We all need love. Even referees.
used to convince myself that I had a method for treating refs, a way to influence the existential threat they posed to my completion of a match.
Nothing Machiavellian. Just what everyone does; shake their hand, look them in the eye and make sure to say their name.
Always say their name.
I read somewhere that mentioning someone’s name in a conversation is a personality trait that indicates the power of acknowledgement. By acknowledging other people with their name, you’re telling them how important they are, which helps to strengthen the bond.
It also feeds their ego. You’re meeting them on a level.
Referees are just like the rest of us. If you’re involved in big inter-county matches, chances are you have an ego.
In the end, I gave up.
I realised fairly quickly that the same human tendencies that affect my performance as a player would influence theirs as a ref.
They are human, therefore they have natural biases. Not for one team over another. But in the sense that they’re expecting certain things to happen in a game and when they get so much as a whiff, they’re inclined to confirm that bias.
Even in the biggest games (maybe especially in the biggest games) these are clubmates or colleagues or even relations of the referee. They’ve all travelled together. They’ve eaten together. They’ve discussed the match beforehand.
In essence, they’ve decided what’s going to happen before it happens.
So when I, Philly McMahon, and the man I’m marking grab each other at the same time before we run towards a ball coming in, how will the umpires interpret that situation?
Which man in a white jacket is going to signal to the ref and tell him, ‘actually, it was the Gooch that was pulling Philly’?
I’m not saying I didn’t do the majority of fouling in that situation. But my point is, there’s no such thing as a referee with a blank canvas. So it becomes self-fulfilling. If you’re going to do the time, you may as well commit the crime.
Subconsciously at least, these decisions are pre-empted.
When they all had breakfast that morning, or in the last team-talk in the dressing room, and the ref told his umpires to keep an eye on what’s going on in the full-back line, what message is he really giving them?
Remember the All-Ireland semi-final in 2016?
Aidan O’Mahony cleaned my clock early on and I remember thinking, ‘I’d love to get away with that sort of hit’.
Last Sunday, Ian Maguire was sent off for what I can only imagine was the accumulation of personal fouls.
At least two of these were questionable offences to begin with. But if we’re to go by the rulebook – and apparently, that is a referee’s job – it was a correct decision.
This is the crux of the refereeing problem in the GAA. The grey area.
That 2016 game is rated among the best of the last 20 years. I often wondered why, but watching it back, it’s obvious. There was a rhythm to it. A back and forth. It’s compelling.
The game – and I quote – “flowed”. And the referees we all admire are the ones who allow it flow. Or who facilitate that flow.
But what does that mean?
It means ignoring certain instances of rules being broken. It means allowing breaches that are on the softer end of the scale.
Technically, it means doing a bad job.
Meanwhile, the referees we dislike are the ones we consider ‘too fussy’.
Again, what does this mean? It means a literal implementation of the rules – i.e. doing their job correctly.
But we don’t like that.
We’re asking too much here. We’re demanding that refs acknowledge the preferences of the masses, and officiate accordingly.
So we either accept this grey area, with the pressure it puts on referees and the anger it causes everyone, or change the rules.
Or maybe we help the referees.
At inter-county matches, we have a ref, four umpires, two linesmen, and an extra sideline official. There’s also a referee’s assessor sitting somewhere, usually in a press box.
Is it that much of a leap to bring someone along with a live feed of the game, a person who can give real-time guidance on major decisions?
In Ennis last Sunday, Emmet McMahon was done for a double hop that clearly wasn’t one. The ref was the only person in Clare who saw the second hop.
It’s a mistake, it happens. Is there not some way someone can tell him that’s an error and to give a hop ball instead?
Most games are streamed now. Cameras are already there. If we can avoid, or at least correct, errors, why not do that?
Managers have teams of analysts helping them make informed decisions. Referees could do with a bit of that.
The theory that ex-players should get into refereeing is a nice idea, but it’s never going to happen. If it’s not your thing, it’s not your thing.
Given the choice between getting into coaching and refereeing, 99.9pc of players are taking the former. There isn’t a sport in the world where the ranks of refs or umpires are stacked with former players anyway.
On some level, we’re going to just have to accept that some referees are better than others. Some are stricter. Some have an intuition. Some let it flow. Some are arrogant.
But despite what you think, they don’t have it in for your county. And they didn’t get out of bed early and drive across the country just to ruin your Sunday.