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Of all the stars that ever shone

Many moons ago, I got into an argument with a guy who reckoned that the song Nancy Spain was a political allegory concerning Ireland's hopes for military aid from the largest country on the Iberian Peninsula. "Let's face it," said this unreasonable dude, "you've never heard of anyone actually being called Spain." "What about Mick Spain the referee," I replied. It did the trick because for GAA fans of a certain age, Mick Spain was a name to conjure with. Like Patsy Devlin or John Moloney, he was one of those referees who perpetually peopled the Sundays of our childhood.

Mick Spain died suddenly last week at the age of 73. He'd followed up an illustrious refereeing career by becoming Offaly's delegate to the Central Council. He was also a member of the Sports Council and the honorary president of his home club Kilcormac/Killoughey where he'd filled all kinds of roles over the years. In other words, Mick Spain was one of those guys who keeps the show on the road.

Perhaps we don't appreciate those guys enough. We take it for granted that the GAA is a phenomenally well-run amateur organisation. But why do we? Efficiency is hardly the Irish national trait. In a couple of weeks we'll go to the ballot boxes and give a good kicking to a government which has left behind a mess that our children will probably still be clearing up when they're old enough to vote. And, in fairness, if the current Fianna Fáil led government was a disaster, it was no worse than the 1982-1987 Fine Gael/Labour coalition. We regularly entrust our political fate to people who just don't seem to have the knack of running things.

Yet the GAA rolls on. It thrives because sometimes it seems like a machine built to supply one generation of outstanding administrators after another. Men like Mick Spain and all those delegates who go to the meeting, make their points, cast their votes and get the job done without hullabaloo or fuss.

They're wonderful men these guys, the heart and soul of the country. And they make you wonder what would happen if the GAA ran Ireland. They'd have had a look at Anglo Irish Bank and let it go the wall, their innate good sense and conservatism would have made them think NAMA was a step too far, they wouldn't have got carried away at the height of the boom because, well, the GAA doesn't get carried away. And we'd all probably be a bit better off than we are today.

A ref of my acquaintance once told me that I should take the Cork County Board refereeing course and take charge of a few games. "Think of the column you'd get out of it," he said to me, "you might even get a book out of it." I didn't take his advice. Why? I simply wouldn't have the guts to ref a game.

Mick Spain had the guts though. And when his friends have finished mourning him, they'll have got back to business, opened the gates of the grounds, sold the tickets, counted the money and kept the show on the road. Doing it all for our sake. Great men. Truly great men.

Rest in peace old warrior.

Sunday Indo Sport