‘When I blew the final whistle I gave the sliotar in play to Eoin Kelly but I hung on to one myself as well’

Michael Wadding refereed the 2007 All Ireland hurling final, but was too focused on the game to be aware of the 80,000 crowd.
‘When I blew the final whistle I gave the sliotar in play to Eoin Kelly but I hung on to one myself as well’

One man starts it, and one man ends it. Michael Wadding on a referee’s experience of All-Ireland final weekend, from start to finish

I refereed the All-Ireland minor final, in 1997, but didn’t get the senior game until 2010. Waterford, my county, surged in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and were in eight out of eleven Munster finals, so I didn’t get any of those, but I got the big one in 2007.

We went up the day before, to rule out any danger of the car breaking down. The GAA put us up in the Castleknock Hotel, and my umpires and I said we’d rendezvous there about half six on the Saturday night.

There was a wedding in the hotel, and the focus of the staff and guests was on that, rather than on the match, which might not have been the case if we were closer to the stadium.

I got up the next morning around half seven. I went for a run to get my head tuned in for the game. I’d recommend it for any referee before a big game, because you have time on your own, you can focus on the job and there’s nobody asking you how you’re going to get on.

We had breakfast around half nine and then we had a meeting, just to tune in to what the day was all about.

The minor-final referee and his umpires are booked in with the senior officials, so you all leave together, around half eleven, in a couple of people-carriers.

I’d have something to eat around that time, too. It’s a long day if you don’t have something around that time. When the GAA started playing games at 4pm, instead of 3.30pm, you could be flagging a bit by 5pm, if you’d only had a sandwich around noon, and, of course, that’s the specific time when the game is winding down, when you need to be at your sharpest. It’s funny, when you think of player welfare and the emphasis there is on that — and rightly so — when the same attention wasn’t paid to referees’ welfare, though that’s changed now, in fairness.

Heading to Croke Park at that time, half eleven, is good, insofar as you’re ahead of most of the traffic, but because you’re with the minor ref, you’ve got to be there in plenty of time for the first game, so you’re pretty early to Croke Park. The people-carriers are parked around the back of the Cusack Stand.

I’d watch the first half of the minor game before going in to change. You’re provided with all-new gear for the occasion, but I didn’t wear mine — I’d be more a man to wash the gear first, before wearing it. The last thing you’d need during an All-Ireland final is to have the feet slipping underneath you because you have brand-new socks, or the soles of your feet getting ripped or blistered by new boots.

So, I’d have worn gear that was new enough — I’d probably have only worn it once or twice — but not the brand-new stuff.

You get yourself ready in the referees’ dressing-room. Pat Doherty, of Croke Park, who’s in charge of referees, comes in to make sure everything’s okay, that the communications systems are all working properly, and to wish you the best. Then, you’re out on the field.

The crowd is probably a good 20,000, or more, bigger than what you’re used to from All-Ireland semi-finals or provincial finals, but I can honestly say that it didn’t affect me. I was focused completely on the job at hand and the noise, when we came out onto the field, and during the game, didn’t impact on me.

When I blow the whistle for half-time, I stop my two watches and start them again instantly, so I know we have 15 minutes before we start the second-half, though I also have one of the lads keeping an eye on the time, as well.

There’s no monitor in the referees’ changing room, so it’s not like you’re listening to pundits or trying to catch action replays. The first thing I did was to sit down, take a break, and take some fluid on board.

After a few minutes, we had a chat amongst ourselves about the game, whether there was anything we’d missed or if there was anything we had to focus on, and got ready for the second-half.

When the play resumed, I didn’t notice the time going particularly fast or slow, or the noise the crowd was making.

I don’t think a referee would really notice announcements, for instance, unless there was a particular lull in the action just before the announcement. I didn’t notice the ‘stewards and gardaí to end of match positions’ announcement, which usually comes with five minutes to go.

When I blew the final whistle, I gave the sliotar in play to the Tipperary captain, Eoin Kelly.

Obviously, over the course of the 70 minutes, there are a few balls used by the players, and I hung on to one myself, as well.

Afterwards, Pat (Doherty) came down to make sure everything was okay, and he brought us over to the Ard Comhairle for some finger food.

That’s a good move by the GAA, because it ensures that the experience doesn’t turn out to be an anti-climax for the referee: Christy Cooney was president of the GAA at the time, and he came along to us and thanked us for our work on the day, which meant a lot. I think Liam O’Neill is carrying that on, too, which is great.

By the time we left Croke Park, it must have been half eight or nine o’clock — we headed back over to the Cusack side and the people carriers brought us back out to Castleknock. We had a drink or two and hit the sack, and headed down to Waterford the following day.

My club, Roanmore, had a reception for me when I got back, which was fantastic, but afterwards I was tired: it really hit me. Even on the Sunday evening, the adrenaline is still pumping away, you’re still buzzing from being in front of 80,000 people, but by the following night I was pretty tired. It’s still a match, of course. Despite the hype, you have to fill out your match report and send it in — and your expenses form, with ‘All-Ireland senior hurling final’ filled in.

Would I do it again? The referees have a banquet in December and the All-Ireland final referees get their medals at that.

I remember being interviewed at it and being asked if I’d like to do it again. ‘I’m available now,’ I said.

— as told to Michael Moynihan

This article appeared in the Examiner's All-Ireland Hurling Final supplement on Saturday September 7.

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