Subscriber OnlyGaelic Games

Letters, phone calls and abuse: What happens when a referee gets a big decision wrong?

James Owens, Conor Lane and Paud O’Dwyer on being in the spotlight this year

James Owens reckons it cost him three days' work. The fall-out from his high-profile decision in June to implement the new hurling rules on cynical fouling by sin-binning Clare's Aidan McCarthy and awarding a penalty to Tipperary created such a furore that his livelihood was affected.

“I’m lucky,” says the Wexford official, who has refereed three All-Ireland finals. “I’m not married and don’t have any kids so there’s not that pressure but I’m self-employed (running his company, Blackstairs Cleaning Solutions) and I’d say I lost three days’ work after the Clare-Tipp game between the phone constantly going - and you can’t turn it off because it could be business but you don’t know who’s ringing.

“Where you’d like to be getting on with work, you couldn’t.”

It’s only one example and although contentious - there was almost consensus that the fouled player was very far out for it to be a goal scoring opportunity - it’s perfectly arguable that such a situation was exactly what was envisaged by the new rule.


“At our referees’ meeting the following Thursday,” he continues, “there were four or five clips shown of goals scored from farther out the field so I asked were they telling me now that my decision may have been correct.

“Some of the referees agreed with me and some didn’t so I asked for clarification - was I right or wrong? That never happened.”

As a seasoned campaigner, Owens was arguably better able to withstand the fallout, which included being escorted from the pitch by Gardaí and drawing the wrath of pundits and the now inescapable harassment of social media.

The atmosphere surrounding referees has become so toxic that the GAA has been making counselling available to its intercounty officials.

Health and wellbeing

Justin Campbell won an All-Ireland under-21 hurling medal with Galway in 1991 and played in the 1993 senior final. As a counsellor and psychotherapist, he's been a long-standing contributor to the association's health and wellbeing initiatives.

"I have huge interest in player welfare and Colin Regan who's over that area in Croke Park asked me to give a talk to intercounty referees.

“To be honest I wasn’t quite sure how I would help them but I asked: if something happened during a game to make you the focal point of attention and social media was on your case, how would you deal with that and the Sunday Game and so on?

“It turned out there was nothing in the way of a support mechanism for referees in those situations. I was asked to provide a service that would offer that assistance.”

Owens’s case was ambiguous and he accepts that there hasn’t been clarity - which at this stage he would prefer to vindication - on the merits of his call but for others, what happens when you make a mistake that becomes a major controversy?

Arguably referees need support and protection even more when they have made mistakes, which are as inevitable in human arbitration as wides are among human players. After all, correct decision making quickly becomes validated.

“Croke Park puts a lot of resources into games development but there isn’t as much put into the welfare of referees,” says Campbell.

“It’s not just up to Croke Park. Parents shouting abuse on the sidelines at under-age matches is making it okay for kids to take out frustrations on refs.”

Conor Lane is one of football's top referees and has taken the whistle at three All-Ireland finals but this summer was difficult for him.

He was in the eye of the storm after the Mayo-Dublin semi-final for not spotting immediately John Small’s dangerous challenge on Eoghan McLaughlin, which hospitalised the latter and cost him participation in the All-Ireland final.

Lane wasn't spared either by television pundits or social media despite having consulted his linesman Maurice Deegan, another very experienced official, who has also refereed All-Ireland finals and who agreed with the initial decision that he had also just seen in real time.

Set the record straight

In the stands, at least one other intercounty referee was in agreement and Irish Times football analyst, Kevin McStay, who was providing co-commentary for RTÉ, also initially thought the contact had been fair although he set the record straight after re-watching the incident.

By then Lane had settled in for the barrage, as people who had viewed the incident a few times began to vent.

“I have Twitter for local games and results but don’t really use it for much else. What people say about you is out of your control. I’ve got letters at home from all over the place. They often don’t even have the decency to put their names to it - same with social media.

"I got letters after that game from Dublin and Mayo. It's not nice. They address them to 'Conor Lane, referee, Banteer' and the content is fairly abusive, insulting your family, your parents and your children at home. Stuff like that. What can you do?"

Sometimes being right isn't even a protection. Carlow referee Paud O'Dwyer ran into trouble this summer for not seeing a red-card offence by Limerick's Aaron Gillane in the Munster final against Tipperary but his previous brush with television's star chamber in 2015 gave him the "toughest few days of my refereeing career".

The controversy centred on a goal he awarded in the qualifier between Limerick and Westmeath, scored by Paul Browne. O'Dwyer was in a perfect position.

“I was literally no more than four yards straight behind him. If I had a hurl I could nearly have hooked him so I saw the flight of the ball straight into the net and the umpire signalled the goal.”

It was so unexceptional that he and his umpires didn’t even discuss it on the way home.

“Then,” he says, “bang! It dropped. We were certain it was a goal but RTÉ’s camera angle was very deceptive and led everyone to believe that the ball hadn’t gone in. I looked at it and thought, that can’t be right.

“The next couple of days were really tough. The phone never stopped. Then Limerick came forward with their match recording and in fairness to them, so did Westmeath with theirs.

“They said that they had from another angle and that it was definitely a goal. The Sunday Game had been tough because Dónal Óg (Cusack) went very hard on us. To be fair to the man he took the first opportunity the following week to sincerely apologise.

“Social media had also gone in hard but in a way it was a positive because ultimately my judgement was vindicated. In hindsight it was a good thing but it didn’t feel like that at the time and if the teams hadn’t been recording the match, it could literally have finished my career.”


There are mixed views on whether referees want Croke Park to intervene in controversies that arise. Some feel that it could exacerbate the situation but the general sense is that it might serve a purpose.

“After the James Owens incident,” says O’Dwyer, “I think Croke Park should have come out and said, ‘this is why James made the decision. Agree or disagree but this is what he saw’.

“There doesn’t need to be a PRO for referees all of the time but occasionally it could defuse situations. James is experienced enough to handle it but a younger ref just starting out could be buried by something like that.”

Lane would like to see a TMO, as in rugby, not for the interminable unpicking of scores back through seven phases but to adjudicate on foul play that has gone unnoticed.

He also appreciates the support Campbell offers. “Justin has talked to us as a group. He’s very good and if people want to talk to him individually he’s a very decent guy and a great man to listen. He’s very good to us as referees and a brilliant service to have.”

O’Dwyer outlines the simple if fervent hope of every match official.

“A referee wants to go out and do a match fairly - nail it as best you can and stay off the back pages and the Sunday Game. There is pressure because of the intensity of it and if you’re getting good games you must be doing okay but if you want to stay getting good games you have to keep doing okay.”

Justin Campbell on the other hand points out the great anxiety for every referee any time they take the field, the landmine out there waiting for them.

“If the game becomes about a mistake that they have made, that’s a hard thing to cope with because of the world we live in.”

The Men in Black

Conor Lane

Lane, from Cork, has refereed three All-Ireland finals. He was in charge for the Mayo-Dublin semi-final last August when Dublin’s John Small met Eoghan McLaughlin with a high shoulder and broke his jaw.

“That was 100 per cent the worst thing that happened in my intercounty refereeing career, which has thankfully been mostly out of the limelight and that’s how I like it. Get in, do your business and go home.

“I saw a shoulder-to-shoulder and when play came back the Mayo player was still on the ground. I’d love to have seen another angle on it.

“When the incident happened, play continued and you’re probably talking about six seconds later and I asked for different views on it and everyone said, ‘shoulder-to-shoulder - maybe a small bit high’ but look, it was my decision.

“My first concern is player safety and I have no difficulty issuing red cards in those circumstances. That was the most disappointing thing for me - seeing an injured player on the field like that. Of course your heart went out to him. Something as big as that and we didn’t get it right as a team.

“I realised when I saw the young fella still on the ground and there had to be a reason for it. The challenge had been high, went up the shoulder and connected with his jaw. That’s why I hadn’t immediately registered that the player had a head injury. To me it had been a heavy contact but a fair one.

“Nothing good came out of it but the fact that the ball went wide from the ensuing Dublin attack meant that there wasn’t further injustice but there was no excuse for me not getting that decision right.

“You’d be upset for a few days with what happened and the amount of attention it got but you’ve got to get up for work in the morning. It would shake you though.

"I made contact with Mayo GAA on the Monday. I rang James Horan. He didn't actually answer the phone but rang me back later that night. I apologised and got the message through to Eoghan McLaughlin and apologised to him and his family that I didn't see it on the day.

“James was very forgiving about it and thanked me for making the call but I wanted to make sure the young fella was okay. James told me that he was doing fine and home from hospital.”

Paud O’Dwyer

O’Dwyer is from Carlow and has refereed a minor All-Ireland final and provincial finals. In this year’s Munster final he issued a yellow card to Limerick’s Aaron Gillane for striking Tipperary’s Cathal Barrett.

“I had the Munster final this year and made a bad mistake in it, not sending off Aaron Gillane when I should have. Within one minute of being in the dressing-room I realised this.

“At the time I thought I was correct because I hadn’t seen it as well as I thought I had but just out of the corner of my eye. The pressure that came on afterwards can be difficult if you’re not thick-skinned.

“I got a couple of letters after the Munster final: Paud O’Dwyer, referee, Carlow. Why would anyone take the time to do that? That does add a layer of pressure, though. It could really knock the confidence badly of an inexperienced referee. You’ve got to accept it even if you’d rather it wasn’t there.

“I didn’t go out not to send off Aaron Gillane - or any player that deserved a red card - but you make the decision as you see it and hope you’ve got it right.

“In the dressing-room between the umpires and linesmen and their phones, everyone had messages asking, ‘how did he miss that?’ I walked off the field that day, really pleased with myself - I thought I’d done a right game! One or two incidents can kill you even if you get the other 98 right.

“For the first couple of months afterwards there wouldn’t have been a day when I didn’t think about that incident and even though you’d be doing nothing, the thought would flash through your mind, why didn’t you do better? Why did you take your eye off it?

“The radio systems outside of Croke Park are fine but they’re not open miked so the umpires didn’t hear my conversation with the linesman and they said afterwards that if they had heard it they would have called me.

“Now that’s my responsibility. I should have consulted their opinion but I felt confident in the call I was making, unfortunately.

“What I have to do now is to earn back the confidence of the appointments committee. The semi-finals came too soon although I was hoping I might get one, maybe to show that I’d learned from the experience.”

James Owens

Owens, from Wexford, is one of the most experienced intercounty hurling referees. Involved in a high-profile application of a new rule to deter cynical fouling, he sin-binned Clare’s Aidan McCarthy for a foul on Tipperary’s Jake Morris and awarded a penalty - judging that it had cost the latter a goal scoring opportunity even though it was out in the corner of the field.

"To me it was a straightforward decision. As soon as I blew the whistle I knew what I was going to do. Fergal Horgan (Tipperary referee) had said it on Anthony Daly's Examiner podcast and I had also spoken on the radio about that sort of incident.

“I said if that happens the most important thing I will look at is the type of tackle it is regardless of whether it’s out in the corner. If it’s a complete take-out we will be giving a penalty.

“I would have spoken to Donal (Smyth, Croke Park) and Seán Martin (chair, national referees development committee) and asked them were they happy if I went on the radio and said this.

“It was spelled out.

“A friend of mine told me that someone had amended my Wikipedia entry to say that I was anti-Clare. I was trending on Twitter that Sunday. That’s pressure. How do I deal with that? I don’t actually know. I would say that that decision this year has had a major impact on me. I’m not sure why.

“The most annoying thing was that a few days later on the Skype call I asked that someone in Croke Park either come out and say the decision was correct or that ‘James got it wrong,’ - and I was happy enough for that to happen even with the likely backlash.

"We saw the night before Walter Walsh got the ball out on the sideline and ran through for a goal from 45 metres with three Wexford lads on him.

“I had a lad who 20 metres out had an open goal in front of him to run into that space and create a goal scoring opportunity but he was taken out so was I right or wrong? My decision was a penalty and a sin-bin.

“The question then arose, will I ever referee a Clare game again? That’s out there. The pressure of not knowing whether you did the right thing made it more difficult to get over.”