The final whistle that November afternoon in 1985 brought joy to the young players of Blessington, confirming their one-point win over Annacurra in the Wicklow under 21 B football final. For the referee, Johnny Price, it signalled the end of his duties. From there he made the short walk to his car to change and prepare for the journey home to Roundwood from Baltinglass. But what happened next turned into a case that's still spoken of 35 years later, and is even familiar to people with only a passing interest, or none at all, in Gaelic games.
Of the many assaults on GAA referees over the years, it is the most notorious: Price was forced into the boot of his car after being confronted by angry supporters of the losing team. The story of a referee being locked in a boot had a uniquely sinister twist and helped create a caricature of Wicklow as lawless and ungovernable. It exposed referees to a new dimension of risk and ridicule. It also left deep and lasting psychological scars for those involved in the GAA in the county.
The story grew legs with the passing years. There was a version that had the referee driven away from the ground by the perpetrators and abandoned, which did not happen. When Price, an experienced inter-county referee, reached his Fiat Uno van he opened up the hatchback door and began changing out of his gear. His youngest son, David, was seated in the front seat when he heard a loud noise, the sound of the car's rear door slamming shut.
During the match Price had sent off a player from Annacurra and while he was changing afterwards three men approached him and hurled verbal abuse, before one forced him inside the car. Some say that because it was a hatchback, rather than a conventional boot, the deed wasn't as distressing as it might have been portrayed. The door was already open but it was still a very serious assault. Only the previous weekend in Arklow, Price had been seriously assaulted during a league match between Aughrim and Barndarrig which left him out cold for a brief spell. He was punched twice and kicked in the ribs while on the ground - remarkably he recovered and finished refereeing the match.
The car incident roused more interest, however, and became a kind of cause celebre in the refereeing world. Price had been officiating for 18 years and encountered serious situations before, but none as bad as he endured over those two weekends. In May the following year a player was fined after being convicted in court of the assault in Arklow, which happened after he was sent off. After Baltinglass, the Annacurra follower who assaulted Price at his car was banned for life by the GAA.
Johnny Price's son, David, was seven when he travelled with his father to Baltinglass for the under 21 final. He is 41 now, the youngest of the family. His brother Joe was on the An Tochar team from Roundwood that won the Wicklow senior football championship in 1995, ten years after the incident involving his father. An Tochar had a reputation for playing attractive football and the incident with Johnny Price, though the club wasn't culpable, remains difficult to talk about. The current chairman declined. He said that what happened in Baltinglass did not represent what they stood for and explained that he would rather leave it behind.
David Price remembers that day clearly. According to a report in The Nationalist and Leinster Times, it took the intervention of the county vice-chairman Liam O'Loughlin and Baltinglass secretary, Garda Seamus Kelly, to rescue Price from his car. He was 44 at the time and ran a garage in Roundwood. He died suddenly aged 64 in 2005.
"My dad took it fairly light-hearted anyway," says his son, David. "He would never let anything really get to him. I was in the car at the time, but I didn't see anything, I just heard the bang and I turned around and I locked the car. The keys were in the ignition. I didn't know what to do. I went along for the day because there was nobody to mind me. I was brought to most games at the time."
Johnny and Christine Price raised four children: Vincent, Carmel, Joe and David. They all played football but Joe was the most accomplished. "I played until I was 26 and then when my Dad passed away I took over the family business. I couldn't afford to be injured," David explains.
He remembers hearing the banging noise and looking around to see his father trapped inside the car. He said something but his father did not respond. "I locked the doors because people started gathering around the car. Eventually a man came to the window and my Dad said I could let him in. He was getting changed at the back of the van. I didn't hear any voices, so I didn't hear a confrontation or anything like that. I heard the bang and then saw him lying in the boot with the door shut."
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Thirty five years on, serious assaults on referees are rare but not unheard of in Wicklow and beyond. When Aughrim native John Keenan was attacked five years ago he didn't see it coming. He is one of two Wicklow referees, along with Anthony Nolan, currently serving on the national referees' panel.
Baltinglass GAA club, where Johnny Price was locked in his car. Photo: Sportsfile
Keenan was leaving the pitch after an intermediate football championship game involving neighbours Stratford-Grangecon and Baltinglass when a spectator approached him and allegedly head-butted him in the face. He later received a two-year ban. "We have taken swift action in the aftermath of this incident," said Mick Hagan of the committee that made the decision to ban the spectator. "There is no place for this type of behaviour in our Association."
Keenan was just 12 when Johnny Price was locked into his car, old enough to remember. He later played matches in which Price was the referee. "I knew Johnny. I wouldn't have been out for a pint with him. It didn't put Johnny off either in fairness to the man. He was a businessman in Roundwood, he was well known. A terrible nice man."
Refereeing was in the blood. Keenan's father, Liam, did it for years. "Now he didn't referee anything outside of Wicklow, he's 73 now and up to this year he was still doing a bit. He got me into it, I was going to games with him."
The day John Keenan was assaulted in 2015 his father was one of his umpires. "I haven't spoken to anyone about it, I had a lot of offers (to talk). I will never forget it. Lovely summer's evening and for some reason a spectator from a club, and the game went perfectly, decided on the way out he'd headbutt me. Caught me completely unawares.
"I got a black eye and a badly bruised nose. There was nothing broken. It was the shock more than anything. I was due to referee on the Sunday again. I took the Sunday off. I wanted to chill out. I rang the wife on the way home and sure she couldn't believe what happened."
Like Johnny Price, he was not persuaded to lay down his whistle. "I absolutely love it. If my wife was sitting here beside me she would probably say I love it more than I love the family (laughs). Now I obviously don't but I love it."
Keenan feels that respect for referees in the county is generally good. "You are always going to have a frustrated player here and there on a pitch. I was one of those myself, I used to get frustrated at times when I was playing. You will have players calling for frees and not agreeing with you and stuff like that.
"I know you will see a lot of people and they'll say Wicklow this and Wicklow that, but my way of looking at it is I'm sure there are a lot of incidents that go on in a lot of other counties, but because Wicklow has had one of the more high profile ones it is highlighted more probably."
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David Price can't remember his father ever showing signs of distress from experiences he encountered as a referee. "If anything went on in a game he never brought it home with him. He would never let it get to him. He'd say, 'Oh I had to send so many off because they were fighting' - but he never said what the reasons for that were.
"I remember when I got a bit older and heard more about it (his father locked in the boot) I was upset that it happened and stuff like that, but I was only young at the time and didn't know any better. I remember my Dad saying it was big news at the time. It went to court."
His father died 15 years ago while on pilgrimage with his wife, Christine, in France. "When we were young, we didn't go on many holidays because of the business," says David. "And they were starting to do that, travelling more. I was here (looking after the garage) and we were all grown up.
"He was refereeing a football game and he noticed that he was short of breath and decided he had better go and get it checked and they did an angiogram. He had two blockages in his arteries, he got an angioplasty and then they put stents in after that. This was about four or five weeks before he went away, because he was told he might not be allowed fly. He was worried about that but went for a check-up and everything looked good so he could fly."
While in his hotel in France he collapsed and died. "My mother said it was very hard but she was lucky because there was a priest there who was fluent in French and he could translate everything for her because she was lost. My other brother Joe flew over I think a day or two after that and then we arrived a day or two after that, myself, Vincent and Carmel."
He speaks of his father's undying passion for refereeing. That is what endures. "He loved it. He played himself and went into the refereeing end of it and loved it."
Willie Barrett is chairman of the National Referees Development Committee. He began refereeing in 1977 and retired in 2018. "I knew Johnny Price actually," he says. "I met Johnny, after the incident, I met him twice in Croke Park. I remember him speaking briefly about it. He seemed to have recovered well from it. He was a hearty kind of guy to talk to, he was a nice guy.
A letter that was sent to the referee after the incident where Johnny Price was locked in his car
"I remember well it got publicity in the paper, but that time we didn't have the communication we have now. I suppose in a way he more or less had to deal with it himself. Today it would certainly be different. Johnny was on the inter-county panel at the time. If it happened now you would have a call from Croke Park certainly. There would be support available to him in terms of talking to people.
"He seemed to get over it, he seemed to be very strong mentally. When I spoke to him about it, and I asked him how he was obviously and all that, and he told me he was in a good place and he continued refereeing."
Barrett made his inter-county start only a year after the incident with Price in Baltinglass. "At the time, I remember thinking of the pitfalls of refereeing and what can happen," he says. "But you always hope that it won't happen to you. I don't think you dwell on what might happen. It certainly never occurred to me that something like that would happen me."
He discovered that he was not immune ten years ago when he abandoned a South Tipperary championship match in Kilsheelan after a vicious assault from a supporter. He shipped blows from a hurl to the hand, back and hip. "It didn't stop me. In actual fact I was refereeing a week or two later. I was anxious to put it behind me and move on. But then again I had been refereeing for 33 years at that time. That helped."
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Kevin O'Brien won an All-Ireland club medal with Baltinglass and brought honour to Wicklow through inter-provincial appearances, All Star recognition and featuring on the Irish team in the international rules series. But on his travels he might just as easily have someone ask him about the referee they put in the boot.
"Being a Wicklow player it is thrown at you everywhere," he says. "I knew Johnny. He was a referee who did an awful lot of games. I don't know exactly what happened on the night. From a football point of view I was lucky enough to go places here and there and play with a lot of household names and it would be thrown out at you. Even still.
"A lot of worse things have happened on football pitches. Now that is with respect to the family. We all knew Johnny as a referee. We all knew his style and we all know what to do and what not to do. If Johnny was refereeing you knew you shut your mouth and you did not get involved.
"People are uncomfortable talking about it. You go to places, say where you're from and they say, 'ye throw referees in the boot'.
"I think from a Wicklow point of view you're always trying to fight to get respect and there is only one way to get respect and that is to achieve things. From a team point of view the effort that goes in a lot of cases would be extraordinary and in some cases we are not good enough or you get a bit of bad luck on the day or whatever. But you are trying always to get people to believe they are good enough and something like that sucks the wind out of you.
"I am actually very uncomfortable talking about it now, because you feel you are actually supporting it, highlighting it more. Like the club he is from is a very respectable club. It is terrible to be remembered for something like that, but it's not going to go away. I could go down to Kerry in the morning or go anywhere in the country and someone could say it to me."
For O'Brien, and others, there has been a lingering feeling of persecution and an unfair press. After the Johnny Price incident Wicklow became a hunting ground for the next outrage.
"We always felt that the coverage would be stronger, because it was Wicklow, and give a dog a bad name and then it was 'ah they are at it again'. You'd pick up the paper and read of something, and I'd have played in that match, and know that it did not happen like that. Now we didn't help ourselves either. There were incidents, but there are incidents everywhere."
It left a legacy? "It's bad PR, isn't it?" he states. "And there's a lot of people doing a lot of good work and it kind of deflates them I think. We lose respect over that."
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When Mick O'Dwyer came to Wicklow it was often said that he would be a liberating force, and help remove the tribal bitterness that existed between clubs. Kevin O'Brien was hitched to the same management team. He feels the club tensions were over-stated and created a false perception. "Club rivalry is everywhere," he says, "and it brings out the best and the worst in people. If that stops we're at nothing.
"I often think that's excuses, more excuses, I was caught up in all of that. Baltinglass won't play with Rathnew. One side of the hill. Two counties in the one county - f**k's sake, there's mountains in Kerry, Donegal, everywhere. High-stool excuses, that's the bottom line. It's crazy stuff. It's excuses for failure.
"There was never a problem with Baltinglass players playing with Rathnew. It's a derby match and it's tough and flat out but I never experienced lads not passing the ball from any club."
The Wicklow Games Manager is a former county player, Hugh Kenny. At the start of this year they recruited 17 new adult referees. "If you look at other counties that's a good return," he says. He speaks also about disproportionate press coverage and how incidents in other counties - he managed a club recently in Meath - do not get the same media attention.
In December, the month after the incident in the car park, the GAA expelled a member of the Annacurra club for the assault and another member of the same club received a six-month suspension for heckling during the trophy presentation.
Price spoke after the county board decision.
"I think they have taken the necessary steps to root out the troublemakers, and their action should serve as a deterrent to any players or supporters who might be contemplating assaulting a referee in the future," he said.
It didn't stop assaults on referees, but it probably reduced them and it helped bring people to their senses. Through all of it, Price's love of refereeing remained uncorrupted. It was a love that simply could not be contained.