Lack of communication hampering GAA referees' progress says Martin Higgins
IN THE end it wasn’t the abuse, or the pressure that prompted Martin Higgins to hang up his inter-county whistle.
Those things were certainly present throughout his time as the man in the middle, but what ultimately broke his heart are matters he is certain are easily addressed.
That is, quite simply, a lack of communication between those in charge of organising referees and referees themselves, coupled with what he perceives as favouritism.
The 47-year-old Lisnaskea Emmet’s club man has been refereeing for about 17 years in total and, although he still referees club football, he retired from the county game in 2014.
Perhaps the high point of his career was taking charge of the 2011 Ulster senior club football final between Burren and Crossmaglen. His last inter-county game was a round two football qualifier between Limerick and Antrim.
Higgins feels he was not hard done by as a referee in Ulster, but the story is different when looked at nationally: “There’s still not enough feedback to referees,” he said.
“The only thing you’re getting are assessments and to be honest, the boys that run refereeing, particularly at national level - they should be sitting down with every referee at the end of the year - [and detailing whether] you’ve had a good year, you’ve had a bad year, you’ve had a middling year - this is what you need to do to move on. There’s none of this - the only true assessment you get, ultimately, is what appointments you get to referee.
Higgins is particularly scathing about those at the top, who are carrying out these assessments: “Realistically, you need guys that have refereed,” he insisted.
"And it just seems to me that there’s a cartel there with the big referees. One of the papers mentioned it - in hurling, in particular, during the year - where there are a small number of doing most of the big games."
As regards improving the situation, Higgins goes back to a proposal that was floated some years ago: “Going back probably 10 years ago - there’s a guy - the first match officials manager in Croke Park. He had proposed a system whereby every referee saw everybody else’s assessment and you were getting a mark out of a hundred,” he said.
"And there were certain other factors - the difficulty of the match [for instance] - so you were ending up with a score and you could see where your score was ranking with everybody else’s. So you knew what the pecking order was and, to me… you knew what you had to do.
"But they definitely need to be talking far more to the referees and what Croke Park actually expect from referees. There’s nowhere near enough feedback."
Picture by Margaret McLaughlin
It's not as if he doesn't feel he can do the job. On the contrary, Higgins believes that Ulster referees, a couple of which he thinks have real quality, have an edge over their southern counterparts.
"Ulster football, by its very nature, is potentially harder to referee than anything else," said Higgins.
"And if you can get through Ulster Club football with no real hassle, there should be no game in Ireland that should faze you. In Ulster, Ciaran Branagan had a very good year, Sean Hurson has real potential - those are the boys who seem to be making their way up in Ulster. I do rate Sean Hurson very highly, Ciaran Branagan is very good as well."
The sense of frustration is palpable with Higgins. When he took to the field for that game in Limerick, he had not figured it would be for the last time at that level. But his own sober assessment told him something had to give.
"That was my third match that year between qualifiers and championship," he said.
"There’s a designated championship panel for five years and I made that for four out of the five years. The first year, I got a game in Croke Park - but for four years in-a-row - I didn’t get a game in Croke Park and I didn’t get a national final.
"And when I sat down and looked at it at the end of the year, I said: 'I haven’t got a game in Croke Park, I haven’t got a national final in four years - somebody doesn’t like me, good luck, walk'.
"I sat down with one of my umpires - it would be my best friend - and we just went through it, the pros and cons and, at the end of that conversation, I just sent an e-mail to Croke Park to withdraw my services.
"I felt that... if somebody had said to me - 'you’re not doing this, you’re not doing that', but there was no constructive feedback bar assessment and my last number of assessments - there was no big issue in any of them."
Frustrated though he certainly is, Higgins heaped praise on the two referees who he feels are the best in the business and outlined the pressures top level referees, in particular, are operating under.
"In my personal opinion, two referees stand out head-and-shoulders above the rest - David Coldrick and David Gough - the two Meath men," he said.
"I think, over the last two years, they’ve performed consistently at a higher level than the rest. I just think they have tended to have got a lot of the tough matches, but they’ve got through them with minimal fuss and minimal hassle. There’s not that much talking about them afterwards.
"There seems to be a lot of effort to try and pinpoint issues in particular referee’s performances by managers after matches, when realistically, a lot of their players made a lot more mistakes than the referee. And they, as managers on the sideline, made a lot worse mistakes than the referee.
"Because everything is magnified and... in Croke Park there sure, the commentators and the pundits - they’re looking at something after five replays and three different angles.
"The referee had a split second at one angle and he made his call and he might have got it wrong, but they make a hell of a lot more right ones than wrong ones."