Darragh Ó Sé: Last person players care about is referee

Dublin-Mayo game illustrated that there’s no job worse than being GAA referee

Watching Dublin versus Mayo on Sunday, I was trying to think was there any worse job in the world than being a referee. I couldn’t come up with one. I’d say Joe McQuillan needed to go and lie down in a dark room after it.

We’re killing these referees, plain and simple. First off, we’re giving them an impossible job to do because nobody else will do it. Then we’re watching them like hawks the whole time, mad to get picking up on any mistake. And if all that wasn’t bad enough, we’re lambasting them at every turn when the game is over.

Honestly, can you think of another group of people that the association is as happy to hang out to dry as referees? Players try to hoodwink them. Managers plámás them beforehand to try to get an advantage and blackguard them then in the press afterwards when it doesn’t go their way.

I’ve had players and managers ring me plenty of times before a game to get the lowdown on one referee or another. What does he go hard on? What does he leave go? What sort of chat does he respond to? Big brother is watching them from long before they step on the pitch.


And then everybody – and do I mean everybody – spends the whole game giving out to them, roaring abuse at them. It doesn’t matter if you’re a player, a manager, a county board official, a supporter, a ball boy or the team chaplain – you’ll tear strips off the ref if you think the situation demands it.

Referees are treated as the lowest of the low. They're like the traffic warden in the back of the getaway van in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. When the time comes to dish out a beating, everyone remembers how much they hate referees and they all pile in with fists flying. McQuillan has been getting it from all sides since Sunday, even though he got 99 per cent of the calls right.

How would you referee a game like that last Sunday? Where would you start? I heard people giving out afterwards about McQuillan missing a double hop in the lead-up to a point from Kevin McManamon. A double hop! That’s like missing a pickpocket in the middle of a full-scale riot.

You can argue away about the two penalties if you like. But does that not just prove the point of what a ridiculous standard we’re expecting from these guys?

The Sunday Game lads had six or seven hours to go through tapes in slow motion after the match and I still don't think they proved the case for or against in either incident. And yet we're giving Joe McQuillan a hosing because he did the only thing we can reasonably ask for – make a snap decision using his best judgment in real time.

Players don’t help referees either. Frank Murphy said in a rules committee meeting that I was at in Croke Park recently that there are 86 different rules in Gaelic football. You can be guaranteed that the players don’t know them all. But they know the ones they can get around and the ones that they can push the referee on.

Players don’t care

It’s simple. Players don’t care. This isn’t a scenario where we’re all in the same GAA boat, helping each other out.

This is more like, there’s one boat getting to dry land and I’m making sure I’m on it.

That’s what really struck home on Sunday. Here you have two teams made up of incredible physical specimens all trying to find their own way to get to dry land. You only need to look at them close up to see how much of their lives go into this. There isn’t a loose bit of skin on any of them, not a drop of sweat wasted. You really think they’re going to go through all that and think twice about a referee? Not a hope.

I didn’t like seeing Aidan O’Shea going cribbing to the press that he got a headbutt. I know he was only answering a direct question but he could have dodged it easily enough.

It doesn’t matter whether he did or he didn’t get headbutted, the game was over and there’s a replay to come. My feeling was always that you don’t go on with that kind of talk. I never felt you would get any luck out of it.

Mind you, luck has a mind of its own most of the time. I was playing in a club game with a Cork referee one time and we were well out the gate long before the finish. The man I was marking was getting ratty as the whole thing petered out and decided to take one last scalp at me before the final whistle.

The ref blew for a free and came walking over reaching for his book, looking to put manners on my man and give him the line. “Tis grand, ref,” I said. “There was nothing in it. I made a meal of it.” The ref put his book away and just gave him a talking to. Then he said to me, “Well done, Darragh. That’ll stand to you.”

Spared the holly

A few months later, we were playing a league semi-final above in Limerick with the same referee. We had some fairly tasty clashes with Limerick around them and this was one of them. I had John Quane and John Galvin to contend with and neither of the boys spared the holly so I didn’t either.

I had a coming together with Galvin at one point anyway – I must have mistimed a run or something and caught him – and as the ref came scuttling over I was thinking, “I’ll get away with a yellow here, I have a Get Out Of Jail Free card with this chap.” Sadly, my referee seemed to have a short memory and out came the straight red!

The moral of the story is, you can’t afford to care. As a player, you have a responsibility to yourself and your team. The referee comes way, way down the list. Above all else, that’s what makes life so hard for the likes of Joe McQuillan. Everybody is dictated to by their own self-interest.

You take somebody like Paul Flynn last Sunday. I've said plenty of times that he'd be the first name on my list if there was a transfer system in Gaelic football but we can all agree that he's going through a rough spell at the minute. He's struggling for form, which happens to everybody from time to time.

Flynn’s big problem though is that he’s not just some bit-part player for Dublin. He’s won four All Stars back-to-back. He’s a go-to guy, one of the players that the whole squad look to when they need to be dug out of a hole. When you’re that guy, you feel a loss of form far more intensely than some of the others.

You know that everyone is looking to you. You know that people expect more from you than they do from some of the others. You know that every time you get on the ball, people watching are going to be looking a bit closer to see are you getting your form back. That ramps up the pressure on you no end. The game stops being about enjoyment and more about survival.

Watching from afar, I think that explains some of the stuff Paul Flynn was doing on Sunday. He’s a different player this summer. He goes around looking to dominate fellas physically more so than with his football. He’s turned into one of these guys who is never far from a flashpoint, which was never his way of carrying on before.

To me, that’s directly linked to his form. It’s not that he’s a more bad-tempered fella than he was before. He’s just under more pressure because he can feel so much being expected of him. And he’s such a physical beast now that he can compensate with a bit of bullying when his football lets him down.

Problems and baggage

He’s just one player. Aidan O’Shea is just another. McQuillan had 30 of these guys to try to keep in line on Sunday, each of them with their own problems and baggage in the backs of their heads. They were pumped to the eyeballs by the occasion and nobody was taking a backward step.

All the while, you have a referee who can't measure up to the players physically no matter how fit he gets, who has no TMO to help him out with tough decisions, and whose main help is from linesmen who only pick up half of what's going on and umpires who are just along for the ride and maybe a few pints of porter on the way home. What an impossible job. I hope Eddie Kinsella has his prayers said before Saturday.

As for how it will go, I just think the Dubs have more scope for improvement. Stephen Cluxton can't play as badly again and as long as he gets into the right frame of mind and doesn't get rattled as easily as he was last Sunday, he can control the game better for Dublin. Mayo will improve too but I still think Dublin have more scoring in them.