The diary of an inter-county referee

Referee Martin McNally during the Leinster Seniore Football Senior Championship final between Dublin and Kildare at Croke Park. 'I said to you at the start of the year that my aim was a provincial final. To achieve that is massive progress for me.' Picture: Sportsfile

Over the course of the 2021 season, Corduff and Monaghan man Martin McNally spoke to Cahair O’Kane to record a diary of his refereeing campaign…


Martin McNally’s first game of the year is a busy one as last year’s Ulster champions Cavan lose their first outing of the new year in an Allianz Football League match to Fermanagh…

May 17

THE biggest thing to come out of the game was having no Maor Foirne. That’s a massive plus. They’re not running around, being a nuisance. You only have the two managers and we would generally find that managers are cool, calm characters and the Maor Foirne are the jack-in-the-box.

There’s been a lot of talk about the new advantage rule. I ignored it on one occasion and played the old rule. Fermanagh ended up scoring because I didn’t stop the game for a free.

Football referees aren’t going to get massively hung up on it. I don’t feel, and I think the group don’t feel, the current advantage rule is workable for players or referees. I know it’s a very much clichéd word in refereeing, common sense, but sometimes you have to use a bit of it.

The players were definitely a bit confused by the advanced mark – do they put the hand up? Do they play on? I had to keep remembering to blow the whistle on it.

I was happy with my performance, even though there was a bit of ring-rust after six months out.

I thought I got the two red cards right. The black card was for a Fermanagh player who was after scoring a real good point, and as he was coming out, he gave the Cavan defender a mouthful and ran into him.

Players maybe don’t realise that with no crowds, a lot of that stuff can be picked up.

The Fermanagh lad came over at the final whistle to query his black card. His mannerism was good, he just genuinely wanted to know. He thought the black card was only for a body-check or a pull-down.

I suppose that’s one thing you find out there, there’s a lack of education for players on the rules. Whether it’s not brought to their attention, or whether it’s that they don’t want to know, it’s something you find on a regular basis.

We’ve never had as long a lay-off. The body held up well but the mind wasn’t used to it. It’s more mentally draining than physically.

The new rules are like anything – you’re mad if you keep doing the same thing and expecting different results. The GAA are trying to tweak things and make the spectacles of hurling and football better. Can it be frustrating? Absolutely. I don’t think I’ve ever started a year refereeing without a rule change from Congress. We have a history of them. We also have a history of adapting to them.

By far the biggest game of the League is the meeting of Dublin and Kerry, which many expect will be the year’s All-Ireland final down the line. McNally is on the line, with Tyrone’s Sean Hurson in the middle…

May 25

I WAS on the same side as where Dublin worked their first two goals from. With the new rule on denying a goalscoring opportunity, I was thinking about those goals coming back up the road how difficult a call that is if there’s a foul.

There were probably six men inside the square on each. The optics can be a little bit blurred if we base it on how many defenders they had in front of goal.

We definitely have a lot of work to do on that. It’s not as straightforward as saying he only had the goalkeeper to beat, or it was 3v2. A lot of Division One teams are using the full size of the pitch, they’re going to the corner and trying to create goals from it.

When I’m refereeing, I tell my linesmen to take care of anything behind my back. The umpires are all given a quarter of the pitch each to monitor.

There’s six sets of eyes around to help the referee, but a referee’s hands are tied a lot of the time too.

Take a technical foul. The referee maybe can’t see through bodies and a man lifts the ball clean off the ground in front of the linesman. Some referees would say that if I see that, they want to know about it straight away, it’s no good being told after the game what he should have done. If the shoe was on the other foot, I’d be the asking the same – but that’s not everybody’s instruction.

Next week I’m a Corduff man stuck in the middle of Mayo-Meath. The last time that happened it didn’t go too well!

Mayo-Meath passes off without incident and with all but one of the National League finals cancelled, attention turns to Championship. Martin is invited on to the 15-man Championship panel but has to first pass the fitness test…

June 3

MYSELF and Pat McEnaney are over the club minors. I had five players out for a bit of extra one-to-one work there. We’re just lacking a few match smarts.

We had the referees’ Championship fitness test last night in Abbottstown. 17.4 was the pass mark on the beep test. Everyone who was asked in passed. Nobody ever fails the Championship fitness test.

There’s a guy always sitting at the desk as we go in and he says he can always tell when there’s a fitness test on. Everyone’s coming in the door with their heads down and it’s all really quiet, nobody speaks.

It was 24 degrees. Hitting level 17, you’re putting out a bit of black smoke. But it was comfortable too, I could have gone on another bit.

Definitely the extra sessions in the summer have done no harm. Because a lot of the evenings are taken up by coaching the minors, I’ve been up at half five in the morning to go to Ballybay.

Dessie Ward runs a gym and I’d be training along with him and Barry McBennett, who are both on the Monaghan panel.

There are plenty of referees with kids who would probably be doing something similar.

I’m 33. This is my fourth year on the panel. Being a referee is like being a player. No player trains to sit on the bench. I’ll do my lines and standby referee, and you gain experience, but I train to referee.

I did an Ulster semi-final last year. I took it as a compliment. They’ll not put you into Ulster if you’re not refereeing well.

My target this summer is to get one really good provincial game under the belt and see can I be in the shake-up for a provincial final.

I’m sure all referees look at the fixtures and pick out the games you think ‘I’d love to be stuck in the middle of that’. There’s definitely a few I like the look of.

A first Championship outing of the summer goes smoothly, with Kildare coming past Offaly despite being reduced to 13 men. But in the next three weeks, all McNally is asked to do is a line for Donegal-Derry. And then the call comes…

August 1

IT was last Wednesday night, I’d just turned off the laptop and Donal Smith [GAA national match officials manager] called me.

‘I’ve good news, you’re refereeing the Leinster final’.

I’ll be honest, the last couple of weeks, I’m questioning where I was at. The last time I was out was as standby referee for Donegal-Derry. To not have a game in that period of time, I was questioning: ‘Did I do something wrong?’

Not enough time had passed for me to get itchy about anything. Donal would be very approachable but I still hoped I was going to be in the mix for a provincial final.

Getting the Leinster final’s a big deal for me. It took me that whole evening to get my head around it.

I’d always targeted a provincial final but now it’s here, I kind of went ‘oh shit’. So I ended up booking in three sessions with Dr Noel Brick, a sports psychologist up in Belfast.

The biggest thing I took out of it was the visualisation work. Just coaching myself not to rush decisions, to take my time and have my thought process clear.

On Saturday I did a really hard training session, with some Broken Broncos thrown in at the end. Distance covered was about 7km overall.

I went for a 50km cycle on Sunday morning. I like to get on the bike rather than throbbing the ground all the time.

Monday was a rest day. Tuesday, I did another hard session on my lunch break. Lots of sharp stuff – 10m shuttles, 20m shuttles, 50m sprints, 100m sprints, 150m shuttles. Tonight I’ll do a slow 5km jog. I’ve a senior league game in Louth tomorrow night.

I always love refereeing in Croke Park. It’s been a couple of years since we were there as a team, between Covid and everything. It’ll be great to have a proper crowd back. There were 500 in Portlaoise the last day but this will be 18,000.

You hear players saying that’s great. As a referee, it’s the exact same. You hear the noise and the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. That 100 yards isn’t hard to cover all of a sudden because you’ve adrenaline running through your body.

Even though Monaghan are in the Ulster final on Saturday, I’ll not bother going. I’ll chill out at home. It would be the wrong thing for me to be doing.

It’s the morning of the Leinster final, Martin McNally’s first senior provincial decider…

August 4

MY morning was getting my few bits and pieces together, packing the car and then out to Corduff to train the minors at 11am. Back home, food, showered, changed and up the road to Croke Park. Two of the umpires came to my house, the other two went together in another car.

We arrive and go for a 15-minute pitch walk after the Christy Ring final. The umpires looked at things like the little Astroturf mats either side of the goals, and seeing if there were any obstacles in their way behind the goals like microphones.

The county secretaries come in with the teams and the changes from what was named. Once we get that out of the way, the dressing room is our sanctuary.

I like a casual mood until we’re ready to go. There’s a bit of craic and joking and slagging.

I’ve a couple of umpires who are real good craic. They’re all in their 20s or early 30s and heavily involved in refereeing, playing or coaching. I want a young, vibrant team that can move around the posts and don’t just stand beside it looking up. They’re shit hot, in fairness to them.

You try to make umpiring as sexy as possible, to keep everyone motivated. They love getting to see how the top teams in the country operate up close.

Aidan Brady, who looks after the referees’ fitness and training, puts me through a bit of a warm-up. He does a blood test before the game, and again at half-time and full-time, just to monitor blood glucose levels. You’d wear a GPS and a heart-rate monitor as well.

Most games you’d hit around 9.5km. You’d get the odd game where it could be nearly 12km. The higher up the levels you go, the less distance you seem to cover.

You’d have no bother hitting the bigger numbers in club games, where there’s less defensive structure and the game is like pinball.

Dublin emerge from the game with a degree of comfort that has become routine for Leinster finals. That makes for a relatively stress-free day for the officials…

August 5

AT half-time and full-time, Aidan asks me to rate how strenuous the game is out of 10. It’s a six in both halves.

It’s an enjoyable day, one of those games where you got an opportunity to take in the occasion. It wasn’t as frantic as some others be.

I’d be happy with all except a couple of calls. There was one where I’d booked a Kildare player but I’d got sandwiched between two players and lost my concentration for a split-second, and missed that there was a foul on him first.

There was a disallowed goal in injury-time. I’d been consistent on over-carries all game. I could have let that go and there would have been no big fuss but it was important that what I was blowing in the first minute, I was still blowing in the last minute.

At the very end, Kildare got a point and Ben had the white flag up before I gave the call to go to HawkEye. It looked tight to me but I was too quick on the trigger. I should have just let it go and HawkEye would have called it back if it was wrong.

On the whole, watching it back was largely what I’d seen on the day.

When I got up home, I went to the bar. One of the lads from the football team got married at the weekend and there were a few of them out. I’d three pints and went home and watched the replay of the game. We analyse our own games all the time.

David Gough is being widely praised for his performance in the Ulster final. We’d gone for breakfast last week. He’d be a good friend, and one of the top referees in the country.

The top-end referees are all at the stage of their careers now where they’re comfortable letting big games develop. Those guys will get away with allowing that little bit more flexibility.

I’d watch The Sunday Game sometimes but I didn’t last night. The brother kept an eye on it but there wasn’t a word about refereeing. I had a feeling coming off the pitch there was nothing too contentious.

I have a social media presence but I’m not good when it comes to texting or posting. I’ll lift the phone and talk. My day job is as a sales manager for a glazing and ventilation crowd William Cox in Dublin. Boys would say I’ve a degree in talking.

The only opinions that matter to me are the ones in the changing room and within the refereeing body. They’re the guys working with me and picking me for games.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re in refereeing or playing or a politician, everybody has an opinion and a platform to get that opinion out.

If you were to get annoyed by that, you wouldn’t sleep at night.

It’s been a season largely free of major refereeing controversies. Martin McNally passes through 2021 unscathed and although the potential bonus of a minor or U20 All-Ireland final doesn’t materialise, his aim of refereeing a provincial final has been met…

September 2

REFEREEING a Leinster final is a level of achievement. It’s a big game in the bank of experience.

There are three other provincial finals out there for me to aspire to do in future.

I’m ambitious and every referee on the panel is. I want to referee an All-Ireland final, but you have to chalk up the experience to get there.

The focus now turns to refereeing well in Monaghan and carrying that form into Ulster. My ambition is to do a first Ulster Senior Club final.

If you speak to Joe McQuillan or Pat McEnaney or Sean Hurson, they’ll tell you if you can referee senior Ulster Club, you can referee most anything.

I said to you at the start of the year that my aim was a provincial final. To achieve that is massive progress for me.

To be honest, it’s very satisfying.

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