When you spend your life in the press box, you forget a lot of things. Personal hygiene, mostly, yes. But other stuff too. If the gotcha question for politician is always to name the price of a pint of milk or a loaf of bread, just ask a sports journalist the cost of ticket to a game and watch his or her face go white.
A few weeks ago, I went to the Monaghan v Down game in Armagh with a friend of mine who had moved to Europe in 2000 and hadn’t been to a Monaghan game since 1998. When he said it had been that long, I tried to remember the last time I’d been to one I wasn’t working at and settled on the 2010 Ulster final. Between us, we had collected 26 years of not remembering what it was like to be in a crowd at a championship match.
Of everything I'd forgotten, the sheer one-eyed partisanship of it all was probably top of the list. Especially when it came to the referee. Or actually, in this case, the referees, plural. David Coldrick reffed the first half and from the moment he didn't send half the Down team off in the second minute for a foul on Conor McManus, the Monaghan crowd bayed at every decision.
I didn’t think Coldrick had a bad game at all. But then, second on the list of things I’d forgotten was that nobody likes standing beside the boring shite at matches who pushes his glasses up on his nose and says, “Well actually, that wasn’t a black card because he didn’t drag him to the ground – at worst it’s a yellow”.
Shut up, Mal. Literally nobody asked you.
The Monaghan crowd around me were so exercised by Coldrick that when it was announced at half-time that there would be a new referee for the second half, with Paddy Neilan replacing him, the response on our terrace was a guttural cheer. Followed by laughter, as fellas started speculating that some Monaghan fan had got into the referee's room with a crowbar at the break.
“Hi Jemmy, you were a long time at the toilet – now we know why.”
Five minutes into the second half, Neilan gave Down a penalty right in front of our terrace. And that was him goosed for the rest of the night. Every decision that went Down’s way – every last one of them – was met with howls of outrage around us. Jemmy and friends were calling for Coldrick to be brought back on long before the end.
Here’s the thing. The next day, I was working in Croke Park and all the talk in the press box was of how the referees – but Neilan especially – had given Monaghan far more of the benefit of the doubt than Down. The consensus was that if Down hadn’t won the game, there’d have been hell to pay over the refereeing performance.
All of which just goes to confirm three things. One, fans are absolutely the worst judge of a referee, fans behind the goal being the worst of the worst. Two, you lose plenty by staying in the press box but the one thing you do manage to hang onto is perspective. And three, not for diamonds would a sane person want to be a referee.
Neilan is in the news again after the weekend because of his handling of the qualifier between Tipperary and Armagh on Saturday night. Watching on as the game got away from him, you had to wonder was he half-wishing he could pull a muscle himself and get out of there, handing the whistle over to someone else and cleaning the slate for the game.
Because it was clear by midway through the second half that any decision he made was enraging one side or the other.
Refereeing can go like that sometimes. The man in the middle is only ever a couple of calls away from being the cause of all society's ills. Nobody in the crowd or on the pitch judges these calls on a case-by-case basis and outrage grows like compound interest. As Mick Foley of The Sunday Times put it yesterday, Neilan would have needed a Garda escort off the pitch whoever won.
So what’s to be done?
Very little, it would seem. There has been a lot of talk online since Saturday night of Neilan’s display being symptomatic of a wider refereeing crisis but, rightly or wrongly, there’s no support for that notion in Croke Park.
Anyone you talk to in the GAA – on the record or privately – will tell you that they’re genuinely happy enough with the state of refereeing just now.
One potential problem is their top-line referees, the ones who have done all the recent All-Ireland finals, are getting old together. Hence new faces like 36-year-old Neilan coming on the scene. And maybe even, as some including Jim Gavin have suggested, being over-promoted.
But referees have never had more training or had to do more to prove their physical fitness. They’ve never had more games to do, never met more often to discuss them, never deconstructed their performance in more detail.
Croke Park even provide sports psychologists for them now to work on mental issues, including going again after a bad performance.
Neilan had one such in Thurles on Saturday. But in all honesty, Croke Park are okay with it. Players will have the odd shocker, referees will too. Supporters will always be more forgiving of the former than of the latter.
But then, you don’t need to leave the press box to know that.