Darragh Ó Sé: Umpires are the invisible men until they make a mistake

Have you ever heard an umpire’s name mentioned? Not once. They're invisible

Waterford goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe appealing to the umpire after a goal was given in the match between Waterford and Tipperary. Photograph: Piaras Ó Midheach/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Waterford goalkeeper Stephen O’Keeffe appealing to the umpire after a goal was given in the match between Waterford and Tipperary. Photograph: Piaras Ó Midheach/Sportsfile via Getty Images

 

On the GAA food chain, the umpires are lower than the lowest of the low. Referees already get treated like they’re the lowest of the low, so that tells you what we think of umpires. The truth is, we don’t think of them at all, really. We don’t give them a second’s thought until they do something wrong. Then suddenly they’re the biggest problem in the GAA and everyone has a world of opinions about what should be done about them.

Have you ever heard an umpire’s name mentioned? Not once. They get listed in the programme for the All-Ireland final and that’s about it. But for the rest of the year, one white coat is the same as the next – until they make a mistake in a big game. You can be sure that by now, plenty of people in Waterford know the name of the two lads in Limerick last Sunday.

That’s the sort of mistake that doesn’t go away. They have to carry that with them. I don’t mean on a national level – bad as it was for them to do it on live TV, nobody outside their general area at home in Galway knows who they are. But on a local level, in their day-to-day lives, that’s the kind of thing that will take a while to wear off. They could be over with the neighbours playing a game of 31 and all it will take is one false move before it gets brought up again.

You’d have to have sympathy for them. If you’re an umpire, all you want to do is have a quiet day out, a grand spin in the car with the lads and a bite to eat and a pint on the way home. The last thing you’re thinking about is having to get a Garda escort off the pitch at the end. The older fella looked like a duck in a thunderstorm as they marched him off the pitch. You could see him thinking, This wasn’t what I signed up for.

Referee Alan Kelly consults his umpires after the goal was awarded. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Referee Alan Kelly consults his umpires after the goal was awarded. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

The life of an umpire should be simpler. I played a challenge game one time in Killarney and at half-time I went off to change my boots. I was sitting down pulling the new ones on me, not passing any remarks, when I saw one of the umpires standing over me. “Yeah,” he says. “I was thinking you had the wrong studs all right out there. You’re better off going with the multistuds.”

I looked up at him thinking, Who in the name of God are you and what would you know about it? I didn’t say much beyond “Ah, yeah”, whatever, but my man walked off delighted with himself. I went back on the pitch laughing, imagining him in his local afterwards telling everyone about the good advice he was passing on to the Kerry players. And he’s not going to get a lot of thanks for his day’s work, he may as well go home with a story to tell.

The psychology of an umpire is fairly straightforward. They’re there to support their man. They know that everyone in the ground, be they players, managers or supporters, is only one call away from turning on the referee. So they come with the attitude of: whatever else happens, we’re on his side.

The ref needs that support because he isn’t going to get it from anybody else. First and foremost in everybody’s mind is the fact that this is championship and only the most reckless and lawless will survive. You have trained too hard and built up too many grudges against the opposition to be a reasonable person in the heat of a championship game. It doesn’t occur to you for a second that the officials have a tough job.

Tough? Is it tougher than the morning training sessions where you had to set the clock for 5am? Is it tougher than missing birthdays and weddings and all the rest of it? Is it tougher than sitting through a winter of regrets at the game that got away because of something that was out of your control?

That’s what players think about referees and linesmen and umpires. They’re fine and dandy as long as they don’t get in the way. Watch the game, get the decisions right, enjoy the journey home. Just don’t be in the game. That’s why there’s always such a big brouhaha when something goes wrong like it did on Sunday. People nearly resent them being a factor at all.

Dan Shanahan confronts the umpires after the game. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
Dan Shanahan confronts the umpires after the game. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

I was sent off on the word of an umpire one time and it felt like being given a prison sentence by the clerk of the court. Not only had I not done what he thought I had but at least if it was the ref who was making the call, you could get in there and try and talk some sense into him. But once the umpire says it’s time to go, the referee’s hands are tied. He has to take his man’s word for it, otherwise what’s the point of having him there?

So once you see him going to the umpire, you’re done. And rightly or wrongly, a player will be far more annoyed at getting the line on his say-so. That probably tells you all you need to know about how people see umpires. The attitude would always be: “Stick to your flags there, lads. Don’t be concerning yourself with sending fellas off. Don’t be getting notions.”

That’s just the culture and I’m not sure how you’d change it. I’ve heard people saying since Sunday that only qualified referees should be umpires but that makes no sense. There are barely enough referees around the country to do all the games as it is – where do people think all these extra ones are going to come from?

And anyway, referees and umpires are different people. Different personalities. It’s no accident that when you see the referee and his umpires arrive at the ground in a car, it’s usually the referee who is driving and the umpires who are in the passenger seat and in the back. Even though the ref is the one who is going to be doing all the running around on the pitch and could probably do with conserving his energy, he’ll generally the one who drives. He’s the man in charge.

Umpires are there to give him a dig-out if he needs it. All they want is for nothing to happen on their patch of the field and for their man to have a good game. The more good games he has – and the fewer police escorts – the more chance there is of getting big games down the line. Otherwise, 99 per cent of the time it’s a grand day out for them.

I was in Dungarvan one time for a Munster Championship match against Waterford and I had the bad luck to get pulled for a drugs test after it. I had the even worse luck then to be sitting there for the guts of an hour before I could do the needful. There’s nothing you need less in your life than spending an hour with the drugs unit after a game trying to give them what they want but not being able to.

Anyway, Fraher Field wouldn’t exactly be like Croke Park. You don’t go to a specially reserved anti-doping section of the stadium to while away the time. The room you sit in drinking your water until you feel the urge is the same room the umpires go to for their tea and sandwiches after the game.

Or at least it was this day, anyway. I always thought the big perk of doing umpire was you got fed on the way home. Maybe this lad was having his sandwiches as a starter. One way or the other, he looked over at me a bit confused and asked what I was doing away from the rest of the team.

An umpire awards Maher Tipp’s first goal. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho
An umpire awards Maher Tipp’s first goal. Photo: James Crombie/Inpho

“Drugs test,” I said.

“Oh yeah?” he said. “Will they find much?”

“I’d say I’ll be fine,” I said.

Now, I was joking, obviously. Well, I thought it was obvious anyway. But my man seemed to think that because I was there at all, it was a no-smoke-without-fire kind of thing. I don’t think he knew that players get picked randomly. So he started quizzing me.

“Would there be much of that going on now?”

I presumed he meant testing. He didn’t. He meant actual drug-taking. We were having two different conversations.

“Every match,” I said.

“Every match?!” he said.

And he started looking around him with his sandwich in his mouth, amazed at the state of the world. The things you find out in the middle of a day’s umpiring. The scandal of it all.

I don’t know will anything much change for umpires after Sunday. I wouldn’t be pushing it too much. I think it’s far more important that the GAA start treating referees properly than over-reacting just because one umpire made a hames of one call. I’ve said before plenty of times that referees need far better perks and far more motivation to do that job than they have at the minute. Start taking care of them better and standards will rise more generally across the board.

In the greater scheme of things, the odd mistake by an umpire is hardly that much of a big deal.

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