'Here's the rule book, that's the rule, did you apply it?'
Dermot Crowe talks to a referees' assessor and examines how the GAA keeps tabs on its match officials
THERE are no cloven hooves visible on the GAA referees' assessor as he steps into the room and no hint of guilt for being the tightest and most unpopular marker in league and championship.
He turns out to be disappointingly warm and passive company. Of course he knows he does not get a good press but says the hostility is misguided. His work is often misrepresented or misunderstood. He is regularly depicted as overbearing, officious; a control-freak, a killjoy. It is not possible to reveal his name but over the course of a few hours he talks freely of his job and the hullabaloo it creates.
His task is to help ensure that the playing rules are enforced but Irish people have not got a good track record on rules and regulation. The wilful rejection and abandonment of rules and regulation, after all, is largely the reason this country of ours is on its knees.
A few days before we meet, the Kilkenny hurling manager Brian Cody had launched another missile attack. Match assessors, he said, were putting referees under unwarranted pressure and hurling was being stripped of its visceral appeal. In 2007, he turned on the same assessors after Kilkenny beat Offaly in the championship, raging at the free count and describing the system as "lunacy". Referees, Cody steamed, were being "screwed".
Cody is not the only one by any means. Numerous managers have found the same default setting after a day when they felt their side was unduly punished by over-zealous refereeing. Last year, Pat Gilroy cut loose after a league game against Monaghan in which the yellow cards rained down on the players like confetti.
In response to 14 yellow cards and a dismissal on a second yellow for Diarmuid Connolly, he said: "I didn't think it was a dirty game. It's (the proliferation of cards) down to the pressure that referees are under to apply the rules to the letter of the law. I suppose they are being forced to do it."
Those are the views of the managers of the last two All-Ireland winners and they command attention and wield considerable influence. Sometimes Croke Park will respond by defending the use of assessors and reiterate that they exist to help foster consistent refereeing, which is what the players, and managers, desire. After the Cody outburst in 2007, the national referees' committee issued a statement saying it endorsed the system and denied that many referees were monitored under duress.
This assessor is a former inter-county referee and not deaf to criticism or closed to ways of improving the system of checks and balances. Some have called for the assessors to be scrapped. At a recent county board meeting in Wexford, the secretary was instructed to advise Croke Park of the county's concerns in light of a spate of yellow cards at a couple of National Football League games. Assessors are a stifling influence leading to overly-officious referees who ruin games with countless stoppages -- that's the charge.
"What I would say is you need some form of assessment on referees' performances," the assessor responds. "Some will argue all you have to do is to sit at a match and go 'he's a good referee, he's a bad referee, blah, blah, blah'. Now I don't think you can do that. I think we are unique as well in Gaelic games in that we have a set of rules but we try to set out and play the games by another set, and it's always about different interpretations. From that point of view, it is a unique game.
"In soccer, rules are very defined. But I would say that the standard of refereeing is much better now than it was when I was refereeing or much better than it was ten years ago; in the sense that they are trying to apply the rules now. There may be a problem with the rules and that is where the referee gets slated. They are trying to apply the rules as they are. And then you have the likes of Brian Cody saying let the game flow. But then we better take out a lot of these rules."
There are kinks in the system though and he admits as much. Farcically, assessors don't get a designated seat to sit in judgement so in his case he has to arrive at the venue a couple of hours early to make sure he has a good vantage point. In one game he had a place at the back of a stand for the second match of a double-header and the wind cut him in two; he could hardly hold the pen and ended up with pneumonia. Assessors are given player access cards to gain admission to grounds but at some gates they are questioned and made explain themselves. "They think we have stolen the cards," he says, smiling.
He might be sitting on a cold step at a rural venue in the middle of a partisan crowd, hardly the kind of place to be inconspicuous and focused. "They (supporters) ask: who are you reporting for? And if they know then you are an assessor every decision the ref makes you are getting an earful about it. It is not conducive to doing the thing right. Some places you go into the press box which you shouldn't be in either, that is for the press."
Why do it at all? "Why do anything in the GAA? You want to be part of it. I played, I refereed, when I decided to retire, for months afterwards I found it very difficult, I missed it so much, the involvement, the buzz, trying to help somebody. I am a fanatical GAA man. I was asked."
He admits that some of the criticism makes his blood boil. "First of all you have to respect the likes of Brian Cody or anyone who won All-Ireland medals; they know what the game is about. But what Brian Cody is actually saying in my book is that the rules aren't what he wants for -- as he calls it -- a good game of hurling. Because all the referees are doing is applying the rules as they are. Now common sense isn't in the rule book. There are fouls where you can't allow the advantage -- a red card, no way. In a yellow-card situation, you could let the play run and go back and book him afterwards, there is skill involved in that, timing. There is a no-win situation in Gaelic games; you blow for the free and they say you should have given the advantage.
"What gets to anybody, this would be a legitimate criticism, is where he is very finicky on the pick-up and a slight push on the back or something and yet lets the aggressive stuff go. That gets the ire of players and spectators; you can't be fussy and all blowy and yet fellas are being poleaxed, off the ball or whatever. And sometimes you say the umpire must be blind. He is standing there and the corner-forward is being hacked and doing nothing about it. That inconsistency is there alright.
"The assessment is there to help the referee, not to hinder him. And you report on what you see and he is expected then to take that on board and maybe improve the next time. And I have seen referees improve."
He feels that condemnations of high card counts miss the point. "Yellow cards came in to try to eradicate persistent niggly fouling. The comment you will hear is that it wasn't a dirty match yet there were 12 yellow cards. It doesn't have to be a dirty match. You will hear a fella saying, 'ah jaysus, that wasn't a yellow card'. I know some lads who are a terror for it. The first offence is a tick, if you repeat it's a yellow card. That is the way it is. They are commenting on the second foul not realising this fella has already been ticked.
"In last year's All-Ireland (hurling) final, there were very few cards but there was some awful belting in it as well. Now if that is what you want then change the rules. From an assessor's perspective, the rules are there. It is black and white; common sense is not in the rule book."
Referees who interpret the rules liberally in the interest of allowing the game to flow freely run the risk, he feels, of seeing the game career out of control. He cites the example of Pat McEnaney as having had an "innate" grasp of the job. "He got away with things, you know. There were times when he didn't; the famous Meath/Mayo match (1996), I would think he was partly responsible for some of the things that happened in that match."
In a broader sense, he adds that: "A lot of the trouble you have in games is from the weak application of the rules by referees. With an assessor it's black and white. Here is the rule book, that's the rule, did you apply it? That is what we go on."
He was one of over 50 assessors who spent a day in Croke Park in January where they attended a seminar on aspects of refereeing and the rule book and then sat an exam with a 92 per cent pass rate. The leading referees are less conscious of assessors, he feels, than those down the ranks. Each referee has the option of contacting his assessor and querying aspects of the report. He has had that himself, memorably in the case of one who received a very low mark. The score cards are detailed but they are not without fault.
There is repetition so that referees can get punished on the double. If they miss a yellow-card offence for example they are automatically docked two points. But towards the end of the assessor's report card there are various categories where further marking is required and the same ground is pored over.
In one case after a league match a referee with a low score contacted him "distraught" and worried his ambitions of getting more games might be jeopardised. His main fault was to allow too much leniency on aggressive fouls. "You are not judged in one match and only by one assessor; they take a number of games into account. Anyone can have a bad day."
A referee losing two marks for missing a yellow-card offence, or four for a red, will later be marked under summary headings like 'Application and Control' or 'Demonstrating Good Judgement in Decisions' or 'Acting with Authority in Penalising Foul Play' -- each carries a two-mark penalty if the referee is deemed not up to scratch. So, one yellow-card offence could cost a referee as much as eight points when he should be docked two. Croke Park is looking at this anomaly ahead of the championship and may make alterations.
A referee we spoke to a few weeks ago complained about being docked marks because one of his linesmen didn't spot a striking infraction off the ball. This, he maintained, was unfair and he queried it. "True, that happens, that is unfair," says the assessor. "They have redesigned the form, so that the linesmen's transgressions are not the referees' -- that will be changed for the championship. You still take the rap for the umpires."
Taking marks away for umpires not wearing identical hats sounds ludicrous but is part of the assessment in the presentation category. The assessor shows one of his recent completed assessments which drew attention to an umpire's failure to wear his head gear. "All umpires are provided with gear, a special tie, rain gear; it is all part of showing the ref is on top of his game. If his team aren't right, his performance may not be right."
Not all assessors are, like him, former inter-county referees. Some have not refereed higher than club level and some may not have any or little refereeing experience but a good knowledge of the rules. "I think they are trying to recruit more ex-county referees. A lot of guys don't want to do it, can't be bothered. When it started first it was only a question of getting people in."
He advocates time-keeping being taken out of the referee's hands and feels that the vigilance of the other officials needs to be stepped up for off-the-ball transgressions. He sees some of the best players in the game who can't tackle legitimately; they don't seem to know how. There is no difference to the instructions they receive on how to assess league and championship matches.
He produces a report form with the marking scheme attached. Referees start out with a perfect 100 per cent and any errors result in them losing points. Not spotting a technical foul, like an illegal pick-up or throw, costs a referee one percentage point. A poor linesman can cost him four, an umpire three. Failure to consult with either also costs him marks. Twenty marks out of the total of 100 hinge on how a referee liaises with his fellow officials. But the biggest potential losses are in the application of the rules on aggressive fouls -- 35 per cent.
Technical fouls constitute a further ten per cent of the total mark. Five per cent relates to dissent and how a referee handles any issues in that area. Positioning and fitness carries ten marks.
"You are told to use facts, not opinions. Use the language of the rule book. Facts are important, opinions are not. But, ultimately, it is the attitude of the players that makes the referee's job easy or difficult. If they go out with a negative attitude, any referee in the country will struggle."
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