Brendan Crossan: Communication could be the soothing balm the GAA needs rather than empty catchphrases for referees

Raymond Crangle has led the way for better relations in local soccer

Experienced referee David Gough was expected to be the man in the middle for today's Down final. Picture by Seamus Loughran
Experienced referee David Gough is one of the best in the business Picture by Seamus Loughran

MANY years ago, I spent a day with a soccer referee. At the time, Peter McGrath was an up and coming intermediate-level official. And a good one too. Always firm but fair.

He picked me up on the morning of the game and we drove to Millisle for an Amateur League clash between home side Abbey Villa and Larne Tech OB.

It was a ‘day in the life’ type of piece where I was in the referee’s changing room before the game, at half-time and full-time.

As I leaned across the fence away from the few hundred supporters in attendance, the match felt like a social experiment.

For most of the game, Peter was barracked by supporters, players and coaches. I quickly realised I was probably the only neutral person in the ground that afternoon.

No matter what decision Peter gave, who didn’t have the luxury of linesmen or women, he couldn’t win. He would incur the wrath of the other team regardless.

They were arguing over throw ins on the halfway line.

This was how Peter spent his spare time: trying to officiate a game in the fairest manner while being shouted at for 90-plus minutes for £50 or £60.

By my rough estimation, he earned a penny for every insult.

If Peter had a bad game, I would have freely admitted to him afterwards (I know him well enough) that it wasn’t his finest hour.

But, in fact, he had a fine game – an eight-out-of-10. He kept up with the play. Communicated well. And was firm when the situation demanded it.

I casually asked the two opposing managers afterwards how they felt the referee had performed. Both thought he was rubbish.

Which illustrates the point.

When we enter a sports ground, we subconsciously undergo an induction course in paranoia. If things aren’t going your way, blame the ref. And we should let him know it too.

This mindset has been a cultural pockmark on soccer and Gaelic Games since time began.

Meanwhile, the respect and deference shown to match officials in rugby would put them to shame.

Irish League referee  Raymond Crangle  picture at the fort bar in West Belfast, Raymond will hang up his whistle at the end of this season.
Irish League referee Raymond Crangle PICTURE COLM LENAGHAN

Last week, I shadowed Irish League referee Raymond Crangle as he prepares to hang up his whistle after 17 years officiating at elite level.

It was such an insightful interview on so many levels because too often we see the game from the luxury of the stand or the sidelines.

“Sitting in the stand is easy,” Crangle said. “You’re sitting static. On the pitch everything is happening around you at 100 mile per hour, you’re running at pitch level at 100 mile per hour and you’re trying to make an instant decision [clicking his fingers].

“As the play is developing, you’re thinking, ‘If he pulls him down it’s red, red, red, red, and then you’re thinking it’s yellow, yellow, yellow…’ There are a thousand things going through your head and it’s only when the challenge goes in, you have to take a screen shot.”

And contrary to popular belief, referees don’t turn up to ruin anyone’s day and go home again.

Asked what Crangle’s legacy will be when he finishes at Inver Park on Saturday afternoon, former Linfield boss David Jeffrey said: “Raymond is a man of immense ability, a man who enhanced the game of football and enhanced refereeing.

“He has been instrumental in bringing players, managers and officials closer together.”

It’s always a handy retort from referees that those shouting from the stands or the sidelines should try refereeing.

And, honestly, they really should.

If they did they’d have an entirely different perspective on just how difficult it is to officiate a game, more so if it’s Gaelic football or hurling.

The yawning size of the pitches for starters make it significantly more difficult for GAA referees to handle a game, especially when the art of tackling remains such a technically grey area in practice.

Different sports can learn from each other. After games, Crangle would insist on a 20-minute cooling-off period before agreeing to speak with managers who were disappointed with his performance or a particular decision.

David Jeffrey was onto something when he said Crangle’s legacy will be how he brought players, managers and officials closer together through his on-field man-management skills and patience and time he took to explain decisions to coaches after games.

Those post-match conversations didn’t always end well but at least there were lines of communication.

An issue the GAA must grapple with is communication – or lack of - between officials, coaches and players.

In the GAA, we don’t hear enough from referees and therefore how can anyone expect to understand them.

In 25 years working in The Irish News sports department, I think I’ve interviewed two GAA referees, David Gough being one of them.

They’re such an essential element of our games that we need to hear more from them rather than being burrowed away from microphones and television cameras.

Forums should be set up and regular meetings taking place between the various stakeholders and, slowly, everyone will begin to view a perceived issue or problem from an angle other than their own.

In other words, everyone begins to understand each other. They still mightn’t agree but the whole process becomes a little more adult.

Dreaming up empty catchphrases about ‘Respect’ cuts little ice and can never trump meaningful engagement.

One inter-county manager asked a referee after a National League game this year could he ask him a question about a decision he gave because he couldn’t see it from the sideline.

The referee consented and the manager was allowed to ask his question. When he went to ask another, he claimed the referee said: ‘Now, that’s two questions.’

We’re well beyond the point where the GAA should have the confidence to encourage their elite referees to do more media interviews and appear on, say, The Sunday Game and be as regular a face as Sean Cavanagh is on our television screens and discuss aspects of the game.

The game itself would be the big winner and there mightn’t just be as many snarls behind the wire.