Seán Moran: A little respect for referees will go a long way

GAA needs to enforce rules on abusive behaviour and support referees’ decisions

One county chair told me in the run-up to the recent special congress that the structure of the senior intercounty football championship wouldn’t rank in the top two concerns of his administration. Asked what would be the most pressing, he replied, “refereeing”.

It’s a point echoed quite widely. In the past few weeks, the Examiner has published examples of match official scarcity in a number of counties and everywhere there is acknowledgement that major recruitment programmes are needed.

During his contribution to Saturday's piece in The Irish Times on the pressures of officiating, Wexford All-Ireland referee James Owens made passing reference to the situation in his own county.

“I’ve never been as busy as a referee. Lads are doing three matches in a weekend and that’s not sustainable. Three years ago we had around 80 referees. Now we’ve barely 50.”

The influences on this situation are obvious enough. At local level, the behaviour of spectators can be outrageous, especially adults at underage matches. Mobile phone technology makes such incidents nationally accessible, as was seen with the Wicklow under-15 football match in October.

Failure to deal with abusive behaviour is one element of the disrespect shown to referees but another is the lack of follow-through on disciplinary issues

There was a reminder that it's not just the GAA who are experiencing these problems when referees in soccer's North Dublin Schoolboys League (NDSL) declared a weekend withdrawal in protest at their treatment during matches.

Significantly, a spokesperson identified their main complaint as being not the lack of regulations to govern this misconduct but the failure to enforce them.

This is also the nub of the issue in Gaelic games. Only recently in one county, an individual who had subjected a referee to serious verbal abuse and received a two-year suspension brazenly defied the sanction, claiming that they weren’t a member of the GAA and therefore couldn’t be suspended.

Surely, in such a case the individual could be banned from attending matches.

Failure to deal with abusive behaviour is one element of the disrespect shown to referees but another is the lack of follow-through on disciplinary issues. One county has apparently overturned 70 per cent of red cards issued during a championship season.

Corrosive effect

This has a doubly corrosive effect. Firstly, it means that miscreants go unpunished – unless we are to believe that most sendings-off by referees are gratuitous – which is a deeply unhelpful outcome for any system of sporting discipline.

Secondly, it does reputational damage to the referees, who are judged to have been wrong and therefore to have applied rules incorrectly.

At intercounty there was surprise when a red card for a head-butt by Limerick's Peter Casey in the All-Ireland semi-final against Waterford was rescinded. For many, looking at it, there was acceptance that he may have been provoked but at the same time there had been forward motion with the head.

Video evidence is allowed to disprove that a player actually committed a red-card infraction but it was hard to see how any of the camera angles could show that. One influence on the decision was that referee John Keenan, who hadn't seen the incident, had consulted with two officials, a linesman and an umpire and opted to accept the latter's view that it had been a head-butt.

Once that was done, it became the referee’s decision, which could only be overturned by clear contradicting video evidence and not simply evidence that created more uncertainty. In any case, the player was cleared to play Cork in the final and put in an astonishing first-half display, scoring five points from play before being forced off by injury.

Up-and-coming referees benefit from a one-on-one mentoring system, provided by retired intercounty officials

The matter did, though, reinforce the view that the GAA’s disciplinary structures remain resistant to suspending players for big matches. Given the context in which big decisions in matches are already relentlessly scrutinised in public, it’s uncomfortable for referees to be uncertain whether their decisions will in effect be dismissed, often on elastic criteria, by the relevant committees.

Fitness tests

At this elite level, activities will be commencing quite soon, as intercounty referees get ready for the new-year fitness tests. Bleep test levels of 16.8 for league referees and 17.4 for championship are the relevant standards and they’ll be hard at work in the weeks ahead.

It’s just one example of how the preparation for intercounty referees has advanced in recent years. On-field performances are assessed and during the championship there are weekly Zoom sessions (it is hoped that there will also be in-person meetings every three weeks) at which video clips of contentious decisions are circulated for discussion – with an emphasis on learning from mistakes where mistakes have been made, rather than recrimination.

Up-and-coming referees benefit from a one-on-one mentoring system, provided by retired intercounty officials such as Barry Kelly, who has been working with Dublin’s Seán Stack, and the whole purpose is to equip newcomers to step up.

Donal Smyth, the servicing officer for match officials, is always available to discuss issues with everyone from media to managers with a view to making sure that everyone is on the same page.

There are back-up services for those feeling upset or distressed as a result of high-profile controversies, such as professional help from former Galway hurler Justin Campbell, now a counsellor and psychotherapist. There is a great deal of work taking place.

In a week which saw a good news story in refereeing with the appointment of Maggie Farrelly as the first woman to take charge of a men’s senior county final, the Cavan replay, there are still profound problems in the area.

There’s no denying that there is a need to recruit referees around the country but the best incentive to get involved would be that the GAA might start punishing disrespectful behaviour towards officials and to take the lead in this by respecting decisions taken by their own officials.