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I saw an excellent piece of refereeing. Once.

Published 5 months ago 05th September 2022 by Ronan Quirke

It was a number of years ago at Green Lane, the spiritual home of Old Bridge Football Club. The
visiting team had a player yellow carded by the referee early in the game, and rightly so. One would
think that this might put him on his best behaviour for at least the remainder of the first half; not so.
A decision was given against him close to half time. It was a marginal decision, one that could have gone either way. The sort of decision that referees make dozens of times in any game. It went against the visiting team and their player, already on a yellow card, launched forth with a volley of abuse that had to heard to be believed. It had no place on a sporting field and he directed his bile at the referee. He used four letter words, including the really bad four letter word.

The referee would have been perfectly within his rights to issue a straight red card, which would have resulted in a long suspension for the player. Despite the verbal abuse suffered, he chose a more lenient course of action and issued a second yellow card and then a red. This would have the effect of the player getting a shorter suspension for two yellow cards rather than a straight red.

The manager of the visiting team was on the opposite side-line and could observe what was happening but couldn’t hear what had happened. Cue another volley of abuse directed at the referee, this time from the visiting manager who would now have to plan for more than half the game with a man down. Rather than restarting the game at that point, the referee did something that I have not seen before or since. He jogged over to the visiting team manager, running past the red carded player who was trudging off reluctantly and engaged with the manager. He recounted, graphically, what his player had said to him and then asked if the manager thought such abuse deserved a straight red or a second yellow. A straight red was the rather muffled response from the visiting manager. Tensions were taken down several notches and play resumed. The ire of the visiting manager was now solely focused on his own player for letting his team-mates down by getting stupidly sent off.

Did the referee make the correct decision when he awarded the free that drew such anger from the player? Who knows? Did it matter? Absolutely not. The game was not finely poised, nor was a goal scoring opportunity denied, nor was the ball in a dangerous part of the pitch for either team. The player’s reaction was unacceptable. Unacceptable anywhere, on the street, outside a pub or on a playing pitch. Irrespective of how crucial or otherwise the decision was. Suppose it was close to the end of a finely poised game and it was a clear error on the part of the referee. It doesn’t matter, no human should subject another to such verbal abuse.

Referees are human and they make mistakes. This is not the English Premiership with a multitude of cameras and camera angles and video assistant referees and action replays and offside lines drawn on the screen. No it was Green Lane, Old Bridge, Clonmel. A little perspective required surely.

That said, sport evokes passionate responses from us all. We shout encouragement and our passion can sometimes be directed at the match officials. Now I am sure that each of our readers have uttered at least one ‘Ah come on Ref’ during their spectator experience. We care, we want decisions to go our team’s way. We want fairness as long as our team come out of the fairness stakes slightly better than the opposition.
The story above is from a soccer pitch but I have seen worse at GAA pitches. Just imagine how many GAA matches will take place this week in Tipperary. Some will be high profile hurling matches that will attract large crowds, some will be juvenile games played in front of interested and committed parents, but few else. One common theme though, irrespective of the grade or age group, is the need of a referee in order for the game to proceed. And the pool of referees is dwindling in all codes, particularly soccer and GAA. Without referees, we have no games, it really is that stark. And as we have a bunch of referees reaching retirement age, or who have had enough, or for whom they cannot remember why they signed up to be a referee in the first place, we need to ask why do so few put themselves forward for the role.

Dr. Noel Brick is a lecturer in sports and exercise psychology at the Ulster University. He recently published research where he sent 1500 surveys to GAA referees around the country. ‘The Impact of Verbal and Physical Abuse on Distress, Mental Health and Intentions to Quit in Sports Officials’ is published online and it makes for depressing reading. He found that over 94% of the referees surveyed had suffered verbal abuse at some stage of their refereeing career. Before you digest that figure fully, it made me wonder if 6% of all referees are actually clinically deaf, I imagined the figure would certainly reach the 100% mark.
However, what is particularly noteworthy in the research is the fact that over 23% reported incidents of physical abuse as a result of their officiating. Think about that for a few minutes.

Referees get involved in officiating because they love the game. They want to give something back and they want the games they love to continue. They are all too aware that without their volunteerism the games that they love would cease to exist. They might get a few bob for their efforts and some expenses but I have never met a referee who did it for the money. Trust me, there are easier ways of making a few quid than refereeing. The vast majority are enthusiastic volunteers.

But if your preferred hobby saw a incidence of physical abuse in over a fifth of participants you might feel the need to rethink your hobby. Physical abuse in a recreational pursuit is absolutely ridiculous. The GAA and local soccer often make appeals for referees to come forward. But why would anyone? Why subject yourself to verbal abuse in 94% of cases and physical abuse in 23% of cases? How can we get these numbers down? How can we encourage more men and women to take up refereeing so that our games can continue? The responsibility lies not with Croke Park or within the FAI. It lies with us all. Not only must we adopt a zero tolerance on ourselves when it comes to verbal abuse, we must also adopt a zero tolerance approach when we see and hear others at it. Offenders need to be called out, confronted and basically told to shut up or be evicted from the ground. Clubs need to be fined when known partisans engage in such behaviour. Clubs need to adopt a zero tolerance approach and that starts with managers, mentors, maor foirne, substitutes etc.

Rugby seems to have a cleaner record than soccer or GAA when it comes to implementation of discipline on the field.
Referees tolerate zero backchat or verbal abuse.
It is ingrained from the day you turn up to under 6 training. I have wondered why this is. In rugby the referee applies the laws of the game. In soccer and GAA the referee enforces the rules of the game.
Laws versus rules? Rules are open to interpretation, laws are not.

Might the answer be in plain sight or am I just getting caught up in language. Territory and field position is such a crucial part of playing rugby that finding your team penalised ten or so yards for talking back to a referee is a punitive measure that ensures that such actions are minimised. Having a penalty overturned in rugby is seen as severe punishment. In soccer and GAA such punishments are not seen as being overly punitive and so they do not act as a sufficient deterrent. Until infringements on verbal abuse of referees by players and management have a penalty that is viewed as punitive and proscriptive then nothing will change. We will continue to haemorrhage referees and then bemoan when games are cancelled at the last minute due to the unavailability of, referees.

In 2009, I attended the All Ireland Hurling Final and when I walked down Jones’s Road at half five that afternoon I was spitting feathers. All of my ire was directed at the referee that day. I blamed him and him alone for our defeat to Kilkenny. I’d like to think, that ‘on mature reflection’ my behaviour was immature. When you watch the game back, the late penalty decision was certainly controversial, it could have been a 21 yard free rather than a penalty, or maybe not even a free at all. But a penalty was awarded and we cried bitter tears. Some of the on-line abuse directed at the referee that day was excessive, nay all of it was excessive because abuse is abuse, verbal, physical or both. I was left to grumble to anyone who could bear to listen about the injustice of it all. But in reality, the reason Tipperary lost that day had nothing to do with the referee. We lost that day because we butchered several goal chances, any of which would have put us clear. But passion does that to a supporter. We lose sight of rational facts and coherent discourse and cling to a conspiracy, it was the referee, that fateful decision. The injustice of it all.

So, from now on, we all need to be mindful of the diminishing number of referees that we have access to. We need to celebrate them, warts and all, and remember that they too are human. They too make mistakes. They rarely, if ever, decide the outcome of a match, however much we want to pin the blame on them.

The fact is that teams lose matches, not referees. We have a responsibility to them, as supporters and as players and as managers. Without them we have no games. And I for one will be making a conscious decision to keep my mouth shut from now on.

Because I wouldn’t swap places with the referee for anything. For they are braver than I, they stand up and take part and keep our games going.
They deserve more respect.

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