Ref justice is not a new phenomenon

Cavanman's Diary

New players may come, as the song says, and old players may go - but there are some constants in the general discourse of local football supporters. One is the poor state of club football – that has dominated conversation forever – and the other is the supposed dismal standard of referees.

Like everything else, there’s a more than a sprinkling of hyperbole in the mix but there is a grain of truth in there, too.

Looking for something in the archives of this newspaper last week, I came across an article by Eamonn Gaffney from August, 2005, headed ‘Domestic football in the doldrums’.

“The various domestic championship competitions finally got underway last weekend after a lengthy break due to the commitments of the Cavan senior and U21 teams in Ulster competitions,” Eamonn wrote.

“Early indications would suggest that the standards have fallen appreciably and that can be gauged, to some extent, by the small attendances at a number of games.

“While the emphasis on coaching has been held as a beacon for the success of Cavan football in the future, those who attended the championship games over the weekend must wonder at the poor standards not alone in the skills of the game but also the fitness levels.”

Much the same can be said for the fare on show in the last six weeks or so. The fitness levels of some players, even in senior ranks, are well below what one would expect and cast doubt on the constant chorus we hear about the ever-increasing levels of commitment at club level, the gym culture and so on – and it must, or at least should, also draw into question the wisdom of those club committees who shell out the sums said to be commanded by some (but not all) managers.

The games themselves have been very flat this year for the most part, too – but, again, there is nothing new there. As far back as 1934, just over a year after Cavan won the All-Ireland SFC title for the first time, it was noted on these pages: “With the poor standard of play in the senior league and championship this season and last, it was really surprising to find the county represented so strongly.”

It seems we are never happy – and certainly not with referees, that other constant staple of conversation mentioned above.

At the 1958 convention, county chairman TP O’Reilly commented in his address that the quality of refereeing “was a big improvement on previous years” – which doesn’t say much for the preceding championships...

Such observations were commonplace at conventions down the years, officials pointing out that the standard of refereeing had improved greatly, presumably under their watch, which seems counter-intuitive. Surely, if there was room for such improvement, the standard must have been at best mediocre to begin with?

Three years later, O’Reilly was moved to comment again, this time noting that “occasionally, players and spectators were unfair to the referees in their criticism of them and their conduct towards them”.

That has not changed either. A trend that has been noticeable at club championship matches of late is the abuse referees and linesmen have been enduring from the terraces. With some supporters, there just is no filter; match day seems to be their weekly chance to vent and some of the observations broadcast around the grounds are so biased and show such an ignorance of the rules as to be embarrassing.

It’s clear that the GAA’s ‘Give Respect, Get Respect’ campaign has been an abject failure. In fairness, it’s hard to change a deeply-engrained culture with a catchy slogan and some nifty graphics but there has been a reluctance on the part of the powers that be to address the great unspeakable, which is the first part of that phrase: Give respect.

Some referees do not. It is not the place of a referee to wag their finger and chastise players in a schoolmasterly manner, nor to play to the spectators like it’s an amateur dramatic production by sounding their whistle in repeated shrill bursts, the worse the foul, the more frantically the blowing.

Body language is key. The best referees are entirely neutral – they are there merely to ensure the safety of the players and to enforce the rules and they do so consistently. The worst get caught up in the whole fervour of the occasion, brandishing cards with a dramatic flourish, administering performatively stern tellings-off and so on. It’s antagonistic behaviour and should be called out.

The old line about the Queen of England comes to mind. It was said that she must believe every building smells like fresh paint; for some referees, every match must look dirty and cynical, played by teams who want nothing more only than to get away with breaking as many rules as possible. Because there are certain refs who only seem to officiate at such fixtures, with tempers regularly fraying. The common denominator at these tetchy games, which sometimes descend into melees, is often the identity of the man in the middle.

I’ve attended three or four matches most weeks this year and some of the refereeing has been disappointing. I’ve seen players getting taken out of it with no action resulting. I watched a player draw a kick at an opponent in front of the ref in one game; in another, a player threw the ball and deliberately hit an opponent in the back of the head. The officials ignored these incidents – yet free-kicks are awarded for minor transgressions at other times.

Is it hard to be a referee? Absolutely. In fact, it’s one of the hardest jobs in the game and definitely the most thankless. But that doesn’t mean refs should be immune from criticism, either.

There is a toxic culture around how some supporters, male and female – who are beyond the control of the ref and brave when protected by the herd - treat refs and linespeople and it should be addressed urgently, with rule changes if required.

Here is a suggestion: If an official hears vitriolic abuse directed at a referee and identifies the guilty party, action should be taken against that person within the association’s rules. Maybe they could be asked to leave the vicinity of the stand or terrace, even. That would be a courageous and unpopular move but something radical is needed to stamp out this appalling behaviour.

Yes, free speech is sacrosanct but a line has to be drawn somewhere too.

And by the same token, the GAA should publish the ratings by the referees’ assessors each month; were there more transparency and some degree of public accountability, as there is for players and managers, frustration at what is in some cases incompetence may be less likely to spill over. Some refs I have spoken to would welcome this, in fact.

It’s hard to recruit refs and no GAA official can be seen to utter even mild criticism of their performances for this reason. That’s a situation which doesn’t pertain in other aspects of the association and arguably fosters the ‘us and them’ mentality which is at the root of this problem.

Will it happen? Of course not! We’ll wring our hands and tut about the louts on the terraces - and that’s what some are - and ignore the inconvenient truths. And in decades to come, the conversations will still revolve around the same old chestnuts.