GAA Football

Down's Grainne Sands aiming to encourage more female referees

Ladies football referee Grainne Sands from Glenn, county Down.
Picture by Mal McCann

I was at a match last season in Armagh, a club final. I was only doing the line, but still, you're an official. The sun was going down, it was beautiful. The Irish national flag was flying, the national anthem was being sung, the two teams lined out. It was just a sense of pride.

You're able to represent yourself, your club, your county. Wherever you go people ask 'What club are you from?' You're proud to tell people.

Plus, I'm not a feminist or anything, but I love that I'm a female and I can do this.


It's not all sunshine and singing, of course, but Grainne Sands from Glenn, county Down is a passionate advocate of women taking up the whistle.

She's set up a Twitter account under the name 'Grainne Gaelic Referee', with the handle @RefereeLGFA, and hash-tags #wherearethefemalereferees #donotbeafraidtoreferee – all with the aim of promoting and encouraging female referees.

There's no ego in that account, as she explains: "Two years ago I got onto the LGFA's 'Learn to Lead' programme. It was such a great introduction, especially for me as a new referee, learning how to cope with the abuse, with social media – and how to influence people to become referees as well.

"You had to create a social media presence. I didn't really want to have one, there was nothing going on in my life," she laughs. "But I took advantage of it, dove head first into it, and I just absolutely love it."

Secretary of the Glenn club near Newry, she knows she should have been a player for much more of her life.

Dad Micheal played for Down in the 70s, involved in both Gaelic football and handball

She's a granddaughter of the legendary Nan Sands, who "established the football playing fields in Saval. She had 10 daughters and a lot of them played camogie, so it's in the blood.

"I just didn't realise I was going to be into GAA until a later stage of my life and I'm absolutely furious that I let it go when I was 14."

Now in her 40s, a few years back, "I moved home after 10 years living in the south and I wanted to get involved in my club, because it's such a great community and a way to connect.

"I joined the G4MO (Gaelic for Mothers & Others) team, loved playing, but I'm too old to play in a senior team, although I've got the heart of a 17-year-old!

"Then I got into coaching the girls' team, went to coaching sessions arranged by Down and Ulster.

"I was asked to do a linespersons' course. I had no inclination or desire to do it whatsoever – but I went and I loved it. But I thought, 'I don't want to be standing on the line, I want to be in the middle!'

"I left the coaching because my love of being on the line and starting to be a referee took over and I had no time for coaching."

Philip O'Hare, a legend in Down ladies football, has mentored her refereeing, with their friendship going way back: "He was my coach when I was under-14. I hated running the length of myself. Philip would tell you. I hated it when I was younger.

"I don't know why I love [the GAA] so much now. It's a compete turnaround. I'd do it full-time, all day every day, if I could.

"He took me to meetings, introduced me to everybody, and I did the 'Grab Your Whistle' course."

Her dedication continues every day: "I have the rules printed up where I sit to put my make-up on in the morning. You have to keep refreshed. I have them in my bathroom where I sit in the morning for about 10 minutes. I try to learn a rule every day.

"If you don't know them, what are you doing in the middle of the pitch? Plus, you need to be confident to implement them – and also if the coaches start shouting at you, you can quote the rule and they know you know what you're at."

Sands has the right personality for refereeing, although she admits she also adopts an attitude:

"I'm quite a positive person, very happy, love life, just live it. But when I get on the pitch I turn into that [Italian soccer ref] Pierluigi Collina. You have the face, the stare.

"You have to be serious when you walk across that line. I can laugh and have the craic with everybody but once I'm on the pitch I'm a referee, first and foremost."

Her first match as a ref was unforgettable – because forgot to do something.

"I'd done some of my own club's underage matches, nothing really important. Then I was assigned to a game – and I had to give a red card.

"I was actually panicking so much I didn't take the card out of my pocket! The coaches were coming at me, the umpires, one from each team. The girl clearly punched, I could hear it, she knew fine rightly it was a red card.

"It's very detailed what you have to do, keeping a record of all the ticks and so on. There's a lot of work that goes on in the middle of the pitch that people don't understand. They think you're just running around watching for fouls. If you blink, you miss something.

"That first match I was a wee bit overwhelmed but I got through it – and the wee girl got the red card which she definitely deserved," she chortles.

She's one of the few female refs around, but she's hoping to inspire more: "In Down, there's only a handful, about three I can think of, with a couple in training.

"Some of the girls on the latest 'Learn to Lead' programme, I'd have met through social media. I hope the reason they're doing it is me putting myself out there.

"It's a hard balance, social media as a referee, because there's so much you're not allowed to say. You're restricted in speaking about matches and players, of course.

"I remain neutral. I don't know the names of the girls, intentionally try not to identify them because then they become familiar.

"It's hard to promote because you're exposing yourself to negativity… You're caught between a rock and a hard place – trying to promote it but also trying to protect yourself."

For all her positivity about officiating, she readily acknowledges the downside too:

"People think I'm crazy to want to be a referee. You have to be a certain type of person to referee. I'd be fairly resilient, and that's number one.

"You can't listen to any abuse or take it personally; if you did you'd crumble, fall at the first hurdle, and you wouldn't do it again. People can tell me anything and I don't care, it just rolls off my back.

"It's unreal the amount of abuse. It comes from everybody – the players, the parents on the sideline, supporters, coaches. It's ridiculous.

"But it's passion. If I go to matches I be shouting and roaring, but I don't specifically target referees. Many people don't know how to express their passion without giving negative feedback to the referee.

"There's abuse nearly every match, but you have to be resilient, positive, and leave it on the pitch. If you start thinking about it you'll not sleep at night.

"There were one or two times in my early days of refereeing that I couldn't sleep. You have to train yourself to not take it personally."

Asked if she'd been thinking about mistakes she'd made, she fires back: "No, referees never get anything wrong! It was just going over in your head about what was said.

"You have to say that you made the decision at the time which you thought was right. If you can't see something, you can't make a judgment on it. You only have one set of eyes, there are far more on the sidelines watching.

"You have to ignore everybody else. If you start listening to everybody else, end of story – you can't be a referee. You have to make the decisions yourself, and you're trained to do that."

She knows that attracting referees won't be easy, because of what literally surrounds the matches: "I was at some blitzes, watching young girls taking the whistle for the first time and they were actually getting abuse and were in tears, it's disgraceful.

"I wish we had the respect rugby referees have, but I see that as a long way down the line. I don't think that's going to change any time soon. It's inbred in people and it's going to be really difficult to get rid of that."

However, typically, she ends by sounding a positive note: "People getting over the initial nerves of taking the whistle and being in charge of a match, it's a big responsibility, it's daunting to young girls. But practice makes perfect and they'll gain confidence."

Enjoy reading the Irish News?

Subscribe now to get full access

GAA Football