GAA Football

Refereeing standards are a product of neglect

The wheel of fortune has landed on the standard of officiating for a few weeks running now, as is commonplace in summer.

EVEN a hamster would get scundered by some of the topical wheels we find ourselves on in the GAA.

If it’s not how bad the games are (copyright RTÉ), it’s fixtures. If it’s not that, it’s shamateurism. If it’s not that then it’s refereeing.

The wheel of fortune has landed on the standard of officiating for a few weeks running now, as is commonplace in summer.

It was umpires in the firing line last week when Tipperary were given that phantom goal against Waterford, and now it’s the referees themselves after Paddy Neilan’s failure to award a late free for Meath in their narrow extra-time loss to Tyrone.

Usually it plays out the same. The referee hides in plain sight for a couple of weeks, operating as a linesman or sideline official, before he’s returned to the middle.

Meanwhile the pundits queue up to question ‘how on earth did he not see that?’ while illustrating, with the benefit of three super-slo-mo replays and a magnifying tool, that the foul was blatantly obvious.

And then, the Eureka moment: Isn’t the answer to all of these refereeing ills the recruitment of past players?

Except it isn’t. Never has been.

Of course, the basis of the logic is sound. Gaelic football’s such a mess of a sport to try and understand that only someone who played it would have any chance of controlling it.

But there are major sticking points. For one, former players are usually 35 or over.

The average age of the referees at this summer’s World Cup is 40, and they’ll all have been at it for at least a decade.

The body naturally begins to regress around the age of 23 or 24. You can retain the ability to cover distance, and at a reasonable pace, but the capacity for sprinting reduces with the passing of time.

And anyone who’s played Gaelic football for the previous 20 years is more than likely to be a bit bashed up, between dodgy hips, wrecked groins and that shoulder injury that prevents you from signalling an advantage because you can’t actually lift your left arm that high.

The reason most players eventually call it a day is because the game overtakes them. They can no longer hack the pace. The potential coaches are snapped up first.

If you’re not in that clique, chances are you’ve spent the last two decades verbally abusing referees, who just stand there and take it because it’s not in the game’s culture for them to send you off.

You would have to be clinically insane to think that putting yourself through that would be a good idea.

A big number do it because every club has to provide a referee, and they were the poor soul someone thought would be easily talked into it.

Having been caught in that boat by our camogie club some years ago, let me tell you it’s not much fun refereeing a game you never played, have little understanding of and don’t know the rules of all that well.

Some referees do it for the money. A handful of underage and schools games during the week and a senior game at the weekend can turn out a decent tax-free side earner in some counties, but it’s hardly lucrative enough to be attracting the sane among us.

And some do it because they want to be good referees. They want to progress through the ranks and maybe some day represent their club and county at the highest level.

Those referees do exist but there are not enough of them, and it’s simply down to the fact that very little effort is put on recruitment or retention.

In a way, the first move has to be towards the latter. The GAA will never retain referees while it deems the current level of abuse to be in any way acceptable.

The idea of effing and blinding at your players as a form of motivation has been long forgotten by any coach worth their salt. If that culture can be changed, achieving a proper base level of respect for referees can be achieved.

On the other side of that is always the argument that refereeing can be of such a poor standard that it’s almost impossible to bite your tongue. It’s not so much ‘give respect, get respect’ as it is ‘get respect by earning it’.

Except it’s an awful struggle for referees to earn it because at club level, they’re poorly paid and largely left to their own devices. And the difficulty in trying to address it is that some of them are happy enough that way.

Every county has to run an annual service course to updates their referees on rules. There’s usually a referee’s committee that officials can refer to for queries, but that’s it. They can be good, bad or indifferent and nobody really cares much to fix it.

The result is that most referees never really improve, and perhaps get worse as they settle into bad habits, and those that are properly interested will only progress if they squeeze through a hole in the fence and get on to some kind of provincial or national development panel.

Refereeing has to cost county boards money if it’s to be of any standard at all.

The fourth official at an Irish League game earns £85 per game plus travel expenses. The man in the middle’s base payment is £170, and he gets his 35p per mile on top of that too.

Even at intermediate level, which would often be watched by five men and a dog, the fee is £50 plus mileage.

The IFA has a very definite development programme for referees, offering assessment three times a year and feedback that can be brutally honest, but which is imperative in improving the standard of officiating.

In Gaelic football, we still subject one man to a playing surface almost a third bigger, which he has to cover from corner-to-corner while trying to keep up with athletes 15 years his junior. We vilify him when he isn’t up with play or gets a decision wrong, and then we maybe pay him a measly £30 for the privilege.

County boards are spending fortunes on nutritionists and sports psychologists and statisticians, but despite all the complaining from just about everyone, there is almost no investment or basic interest whatsoever in actually improving the standard of refereeing.

And it’s no different from playing. Those emerging on to provincial and national panels are not of the standard they could be, meaning our top referees are not fulfilling their potential either.

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