Enda McGinley: Inconsistent referees have left us more confused and frustrated than ever

Not for the first time, the referee's performance came under as much scrutiny as that of the two teams in the aftermath of the Crossmaglen v Coalisland Club SFC quarter-final Picture by Bill Smyth

WATCHING the Ulster Club encounter between Crossmaglen and Coalisland provided a clear reminder of the ongoing mess that is our current rulebook.

We received a perfect reminder of the variance in interpretation of the rules, to which we have become all too accustomed.

On several occasions in the opening 20 minutes there were off-the-ball, third man tackles or little digs that went unpunished. Watching these instances occur, I was immediately checking to see where the linesman or referee was to see if it was likely to be dealt with.

Many of the instances occurred in clear line of sight of an official, yet no action was taken. I assumed from that it was going to be a ‘let it go’ approach.

Well, I did until Coalisland ended up getting two men lined in quick succession, both for relatively minor incidents that had everyone in attendance wondering what had actually happened.

Words were apparently exchanged with the referee by both players, earning one a booking and the other a straight red card.

By the letter of the law, such verbal abuse of an official is, of course, a sending-off offence. What frustrates me is that every game on every pitch will see remonstrations with officials with minimal or no action taken, yet here we have a referee making a massive decision which we haven’t seen elsewhere this season.

For Brian Toner’s first booking, the referee ignored a blatant yellow or possible black card infraction when Coalisland’s Peter Herron was bearing down on goal to run back and book Toner for something he had apparently said. Talk about priorities.

Pat McEnaney of Monaghan has often been cited as one of the finest referees the game has seen. While no referee will ever please everyone, there was always a clear consistency to McEnaney’s decision-making.

Interestingly, and this is just a hunch, I feel that the standard of refereeing has not necessarily improved at all since the introduction of referee assessors.

I believe trying to judge a referee with a box-ticking exercise is like trying to assess a player’s performance by looking at his GPS stats.

It gives you raw, pseudo-objective data, but doesn’t really give you the bottom-line answer to whether it has been a good performance or not.

I have often thought one of the best indicators of a referee’s performance would be if you asked both captains or team management for their opinion on the ref after a game.

Things like communication, mutual respect and consistency would then be valued highly.

Too often we see referees trying to look out for things they know the assessors are looking at and nit-picking on them and missing the point of just refereeing the match well.

There are a number of issues that don’t help the referees’ plight, though. Firstly, the rulebook is not definitive enough in terms of the tackle.

In contrast to hurling, the attempts to tackle take place most commonly when the man is physically holding the ball.

This means that while a clean tackle of the ball will occasionally be executed as it travels in the air during a bounce or solo, most commonly the tackle is essentially composed of battering of the player in possession of the football.

This can include anything from blocking a player with arms to trap them, small pushes, pulls and, of course, plenty of hits. By the book, these are all only supposed to be at the ball.

To anyone who has ever taken their place in a tackling grid, this concept is laughable.

Despite this almost comical vagueness and disparity between the rulebook and reality, just about anyone who follows the game can spot an obvious foul. There are, of course, shades of grey where the level of physicality of a tackle, for example, is up to the specific referee’s opinion.

As long as they applied common sense and consistency in this regard, I think no-one would have an issue.

An even bigger issue is the current myriad of rules regarding cards.

These, in contrast to the tackle, are relatively well defined in the rulebook, but they are even more inconsistently applied. At times this year it appeared that the black card had all but disappeared from our game.

It has certainly failed to cull the obvious professional foul of pulling down a man who is through on goal.

Everyone, given the right circumstance in a game, would still expect that to occur.

It has also failed to address blatant fouls where players make no attempt to tackle.

If they don’t take the person to ground or trip them, it is not a black card, even though all and sundry can see it is a cynical tackle.

In other instances, players are given marching orders for minor fouls – misjudged tackles out the field and far from any danger – despite the absence of cynicism and no major advantage being gained.

It has been an unmitigated disaster. They are now trying to paper over the cracks by reducing the punishment to a 10-minute sin-bin in the new rule change proposals, while also allowing people to get three yellow cards before being given a red card. It is almost laughable.

Yet again, common sense refereeing would see when a foul is a blatant attempt to stop a threatening attack or score. That to me is true cynical play. Punishment could be a red card but without suspension. Other than that, yellow cards should be applied properly as the rules advise, with an added yellow card offence created for persistent physical obstruction of an opponent.

This is the vexing scenario we now see regularly meted out to the star players. They are essentially hounded out of games by players with no interest in the game but to obstruct them.

It’s the type of thing we see most commonly against the great playmakers, the likes of Michael Murphy and Peter Harte etc.

It is completely negative and not based at all on true defending. As I mentioned previously in this column, the Australian Rules Football rule where contact is only allowed within five metres of the ball and when contesting the ball could be very effective.

This might all sound like sharp criticism of the referees. In fact, I would argue it is the opposite. As is the case with many professions, people are hamstrung by over-zealous box-ticking of performance criteria.

Football is not the place for that and, if anything, it is another distraction the referees don’t need.

Referees, informed with either good personal experience or thorough training, need to be allowed call the game using their common sense primarily.

This can be enhanced by much better lines of communication with both teams and managers before and during the game (and maybe even supporters/spectators, as in rugby).

Gone should be the day of a referee making a big call and ignoring a player simply asking why he made it.

As we have seen in rugby and soccer, the use of video does not lead to 100 per cent agreement on calls, so we can never hope for total agreement.

Where would the fun in that be? I do feel, though, that the rule changes and changing emphasis year to year has led to more confusion and frustration than ever.

Sometimes, a return to basics can be the right move.

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