It was 20 years ago today Pat McEnaney taught the boys to play. Tried to anyway. The anniversary of the 1996 All-Ireland final replay was last Thursday. The Mill by the Hill. Two red cards – Liam McHale tragically, Colm "after dropping six of them" Coyle about right.
McEnaney is out of the middle-man gig since 2010. Tough going to name another referee, before or since, with a better feel for whispering over whistling.
But that ugly Meath-Mayo brawl and its aftermath follows him still, almost destroyed a promising career. He was only 33 but to McEnaney's eternal credit he stood there shrilling as punches and kicks rained down around him.
The GAA have yet to allow another All-Ireland football final referee return for the replay. So Conor Lane makes way for Maurice Deegan.
“I was the last ref who did a replay due to what happened,” said McEnaney.
Ironically, in 2000, when neither Galway nor Kerry could plant their arse on the chair, McEnaney had climbed back to the pinnacle. “That was the biggest achievement of my career because it was such a challenge to come back. People thought they would never see me again.”
But for the replay, Brian White stepped in.
He didn't want this interview to be about '96, or what happened when a teenaged Darren Fay was belted front and back by Ray Dempsey and Anthony Finnerty as the hardly meek Meath full-back tried to escape a crowded square.
Anyway, McEnaney is on record stating Coyle and McHale should not have been the only men who walked off.
“My biggest regret was that I should have sent off four, two from each side, and Meath’s John McDermott would have been one of them,” he told Colm Keys in 2009. “When it all settled down my gut instinct was to send off McDermott with McHale. I had my mind made up on that.”
The late Francie McMahon, an umpire at the Hill, intervened. “Pat, you’re going to have to send off Colm Coyle. He’s after dropping six of them.”
Hearing three voices in his ear (Kevin Walsh and Paddy Russell were the linesmen), McEnaney may or may not have known he had contributed to all of this leading up to the drawn game. The replay was not eight minutes old but he delivered on what he had warned both teams would happen if all-out combat occurred.
“It seemed to me ye had this preconceived notion that it was one-in, all-in,” McEnaney told Mayo players at a training session in Ennis. “If this happens two players will go.”
Same message was delivered to Sean Boylan’s herbal warriors as they ran figure eights on the Hill of Tara.
Some Mayo minds still believe Meath interpreted this as an invitation to play 14-aside but only after sacrificing a rook for a queen. McEnaney laid down the law in a manner that is prohibited these days.
“That didn’t sit well with the hierarchy,” he recalled this week. “I did it off my own bat. And I wouldn’t hinder that approach now but it can’t be the ref going in on his own. And maybe not before an All-Ireland final but during the year.”
This debate was reopened by Dublin manager Jim Gavin before this year’s All-Ireland semi-final. Gavin so rarely takes a public stance.
Certainly not mid-campaign but before the Kerry game he warmed to the idea of introducing official dialogue between managers and officials.
“I know other sports do it as well,” said Gavin. “Even a brief introduction, ‘How are you doing?’. More courtesy than anything else.”
McEnaney agrees: “It does make sense. Rugby refs meet captains before the game, right?”
For the coin toss and usually a quick lecture to scrum heads.
“So it can be done like that or at a scheduled time leading up to the game. But it should be both managers and captains together, so to avoid the they-had-10-minutes-with- him-and-we-didn’t shite.
McEnaney recovered to become the best referee in Gaelic football. See the many Ulster love-ins he contained across 14 seasons after ’96. He also reffed Mayo’s defeat to Kerry in the 2004 final all the while honing the art of being almost irrelevant when blowing loud enough to be heard in the eye of a storm. “In ’96 nobody remembered that I went from being the best referee in Ireland to the worst. All in a week. I made no mistakes in the drawn game. None.”
In the same breath he understands the logic behind changing referees after a drawn final. Especially considering Deegan ran the line 13 days ago. And held the whistle in 2008 and 2012.
Much has changed in the past 20 years, yet nothing at all. Dublin and Mayo came to blows in the tunnel. Keith Higgins and Michael Darragh Macauley – hardly Coyle or McDermott types – clattered off each other as both teams raced towards the photographers’ bench. Unsanctioned, feral behaviour by all.
“Maurice Deegan knows the form,” said McEnaney, “He has a perspective from the last day. He’s seen everything. This will be his third final.”
Deegan will have four men in white flagging scores and providing eyes in the back of the Stradbally reitoir's ceann. Just in case Lee Keegan and Diarmuid Connolly go tearing at each other again.
Despite a decent show of authority last time, Lane drew fire after television showed the harshness of James McCarthy’s black card. “From one angle they got it wrong,” McEnaney offered of McCarthy’s dismissal. “It was a marginal call.”
But the Monaghan man does see failings when it comes to black carding. “Even the obvious ones we are getting wrong. The group have to ask why. Because they are leaving themselves open. Is body-checking gone? Yes. Has the black carding been consistent? No. So the refs have to fix that. When they come together they will have to discuss whether the black card is stopping the deliberate pull down.”
And what to do about Keegan and Connolly? Surely a referee does not want to be sending anyone off?
“You cannot go into an All-Ireland final thinking I can’t do this and I can’t do that. Otherwise you are on a hiding to nothing. Those two fellas haven’t really crossed the line, have they?
“There are too many eyes watching now, what with linesmen and umpires. There is a fear factor players carry, as going down to 14 men in Croke Park is not like it is in some other place. You get exposed these days. There is no hero being chaired off for taking one for the team. Every man is responsible.”
But surely it’s more costly for Dublin to lose Connolly than Mayo losing Keegan?
“Look, your job is to protect the player. Maurice Deegan will be dealing with it.”
Sounds like the referee’s creed. May Maurice mind Lee and Diarmuid.
“Well, you must referee to protect the players. That’s the number one job.”