Standing over his judgment
James McGrath says player welfare is his main priority when refereeing big games, writes Marie Crowe
With 36 minutes and three seconds on the clock in the first half of the Munster hurling final, Limerick's Paudie O'Brien jumped to catch a dropping ball.
Cork's Patrick Horgan swung his hurl from behind hitting the back of O'Brien's helmet. O'Brien misjudged the flight of the ball and it hit the front of his helmet. He fell to the ground holding his head.
The referee James McGrath was only a few feet away. He showed Horgan a red card. The Cork man protested his innocence but the crowd in the Gaelic Grounds stayed mostly quiet, perhaps unsure of the sequence of events.
Moments later, McGrath blew his whistle for half-time and the analysis began.
The sending-off was "harsh", Horgan is "not that kind of player", "technically the referee was correct, but there was no need to send him off", and he could have used a bit of "common sense".
McGrath came in for severe criticism after the game for his decision to send Horgan off. Experts and pundits who regularly express concern on player welfare issues expected McGrath to judge Horgan on his character, not the actual incident. On Twitter, one journalist chose to highlight the fact that McGrath is from Westmeath.
A week later, McGrath's decision was overturned and Horgan was cleared to play in today's All-Ireland hurling quarter-final against Kilkenny in Thurles. As yet, the grounds for clearing Horgan have not been made public.
It's understood that Cork successfully argued that the connection Horgan made with Paudie O'Brien's head in the Munster final was careless use of the hurley, which is deemed a yellow-card offence. Television footage clearly shows Horgan's hurl making contact and the rules are fairly clear.
Rule 5.2, 'to strike or to attempt to strike an opponent with a hurley, with minimal force', is a sending off offence.
And yet, as Billy Keane noted in yesterday's Irish Independent, the GAA has hung another referee out to dry. Yet despite the failure of the Association to back him, the personal attacks, the online abuse the general outpouring of public criticism, McGrath is standing over the call he made. And he has at least been publicly backed by Pat McEnaney, chairman of the National Referees' Committee.
"I can only base my decision on a split second and from what I saw at the time, I felt it was dangerous and I feel I made the correct decision," McGrath told the Sunday Independent.
"The number one priority for me and any referee in the country, be it club or inter-county, is the welfare and protection of the players. I'm not there to control the personal interests of 44,000 supporters."
It is clear that McGrath is disappointed with what has happened since he took that decision. He didn't commit any crime, no one can deny that he applied the rules correctly, yet somehow McGrath has become the story, the talking point and – ultimately – the villain.
"It was definitely the hardest few days I've put down after a match," he admits. "I was aware of everything that was said about me. People seemed to think that I was the new kid on the block . . . that I'd just come out of nowhere and that I didn't know the rules but I've been a referee since 1996, been on the Leinster panel since 1998 and the national panel since 2000. I did an All-Ireland final replay and even reffed Limerick and Cork in the league three years ago."
But what bothered McGrath most were the references to his native county. His critics and some hurling snobs weren't shy in stating where they felt Westmeath belonged in the hurling pecking order – with the very clear implication that coming from a lower-tier county made McGrath a less capable official.
"I'm very proud of the club I'm from – Turin – and I'm very proud to be from Westmeath. For some people to make comments about where you are from, or questioning what would you know about hurling being from a certain place, is wrong.
"I can tell you we are every bit as passionate about hurling here as others from the more successful counties. And even though we might be outside the top teams, it's not from the lack of trying."
McGrath did his job; he is responsible for controlling what happens inside the white lines for 70 minutes; outside factors are not his concern. And he is secure in the knowledge that he made the right call. If he felt otherwise, he'd hang up his whistle.
"If I had made an error in fact – as in applying the rules – or incorrectly disallowed a score that decided the game I would probably say I've had a good 13 years on the inter-county national panel and now my time is up.
"You have to respect the players and the commitment they make. We do our best too, even in terms of training and knowing the rules, then it's a judgment call and we need luck too."
McGrath does admit that the slow-motion replay doesn't make the incident look as bad as it did at the time. But he did not have the luxury of seeing the incident slowed down.
A lot can be garnered from the reaction of the crowd to an incident and when the card was issued to Horgan in the Gaelic Grounds few voiced their opposition. In fact, McGrath didn't realise there was any controversy or issue with his call until he got into the car to drive home and turned on the radio. That was when the referee bashing took flight.
"When you go into the dressing room after the game where something controversial may have happened, the linesman or umpire would usually bring it up and tell you that they didn't agree with you or that you should have consulted with them but that didn't happen.
"It was only when we were on the way home and [heard] the barrage of anonymous people sending in messages that we realised what was going on and then the whole thing gathered momentum."
It was clear in the aftermath too that those who were shouting loudest about McGrath's decision were either ignorant of – or chose to ignore – the rules. Perhaps this is symptomatic of a growing problem in hurling anyway, that of the gulf between the game as it is played currently and the game as set out in the rules.
It is interesting, too, that the GAA has overturned the sending-off having made a particular point of informing referees this season that they are concentrating on eradicating hits to the head and groin.
This wasn't a secret or a bolt from the blue. Managers were informed of the clampdown before the season started and Pat McEnaney has spoken publicly about the directive, making it clear that it was being implemented to safeguard players, something that McGrath feels is necessary.
"Ever since helmets became mandatory there has been an increase in incidents of tackling to the head in both club and inter-county games, since there is more tolerance and lads think there is less risk."
There was no consultation with McGrath on the matter since the game. Once the game is finished and his report is sent in, his job is done. What happens after that is out of his hands and of course referees feel undermined by the process but there is nothing they can do about it. They are the systems that are in place and all referees are aware of the process before they go into the job, so there is no point dwelling on the merits of it.
Instead McGrath must move on, get back to his day job as deputy principal in Castlepollard Community College and in his free time continue to referee matches. Patrick Horgan will play for Cork today and most people will feel that justice was done.
But the question remains: what happens when someone gets hurt?