Sean McGuigan's consistency puts county referees in shade
LAST Sunday evening, Lavey played Swatragh in a league game in Derry’s top-flight.
The two teams were out on the field at 6.20pm for throw-in, but the referee was nowhere to be seen.
When they finally got him on the phone, he was just packing his bag at the house to leave. He had been told it was a 7.30pm throw-in.
Instead of the dissent that would usually be associated with such a delay, the crowd took it in good humour - because the referee was Sean McGuigan.
Instead of a chorus of 'at last' when he arrived, McGuigan was met by rapturous applause as he strolled onto the field through the top gate.
Like a children’s entertainer he put his two hands to his head as if to say 'silly me'. His modesty has always been an endearing trait.
It’s one of the reasons he joins Pat McEnaney in a two-man group of referees who have been known to be universally respected on the whistle.
Doubling up as Slaughtneil club chairman, McGuigan is made of solid oak. 6’5”, the shoulders almost spanning that again. Nobody sane picks a fight with a man that size.
Not that any amount of provocation would engage him. A more placid individual you could not meet.
At the final whistle in one club championship game last year, a young player made his way over to give him a mouthful of abuse.
Others would have thrown out the red card straight away and taken delight in making a note of every profanity.
But like a patient father wanting his child to actually learn something from the episode, Sean McGuigan instead offered the player the chance to apologise.
The offer was refused the first time but, when the player’s management intervened, Sean was still standing patiently, not wanting to show a red card.
And when the player came over to apologise, Sean obligingly accepted, shook his hand and walked off the field.
He would see no sense in spoiling a young lad’s football over a moment of frustration.
The crux of why the big Slaughtneil man is universally loved in Derry is that he has another rare characteristic for a modern referee - he is unerringly consistent.
They call him ‘Play On’ Sean. His Twitter handle, @playonsean, reflects that.
He showed one yellow card last Sunday evening. The crowd were stunned. No-one knew he owned a yellow card.
The tackles rained in all evening on a greasy surface. When there was a clear foul, Sean blew the whistle. When there wasn’t, he let play continue.
There might have been instances where he could have given frees, but what he didn’t give to Lavey, he didn’t give to Swatragh either.
You would think that sounds like a recipe for lawlessness and carnage.
But in an era of cynicism and players manufacturing frees, ‘Play On’ Sean somehow manages to keep everyone happy by keeping his whistle in his hand and his cards in his pocket.
That’s more than can be said for the current crop of inter-county referees.
The 2016 Championship has been dogged by controversies involving the men-in-the-middle.
In a game where there was hardly a tackle put on anyone in 70 minutes, Marty Duffy awarded 45 frees in Tipperary’s win over Derry last Saturday. It wasn’t a particularly high tally.
But the disparity in awarding 33 of those frees to the winners and just 12 to the losers was as hard to fathom as some of the decisions themselves.
On the same afternoon, Padraig Hughes found himself the unwanted star of a semi-viral Twitter advertisement for glaring inconsistency.
He sent-off Clare midfielder Cathal O’Connor for a high tackle on Niall Daly, the kind you see at least once a game and which straddles the border between yellow and red.
Not long after, Roscommon’s Enda Smith committed an almost identical foul, if not a worse one, and was shown a yellow card.
Referees can complain about the lack of clarity in the rules and rightly so in many cases, but there is no excuse for punishing the same foul two different ways within a matter of moments.
The black card itself has been at the heart of recent outcry. Its effect in taking the bodycheck out of the game has been a very positive one.
There are concerns about its other uses. How anyone could deem what Cathal McShane did in the Ulster final as an offence worthy of ending his afternoon is beyond comprehension.
The rule itself is well-intended, but it is not being well applied.
David Coldrick made a terrible error black-carding McShane, but at least he had the courage to use it where he deemed necessary twice in the first-half of a game.
Most shy away from it, using the cop-out option of a yellow card, if at all.
Last Saturday, Marty Duffy pulled Danny Heavron for what looked a very similar tackle to Mattie Donnelly’s in the Ulster final.
To lose him inside four minutes would have had untold consequences for Derry’s performance.
The Sligo whistler saw it and blew it straight away, calling the Magherafelt man across.
Then, he hesitated and decided to speak to his linesman.
He eventually let the offence go with nothing more than a free.
Heavron would go on to produce a man-of-the-match display and almost pull Derry into an All-Ireland quarter-final, practically on his own.
A week earlier, that tackle had been a black card. This time, it wasn’t.
The inconsistency of it blurs the lines and offers nothing only confusion to players and managers.
‘Play On’ Sean looks at his black card and sees something that opens to keep the score.
He might not apply the rules exactly as they’re written, but he applies them the same every time he steps on the field, and that’s all anyone can ask.