The Effin Ref and All That

West Tipperary S.H. Final Program, Cashel, Oct. 7, 2001


On the day of the All-Ireland football final, as we made our way towards the Cusack Stand we came across a pub I hadn’t seen before. What caught my fancy was the name over the entrance, The Blind Referee! It’s situated on Ballybough Road and it must have been newly christened or I would have noted it before.

It immediately sparked off thoughts on the lot of the referee and the kind of language he has to put up with on the playing pitch. ‘You’re blind, ref,’ is a mild form. ‘You’re effin blind.’ is a stronger form. Mostly the language used is much more vicious and insinuating. He is variously an illegitimate person, an effing illegitimate person, a part of the female anatomy, an effing part of the female anatomy, a masturbater, - Paddy Russell, and he was only a linesman on the day, was called one by a notable Meath footballer in last year’s football league final - an effin masturbater.

It’s amazing how a crowd of supporters can focus in on a referee and get high on abuse. In such a situation normally sane people become totally unreasonable. The level of invective rises to a crescendo and if people were to hear themselves the following day the’d be thoroughly ashamed.

John Moloney remembers being called a ‘black curlew’ on one occasion. One would love to know the significance of the term. ‘You long effer,’ was a regular term of abuse. But the abuse occasionally spilled over to physical contact. He recalls getting his hair pulled after a Connacht under-21 football final. There was some problem about the score. On another occasion he was clattered with an umbrella. He even recalls a young lad, presumably from the losing side, pinching him in the leg as he left the field after an underage game! And we all recall the poor referee from Wicklow who was locked into the boot of his car in County Wicklow!

The referee is the focus of attention in a game and the more important the game the greater his position. He is a most important individual. Not only does he implement the rules, he punishes any infringement of them. His word is sacred. The referee’s report is the equivalent of a legal document in that it is unalterable and the last word. When I was chairman of the West board, I stood by these reports rigidly. The board had to back its referees but following the report made life easy for a chairman: if he said it was rough play it was automatically two weeks. If it was worse the penalty was greater and the Treorai Oifigiuil spells out the penalty for every offence. In fact the chairman has little or no leeway. That is why I believe the rule of giving the player the right to appear before the board to defend himself is outdated: regardless of what he says it does not influence the decision of the board. So, why invite the offender along on a vain mission?

The only way matters can be changed is when the referee decides to do so. One recalls the case of the replay of the drawn All-Ireland semi-final between Offaly and Clare in 1998. Offaly objected on the grounds that short time was played and got a refixture only because the referee admitted he had called the game up short. If he had stuck to his guns and said full time was played, nobody could have done a damn thing about it.

The case of Brian O’Meara this year emphasises the point. Regardless of all the bluff and bluster, the representations and appeals, the newspaper columns of support and the backing of players for his reinstatement, the simple fact was that the referee’s report was sacrosanct and until he chose to change it, there was nothing the Association could do about it. In the event Pat Horan did not relent and Brian O’Meara missed the All-Ireland.

While on this particular match, I want to refer to a column by Liam Griffin in the Sunday Tribune around this time. In the course of it he referred to the choice of referees for the All-Ireland quarter- and semi-finals in which Wexford were involved. The two referees, Michael Wadding of Waterford and Pat O’Connor of Limerick, according to Griffin could, by virtue of being Munster men, be biased in favour of Limerick and Tipperary. Ironically Wexford got a Leinster referee, Pat Horan of Offaly, for the replay and we all know what happened! I’m disinclined to believe that referees at this level, or at any level for that matter, follow a partisan line on the field of play.

But there’s also a lighter side to refereeing. A larger-than-life character, Philly Ryan of Borrisileigh, used to referee in the fifties of the last century. There are many stories told about him, many of them more than likely apocryphal. He was a serious referee, who claimed never to have read the rule book! For him the job was a matter of using your head and commonsense. One of the many stories told is alleged to have happened in a game between Knockshegowna and Kildangan. A Knochshie player complained to Philly about the attentions of his opponent. Philly told him he had something in his hand to defend himself. Later in the game the player clobbered his opponent and was sent off. ‘But,’ he protested to Philly as he left the field, ‘you told me to defend myself.’ ‘Yes! replied Philly, ‘I’m sending you off for your own protection! You didn’t hit him hard enough. He’s going to get up and kill you!’

John Moloney was in charge of the Munster football final between Cork and Kerry in the newly reconstructed Pairc Ui Chaoimh in 1976. The game ended in a draw and in the replay, at the same venue, Cork, leading by seven points, looked likely winners with twelve minutes to go. Then Kerry got a goal Cork claimed they didn’t deserve and Cork were disallowed one at the other end. The match ended in a draw and Kerry won in extra time. The Cork supporters blamed the referee for the defeat. It was the time Bishop Casey had been promoted to Galway and the Kerry see hadn’t yet been filled. John Moloney got a series of letters and cards from irate Cork supporters telling him he should become the next Bishop of Kerry! He still treasures some of the communications.

I suppose one of the great stories of refereeing is quite recent. It happened during a West championship game. The referee, who is well-known in the division, got a call on his mobile phone during the game. He duly stopped the game, as car drivers are recommended to do on the road, and took his call. When he was finished he re-started the game and took a blind bit of notice of nobody! I suppose you could call it keeping up with the times and an indication that referees are capable of adapting to the latest technology!

Poets or songwriters have hardly touched on the subject of refereeing but I recall the words of a song that did include a reference. Billy Cotton and his band used to play it back in the fifties of the last century:

Oh! oh, what a referee!

And his little wooden whistle

Wouldn’t whistle