GAA must treat its referees better

Limerick Leader GAA columnist Martin Kiely on the plight of referees.

Limerick Leader GAA columnist Martin Kiely on the plight of referees.

When all else fails in the GAA and the game has been lost, the only person left to blame is the referee.

I am sure, if we are all honest, that there have been times when we had a go at a referee either during or after a game. It’s a practice that has developed over many decades within the GAA and it’s wrong. I am sure most referees do their best and are involved in the game for all the right reasons.

The job they face is difficult and has become even more difficult in recent times. There is a huge lack of respect for referees and this culture has left a gaping wound that the GAA at national level has not come to terms with. I’m not quite sure how this can be changed but it must be carefully looked at because, in the long term, our games will be the better for it.

It comes down to respect and in most cases a lack of it and until players, management, officials and supporters willingly agree to go in a new direction nothing will change. Referees have played a major part in the development of gaelic games and yet both locally and nationally their contribution is taken for granted. Just like in all walks of life there are good referees and some not so good but overall, for the best part, they play a key role in the playing of our games.

The recent controversy regarding whether referees should pay tax on what they get for doing a match has been badly handled by Croke Park and I know that in Limerick and most other counties many referees are considering calling time on their careers.

Why has that come about and who was the man in Croke Park responsible? It has created a major mess and it took Croke Park a long time to see what they had created. They have in recent weeks been in talks with the revenue commissioners but many referees I have spoken to told me they will not make themselves available until they are assured that it will remain as it was.

In most cases the amount the referee receives would just about cover his expenses and it’s a sad day that those who are playing a part in the lives of so many people in sport could shortly have to deal with the tax man. Unless the suggestion is reversed in full it is now clear that many referees will no longer be able to continue because the fee they receive could seriously affect those who have medical cards and social welfare rights. Referees from other codes, especially rugby, always have the final say and a referee who takes charge of a Heineken Cup match I’m told can take home almost two thousand euro. That will never happen in the GAA but referees who take charge of the major games in the championship deserve to be well looked after and in this regard the GAA could squeeze the lemon just a little more.

Over the years Limerick has produced some great referees who have gone to the highest level, men like Jerry Fitzgerald, Sean O’Connor, John O’ Grady, Neilie Duggan, Pat O’Connor and Terence Murray. At inter county level it has changed so much over the past couple of years. It was always difficult to get the break but nowadays the system has frustrated many because it seems to be the same few who get the big games.

Off the record many referees will tell you how it’s “who you know” that decides who gets the big games. Many good referees have been badly treated and despite working so hard to develop their skills they have been overlooked not only by Croke Park but also at County Board level and Limerick are no different in this regard.

The best referees don’t always get the major games and when problems occur at games because the game was beyond the referee Croke Park first heaps the blame on the clubs or counties when of course the answer lies much closer to home. The best referees should get the best games and where that is not the case then the GAA is showing a huge lack of respect to players, managers, officials and supporters.

The referee does not always get the support he should, be that from Croke Park, Provincial Council or County Boards. To me Terence Murray was one of the great referees but he called time on his inter county career much too early. He was respected by hurlers of the highest level including former Galway All Ireland winning Captain Conor Hayes. “Terence was a great referee,” said Hayes, “and he was widely respected by all hurlers. As a player himself he understood hurling and he allowed the game to develop”.

Another Limerick referee, Pat O’Connor, was held in high regard by hurlers and refereed three All Ireland Finals but his career also finished long before it should. Good referees used common sense and few did it better than the Ahane man. Many of the great games in hurling over the last ten years were refereed by Pat O’Connor and he was a big loss to refereeing.

From time to time we hear County Boards talking about how much they respect referees but the very same Boards are the ones that regularly change the decisions of the referees when the player appeals his case. The very same officials will, in some cases, try to get the player off and if they don’t they will be well canvassed.

This has happened in Limerick many times over the years and they wonder why people walk away from refereeing. Most players and clubs try, where possible, to play the game in a sporting manner and for the best part that is the case. Some referees don’t offer the same respect to players and officials that they themselves would wish for and where that is the case the risk of fallout will never be too far away. Games that are played at underage level give us an opportunity to see the games at their purest but this is also the time when the first seeds are sown in relation to a lack of respect for the referee.

Parents want to see their children perform to their best but in many cases parents and officials show a complete lack of respect for the referee and in doing so a foundation is laid that says this is acceptable behaviour for their children to follow. The referee will never be right and his job is very difficult and they will get things wrong from time to time.

The referee has a duty to be well prepared from rules to fitness but officials and supporters have a duty to show him respect. Some people who take up refereeing are just not suited to such a role. Many try but in reality they are unable to handle the pressures that goes with such a role and this is often the reason many games have a poor level of respect and discipline.

Trying to get former players involved in refereeing has been a major problem and the only way this is going to change is if high profile players take up the whistle at inter county level.

This will help bring players at other levels into the game. Former players could be fast tracked and with that they would gain huge respect. Limerick has many referees on the various panels but many are finding it hard to make the breakthrough. The one man who is gaining ground is Shane Hourigan. The Rathkeale man looks set to move up a few gears this year and many officials I have spoken to believe he has the ability to go all the way to the top.

From a local point of view it’s vitally important that clubs try and encourage lads to get involved in refereeing. In Dublin some years ago they introduced the Junior Whistler and it has resulted in many of those young lads now still refereeing at adult level. With proper training and planning it is possible to have sixteen years olds referring Go Games and also games at U-14.

This may also lead to less abuse and more respect and anything that helps that needs to be looked at. Each year the GAA holds camps to improve skills but it might be time they started to hold camps to try and bring young people into refereeing. Many of us have had a go at referees in the past both on and off the field but just because we question them does not mean we don’t respect them. Managers, officials and players are, for the best part, of sound mind but the heat of games can sometimes bring out the worst in them but behind it all no ill will is meant.