Switching referees helps shelve issues in All-Ireland final replays

Policy of changing referees welcomed by men in the middle

The caricature is that the GAA love replays and that referees are well-regarded if they can ensure a big championship match is level after 70 minutes. Talk to anyone involved in the association and that perception is challenged.

“You’d think we were on a (expletive) share of the profits,” responded one grumpy official after the 1996 All-Ireland football final ended in a draw.

There’s not much that can be done to ease the burden on Croke Park staff if a replay has to be organised but the past three years of drawn All-Ireland hurling finals have involved one class of official for whom replays have become easier.

Up until the beginning of the last decade, the referee who took charge of the drawn match was also appointed for the second day.


The change means Westmeath’s James McGrath, who this evening is one of the linesmen, is involved in his third successive All-Ireland hurling final replay, having refereed the last two replayed finals. It’s likely to be an enduring achievement, given that only four previous hurling finals ended in a draw throughout the history of Gaelic games: 1959, ’34, ’31 and ’08.

Wexford's Brian White was the first referee to benefit from the new dispensation when he was appointed to take charge of the Kerry-Galway All-Ireland football final replay in 2000. He believes that the move was a good idea.

First time

“That was the first time they had decided that referees in drawn match wouldn’t do replays,” he says. “Yes, it probably was the best decision. A referee going into a replay who hasn’t done the drawn match hasn’t been involved in making any decisions and can start with a clean sheet.

“Since I did it in 2000, even at club level referees are changed for replays. No matter how good a job you think you’re after doing, someone from the opposing teams won’t be happy with some decision and they’ll probably remind you about it during the replay. They were better off to remove that possibility.”

White's observations are backed up by the experience of the past two years when both original matches were drawn in slightly controversial circumstances. Barry Kelly's award of a free to Galway two years ago was questioned and not just by Kilkenny supporters and 12 months later Brian Gavin, who is this evening's match referee, played extra seconds with Cork leading by a point before Domhnall O'Donovan's dramatic equaliser.

Both referees could argue their own case in respect of the decisions but the facility of appointing a new referee meant that those incidents could be shelved for the replay.

In the replayed All-Irelands before 2000 – the football finals of 1996 and ’88 – controversy from the drawn matches did spill over into the second day and in both years players were sent off in the early exchanges.

Meath were involved on both occasions and each year felt that they had been physically targeted in the drawn match. In 1988 Meath's Gerry McEntee was dismissed and a widespread brawl early in the 1996 replay earned Mayo's Liam McHale and Meath's Colm Coyle the line and created a great deal of controversy.

Pat McEnaney, currently chair of the National Referees Committee, was in charge of his first All-Ireland final in 1996 while still in his mid-30s and playing football with his club Corduff in Monaghan.

“Refereeing the All-Ireland football final,” he said that December when asked about the highlight of a busy year, “particularly the first match. I’d no problems. The low point? The low point was the replay. It’s like when I play. Getting stick after refereeing a match is like losing – if you get praise, it’s like winning.”

In the week between the two matches in 1996, the referee who had taken charge of the previous final to go to a replay, Tommy Sugrue from Kerry, in an interview with this newspaper was both vehement in his view on replays .

Last thing

“It’s the last thing a referee needs, going through it all again, the sleepless nights, not being able to eat, getting sick. Everyone knows the sacrifices players make for these big occasions. It’s the same for referees. I’ve a local semi-final coming up and I’m training four nights a week.

“It’s the last thing you want, having to psyche yourself to go through the physical torment and the things that get said, even phone calls to your house. It has a terrible effect on your family. I know it’s the same for players but they could be on a holiday in the Canaries in a few months. A referee gets nothing. I don’t envy Pat McEnaney going through it all again.”

Coincidentally, McEnaney refereed the next final to be drawn, in 2000, but he was spared the replay and thus any lingering agenda.

Seán Moran

Seán Moran

Seán Moran is GAA Correspondent of The Irish Times