All-Ireland referees come to terms with a hostile new world
Social media and teams looking for ‘an edge’ are modern hazards, as David Gough found
Dublin’s Cian O’Sullivan receives a yellow card from referee David Gough at the All-Ireland SFC quarter-final phase one match against Cork on July 13th. Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho
Kerry reservations were extensively aired and a conundrum emerged. Could the GAA be seen to back down in the face of this controversy and not appoint a good referee because of where he lived and worked?
Then again, would it not create unfair pressure on Gough that might influence his thinking, even subconsciously, on major decisions during the match?
Barry Kelly refereed four All-Ireland hurling finals before retiring last year. He says that match officials have become part of the strategic process for teams.
“I did my first All-Ireland final in 2006 and I’d say the majority of people in Croke Park wouldn’t have known who I was until I was throwing the ball in. The referee just had a low profile.
“Now – I mean it’s ludicrous – you have a guy organising a protest down in Killarney and, while they might deny it, an almost concerted campaign by Kerry lads. Eamonn Fitzmaurice was podcasting the very next day. It’s all about getting that edge.
David is very social media-friendly but you’d almost want to be shutting yourself off from it two weeks before the game
“Putting that stuff out there, that he [Gough] might be subconsciously disposed towards Dublin, makes it awkward for him. It’s a bit like when you referee your own club in a challenge game. You feel you have to be seen to be even harder on them than you would normally be.”
Kelly continued: “The only way he gets off that hook is if one of the teams is pulling away and it becomes a non-contest.
“David Gough is very social media-friendly but I think you’d almost want to be shutting yourself off from it two weeks before the game.”
Kelly was at the centre of his own storm five years ago. He awarded Tipperary a free in the dying seconds of the 2014 All-Ireland, but John O’Dwyer sent it narrowly wide from about 100 metres. Three weeks later, after Kilkenny had won the replay, manager Brian Cody launched a broadside at Kelly, describing the awarding of the free as “criminal”.
He was cautioned about his behaviour, but Kelly didn’t referee Kilkenny in another championship match, although he remembers with amusement the incendiary effect on a Nowlan Park crowd when he was announced at the start of a league match.
He says that he would have been “very comfortable” had he been called on to take charge of Kilkenny’s championship match.
Sometimes alarm bells go off, though. Paddy Collins, former chair of the National Referees Committee, took charge of four All-Ireland football finals, but it was a provincial final that he remembers as potentially awkward. In the first minute of the 1990 Leinster final, Colm O’Rourke scored a goal for Meath that aroused suspicions that he had been in the square.
In the end, television pictures indicated that Collins had been correct, but it was a nervy opening to a match he had considered not taking.
“Jimmy Gray [from Dublin and chair of the Leinster Council], a lovely man, rang me one Sunday night. I’m actually from Meath and played for them, not very well, back in the 1960s, but he asks me would I referee the Leinster final between Meath and Dublin.
Social media wasn’t around – I’m not sure if I would have wanted to referee in that environment
“I said that Meath were in it and he said that there wouldn’t be an objection if I did it. I told him that I’d have to think about it. I’d already done about five Leinster finals and I was wary of this one. Anyway, I said I’d do it.
“Then 30 seconds into it, I was thinking, ‘what have I let myself in for here?’ even though I’m convinced to this day that it was a correct decision.
“Social media wasn’t around – I’m not sure if I would have wanted to referee in that environment. I can imagine what Twitter would have said back in 1990 about that goal. A lot of what I see on social media is hugely hurtful to both people and their families. People forget that there’s a mother, a wife, a father. It was never nice even in the past to be the centre of attention in the newspapers.”
Collins believes that Croke Park had to go ahead with David Gough’s appointment, as to do otherwise could invite sniper attacks on any future candidates for big matches.
“They had to lay the ground to some extent and that’s what they did by giving him the Dublin-Cork game. That was a clear indication. He’s worked hard at his game. I met him first five years ago at a Leinster club match and I went in and said to him that he had done very well.
“With 1½ million people in Dublin, ruling out someone on the basis of that would be unacceptable. I’d absolutely be comfortable refereeing in those circumstances.”
Collins also says that All-Ireland finals weren’t necessarily his most memorable matches, although he broke a toe before the Centenary final in 1984, took his injections and asked Michael O’Hehir not to mention it in commentary.
On another occasion he found himself in that most unusual of situations for a referee – being at the centre of post-All-Ireland adulation after the Cork-Mayo final.
“In 1989, everyone was eulogising me after the All-Ireland final, but the game was a doddle to referee, so, as the late Con Houlihan said, ‘was that because of the players or because of the referee?’
“ Mostly the players and it was easy for me to respond.”