GAA Football

Referees will always be criticised but need proper protection from abuse

Players, managers, and supporters will always disagree with referees - but protests should remain civilised.

I ONCE spent at least 10 minutes berating a referee for a throw-in he hadn’t awarded to my team. In an utterly meaningless match. And he was a friend of mine.

On another occasion, as I rose like a salmon in the box to meet a cross, the BBC’s Mervyn Jess (the match was quite some time ago) simply stuck his hand in the air and deflected the ball away to safety.

When the referee failed to award a penalty I was flabbergasted, to say the least, and told him so at length. If I recall correctly, I only stopped going on about it shortly before the final whistle.

Luckily, I refrained from swearing, as the referees turned out to be the dad of one of the guest players on our team, as I learned when I was apologising afterwards for all my moaning.

The point is, I fully understand the annoyance players, managers, mentors, and supporters feel when bad decisions go against them, even when the match is of little or no import.

Yet I never would have stepped over the lines that were crossed in Fermanagh GAA this year, as revealed by their referees’ chief Martin Higgins.

A new recruit to refereeing being spat at.

An experienced official getting so sick and tired of abuse that he hung up his whistle.

Arguably worst of all, men who are on the referees’ panel themselves actually abusing the match officials at games involving their own club.

Referees are the most likely to come to the defence of other referees when they are in the firing line of pundits or columnists for controversial or questionable decisions, so to turn on their own is especially poor behaviour, if not exactly shocking or surprising.

Perhaps what is needed is ‘the Paddy Heaney approach’.

I once agreed to referee an Irish News soccer match as my dodgy knee was swollen badly and I also had a heavy cold.

Clearly I was in no fit state to keep up with play and, given that there were no linesmen either, I told both teams that I would only be blowing for really obvious off-sides.

The Irish News proceeded to score a couple of goals that would probably have been flagged off in ideal circumstances, but as a man of my word I had to allow them.

Whereas we were cheered on by a few delightful female colleagues, the opposition’s solitary male supporter (who was on crutches) became rather annoyed.

Mistaking my layers of clothing for actual bulk, he proceeded to make remarks about my apparent weight, accompanied by the usual speculation about the timing of my parents’ marriage.

To be honest, I was more upset that he refused to accept my repeated explanation about ‘obvious off-sides’. I also felt sorry for him because he genuinely merited the description he was hurling at me.

Come the second half, though, he was as quiet as a mouse, even though my refereeing probably didn’t improve.

I later discovered that Mr Heaney had approached this mouthy man at half-time and told him that if he didn’t shut up he would beat him with one of his crutches. And turn the other one into a makeshift shooting stick for him. Or words to that effect.

That’s an extreme method of enforcing respect for referees, but the culprits do need punishment.

Maybe refs could do what I did when wielding the whistle in other Irish News matches (my knee again).

‘Be quiet’, I would say to complaining players. ‘Go away’, I would tell them and their supporters. Perhaps I put it slightly more bluntly than that.

In truth, I did. In fact, so vitriolic was my repartee with a complainer in one game that even the aforesaid Mr Heaney advised me to tone it down, and he's as argumentative a man as you’ll ever meet (although he might disagree with that assessment).

Realistically, my approach wouldn’t be in line with ‘Give Respect, Get Respect’.

Higgins had more sensible suggestions: “Some club officials and managers need to take a hard look at how they conduct themselves on the sideline.

“I witnessed some unbelievable abuse directed at some of our less experienced referees in some underage games this year”.

That’s right. Underage games.

The example being set to young players is appalling.

I may have been a moaner, but I never resorted to personal abuse or threatening behaviour.

As regards qualified referees who abuse match officials, Higgins called for stern punishment:

“I would propose that our CCC treat referees (who are acting as club managers/officials) who abuse other referees to double the minimum suspension set down in the Official Guide for such offences”.

It’s become an annual occurrence to read pleas from county officials about the need for new referees, and has been treated almost as a joke for many years, but Higgins insists that the situation is serious:

“In all honesty we need another 10-12 new referees for our 2018 Foundation Course as a significant portion of our Grade 1 referees are over 45 years of age and cannot be expected to carry on refereeing indefinitely”.

Many observers advocate those who know the game best – players – becoming referees, but Higgins warned:

“Most current players who are approaching the end of their careers will not consider taking up the whistle due to the current level of abuse.

“The situation is only going to change when those reported are dealt with according to the Official Guide and the suspensions set down are actually served”.

Referees make mistakes, of course they do, but they don’t deserve abuse, or being spat at.

County boards must offer them better protection – or perhaps a Referees’ Association needs to be set up and then threaten strike action unless serious abuse is properly punished.

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