I had gotten wind from someone in TG4 in the middle of a week in August that they were hoping to debut a very exciting initiative at that weekend’s Kerry hurling county final.
They were going to mic up the match referee and take us onto the pitch and into the conversations between the players and officials.
I mentioned it at the end of that Friday’s Second Captains podcast, but all week it had been a little up in the air. I wasn’t entirely sure which part of the equation was most skittish about this – the referee, the clubs in Kerry, or the GAA centrally, but the broadcast itself was a massive hit.
Every little interaction between the referee and the players (and in truth, there weren’t that many) was illuminating in its own understated way, and when they were released, clipped on twitter as standalone incidents, they each separately got plenty of attention.
It managed to sound both genuinely fresh and completely run-of-the-mill at the same time. Instead of only paying attention to refs when they were being roared at, it normalised the sorts of conversations that happen all the time on the GAA field between players and referees. It was a win on all sides.
We haven’t seen it since, something that was pointedly referenced by Micheál Ó Domhnaill on their broadcast from Castlebar on Sunday afternoon when he was in conversation with recently retired intercounty referee Maurice Deegan about the challenges refs are currently facing.
Deegan agreed with Ó Domhnaill that mic’ing up referees allowed them to get the reasoning for their decisions out there, and helped people actually understand where referees were coming from – as well as helping fans to properly understand the rules of the game, which is another matter altogether.
It also humanised the person in charge. Like the initiative we saw in Wexford last weekend which urged all players to shake hands with the ref before the game started, it should seem absolutely unnecessary. But maybe it’s that one simple gesture which indicates to players that they’re dealing with a person, instead of viewing the ref as the single most unpredictable obstacle to their victory.
When GAA president Larry McCarthy sat down with Gordon Manning for an interview with this newspaper a couple of months ago, he told a story about attending a junior football club match in Ulster.
“One of the lads was giving the referee dog’s abuse, shouting and roaring at him”, said McCarthy. “Your man didn’t recognise me. At one stage I said, listen, there is no need to be shouting like that. But he came back, ‘he can’t be f**king doing this to us’”.
There was something so telling about that line – as far as that supporter was concerned, this was not a person trying to make objective decisions in the heat of the moment, this was a referee out to screw a particular club as part of some kind of personal vendetta.
That’s what referees are competing against. Anything that fosters some empathy towards the referee is to be encouraged, but previous incidents while broadcasting interactions between players and referees may be colouring influential people’s thinking.
David Coldrick was mic’ed up for a documentary about the day of the 2015 All-Ireland football final, the day when Kieran Donaghy accused Philly McMahon of making contact with his eye.
In the controversy that arose after that particular incident was broadcast, in November of that year, the GPA suggested that some players were unaware they were being recorded.
But the same programme makers went back and made a brilliant documentary about the hurling final two years later, with Fergal Horgan putting on a virtuoso display of no-nonsense refereeing that has endeared him to hurling followers (or to me, at least) ever since.
If the Coldrick incident is what’s standing in the way of this being rolled out, I think the benefits far outweigh the pitfalls. The microphone would not just give fans an insight into the sort of conversations players and referees have, it would also act as a deterrent to stop those conversations moving from animated and informative, to abusive.
RTÉ head of sport Declan McBennett mentioned what an addition it would be to their coverage at RTÉ’s championship launch earlier this year, and TG4 have had conversations with the GAA about it for a number of years before this year.
Maybe they felt that it was better to plead forgiveness than to ask for permission this summer, but it’s no secret that they intend to revisit it with the GAA as soon as possible.
TG4 has consistently pushed the envelope with their coverage – they even appeared to be experimenting with two refs on Sunday, as Aidan O’Shea and Cillian O’Connor tried to share officiating duties in the Breaffy/Ballintubber game – but if there’s something holding them back from continuing with this trial, then it’s a real shame.
Because hearing referees talk like human beings might be the first step to treating them in similar fashion.