perception from the stands, Kelly had gone through the first quarter of the biggest game of the year awarding only four frees; two of which were spot on, one debatable and one wrong.
Larkin was then tackled by Paddy Stapleton in mid air and got no free, which was an error made worse by the fact that Noel McGrath shot and scored from the breaking ball. The Kilkenny sideline grew animated and the stands erupted again. Cue more cheers of irony when Kelly awarded Larkin a free moments later.
There could be no complaints when Brian Hogan fouled Bonner Maher and again the right call was made, but can the referee take all the blame for then awarding Tipperary a penalty? Maher was obviously fouled but was it inside or outside the penalty area? Kelly consulted with his umpires and sideline assistant before spreading his arms. Replays showed the initial foul took place just outside and so a 50-50 call went Tipp's way.
Conor Fogarty's shot was waved wide, but Kelly called for Hawk-Eye which confirmed it had been off target. He gave Eoin Murphy a free out and Richie Power a free in within four minutes, two more correct calls. Also spot on was a free for Colin Fennelly on 33 minutes when the Kilkenny man was wrapped up.
As half-time approached he booked John O'Dwyer and penalised Jackie Tyrrell for a foul on McGrath. Again, he was correct. In the first half he awarded 11 frees, six against Kilkenny and five against Tipp. Seven right calls, one marginally wrong.
On the restart, TJ Reid's stunning goal could easily have been disallowed for a trip on Paddy Stapleton by Richie Power in the build up. But with Kilkenny piling on the pressure, and bodies in front of him, Kelly obviously didn't see it.
Next, he was right to give Richie Hogan a free after a jersey tug. Almost straight away Darren Gleeson got to the sliotar first (with his foot) before he took Eoin Larkin down and it was the correct call. Hogan pointed from the loose ball. With the tension rising, he correctly blew when TJ Reid was fouled by Shane McGrath for a high tackle. Reid scored.
Then came Tipperary's second penalty, when Lar Corbett was rugby-tackled by Tyrell just inches outside the penalty area. Corbett's second foot was inside the area. The penalty could just as easily have been a 21 yard free but that's only evident after repeated slow motion viewings of the incident. Again Kelly consulted with his umpires, showing calmness in the heat of the moment
There were calls for a red card for Paddy Stapleton soon after. The defender tussled with Richie Power as the ball dropped and replays show that he briefly held Power's face guard (which is a red card) before Power's right arm went across Stapleton's chin. But play went on, Reid hit the post and again Richie Hogan pointed the rebound.
Between the 62nd and 64th minutes, Kilkenny were given two frees and both were good calls as Paudie Maher fouled Cillian Buckley and then Darren Gleeson picked the ball off the ground.
And then came the controversial final call. Brian Hogan ran into Paudie Maher with ball in hand and Tipp were awarded the free which could have won the game. There was no free either way and letting play run on would have been the right move.
So, Kelly awarded just 19 frees and consulted with his team and technology whenever in doubt. At least 12 of his decisions are not in doubt, while some others were marginal.
Kilkenny can feel aggrieved that two penalties were awarded but they were both extremely close calls. On the other side, they certainly got lucky when the trip that preceded Reid's bullet goal was not spotted.
In every game, teams will have issues with officials, and in many games their decisions will influence the outcome, just like Mayo did with Cormac Reilly this year, and like Tipperary felt Diarmuid Kirwan's decisions cost them in the 2009 All-Ireland final. But in my opinion, Kelly did a decent job on last Sunday's final.
Sunday Indo Sport