I watched Brian Lohan talking after the Clare game on Sunday and although he kept it together fairly well – much better than I would have – you could see that he was fit to do damage.
The refereeing decision that turned their match against Tipperary would have tested the best of us. Keeping your cool when you know you’ve been wronged like that is fair going, I’ll tell you that much.
I should say from the outset here that refereeing is obviously a tough job. We all know that but it’s worth saying anyway. Everybody else involved on a big intercounty day is hopped up to the max, full of intensity, ready for war. You have to be a peacekeeper, a scorekeeper, a judge, a babysitter and a half-marathon runner all rolled into one. And you get no thanks for it.
In general, you have to say fair play to anyone who puts up their hand to take it on. But if you were a player or a manager or a spectator of any sort last Sunday, ask yourself who was your sympathy with? Was it with Brian Lohan and the Clare lads? Or was it with James Owens, the referee who gave the penalty and the sin-bin? It's not even a question really. Everyone knows the answer.
We can talk all day and all night in public about how hard it is for referees and how they’re doing their best. But the reality of the game is that when you get back among your own, nobody ever talks like that about referees. That’s not how people really view them.
The long and short of it is that everyone who has ever played the game has been crucified by a referee on multiple occasions. Referees have cost you games, replays, championships, the whole lot. They have ruined all the hard work you’ve put in, they’ve tossed all the months of training you’ve done in the bin. Losing a game when you’re not good enough is just sport. Losing it because of a referee is pure torture.
Worst in you
Nothing drives a team more bananas than a bad referee. He’ll bring out the worst in you. All the logical, rational stuff you know in your heart to be true goes away out the window. All the usual carry-on about no ref going out to favour one side or another doesn’t cut any ice. He rode us, the bastard. That’s all you’ll have in your head and nothing will shift you from it.
Bad referees have often turned me into the sort of man I wouldn’t want my daughters to get a look at. There was one who used referee club matches between us and our biggest local rivals Dingle years ago. A nice man, well got in the community, not a bother on him off the pitch. But he used drive us stone mad in those Dingle games.
The thing about games against your local nemesis is that everybody knows everybody. They knew us and we knew them. There was very little between us, never more than a kick of a ball either way. In that scenario, a referee giving more frees to one side than another is the one variable nobody can control. And as far as we were concerned, he always gave the crucial ones against us.
It all came to a head in one of the Páidí Ó Sé tournaments one year. We were drawn against Dingle and possibly because everyone knew there could be no suspensions or consequences regardless of what happened, it turned into one of those games where anything went. There was endless pucking and belting throughout it. And of course, as far as we were concerned, the ref was giving Dingle everything.
Eventually, I lost my cool completely. One fella caught me late and that was it, all bets were off. I was like an ice hockey player throwing his gloves on the ice. Right. If we’re doing this, let’s do it. I hit and when the second lad came in to help him, I managed to catch him more or less by accident too. It turned into a big melee and by the time the referee came in to try and settle it, I was like a bull.
“And you!” I said. “What are you going to do about it?”
“Well,” he said. “I’m going to give you a yellow card and . . . ”
“You can stick your yellow card up your . . . ”
“And if you keep on at it, I’ll think about a red too,” he said.
“Listen now,” I said, “I don’t care what you do. I’ve had enough of you. Years, this has been going on. I’ll be in tomorrow to check my account.”
That stopped him in his tracks. The poor man worked in the bank and here was me, half-threatening to withdraw my custom – not that my bank balance would affect the general GDP of the country! He didn’t know what to say. I was ranting away at him, telling him I didn’t care if he called the guards or what he wanted to do. He left me with my yellow card, even though there were two bodies lying panned out on the ground.
That kind of thing is nothing to be proud of, obviously. Anyone reading back over that will probably be thinking there was one gobshite in that story and it wasn’t the referee. And maybe so. But I’m only telling it to give an example of the rage a bad referee can send you into.
I don’t know sometimes if they are really aware of the power they have or the consequences of some of the things they do. Every time a player goes out in a championship match, they know the stakes. The best ones think their way through games – if I do this, we gain that; if I do the other, we lose something else. There are consequences to everything you do on the pitch.
I’m not saying every player thinks like that but the best ones do. And the best ones deserve the best referees to be doing the same. The referee in the hurling on Sunday had to know that he was the only person in Limerick that could see a penalty and a sin-bin there – when the Tipperary players were not looking for it, that had to be the biggest clue of all.
So surely there was time for him to take a second, think about the consequences of what he was doing and change it to a free and a yellow card. There wouldn’t have been anyone giving out about him afterwards if he had done that. It would have been the opposite - he would have been seen as somebody who had a rush of blood but took the time to get the call right in the end. That’s all anybody wants.
Instead, you have Lohan and Clare seething over it. You have the whole of hurling giving out about him. You have genuine rage over a game being turned on its head by a referee. And whatever we all want to say about no referee going out to be the story, it doesn’t matter. Everybody in the GAA, whether they will say it out loud or not, understands that anger.
Referees have their biases and their favourites, the same as everybody. We all like to pretend that they don’t but that’s not living in the real world. They get affected by home crowds, they get affected by fellas talking in their ear, they get affected by big teams playing small teams, where they know the names of the big players and only call the opposition by their numbers.
There is an art to dealing with them. There shouldn’t have to be - it should all be straight down the line. But everyone knows that isn’t true either. You have to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em. Bomber Liston used to give out to me that our Kerry team had too many fellas talking to the ref. It should be one or two lads, tops - and never anybody who is going to lose his temper with him. I knew well he meant me.
In fairness, I was usually able to hold it together. But you’d be tested. There was a Munster club final one year where we were playing St Senan’s of Clare above in Limerick. St Senan’s had these two brothers playing in midfield - the Russells - and they were chalk and cheese. Denis was leggy and rangy and was able to get up and down and kick beautiful scores. David was big and tough and was more liable to puck the head off you up and down the pitch.
No prizes for guessing which one I got paired with for the day. Myself and David had a rolling maul with each other all afternoon, tearing lumps out of each other through the muck and rain of December. At one stage, I buried him out over the sideline - it was a fair shoulder but he happened to end up in the dugout and he wasn’t one bit happy about it.
The play had gone on but David came sprinting out of the dugout and clocked me in the jaw behind the referee's back. The ref was John Geaney from Cork and when he heard the commotion, he stopped the play and came back to sort it out.
Price of doing business
Now, my jaw was absolutely throbbing and the referee could tell straight away that something had happened. But the way I saw it, the pair of us had been at it for the afternoon and it was all the price of doing business.
So when Geaney said, “Did he hit you?” I just shook my head. It wasn’t up to me to send a fella off - that was the ref’s job. If he didn’t see it, I wasn’t going to go crying to him. He knew well what had happened but he couldn’t do much about it. “That will stand to you,” he said.
Roll the tape on a few months and I was back in Limerick, this time playing in a league semi-final for Kerry. I was marking John Galvin and it was a similar sort of story to the game against David Russell. We were at each other all the way through the first half and I caught him with a high arm just short of half-time.
It was a bad one but I knew I had a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card in my pocket because the referee was John Geaney. Four months on, it was time to cash in my voucher. And what did he do only pull out his red card!
“What happened to it standing to me?” I said. But he wouldn’t hear of it. “Go on now, off!” he said.
Referees. Can’t live with them, can’t even stick them in the boot of your car anymore.
I felt your pain on Sunday, Brian Lohan. We all did.