A few years ago the good people in Croke Park got so incensed about one of these columns that they sent a rather spicy letter of rebuke to my newspaper.
The article which provoked my public upbraiding had outlined my opinion of referees.
In short, I maintained that most of them were motivated by either money or power, and that a great deal of them were appallingly poor. I stand by every word. Given my previous comments, the following revelation might come as a great shock to the powers that be, and an even greater one to the men in black.
As joint manager of a senior football team for three years, I proposed and implemented a strict policy of total respect for match officials.
Any player who was yellow-carded for slabbering, or who got the ball brought forward for backchat, was immediately substituted. Everyone in the backroom team was encouraged to toe the same line.
The rationale for the directive was simple. After many years, cruel experience had taught me that complaining and shouting at referees is not just a waste of time, a waste of energy, which leads to a loss of focus and discipline.
When defining the word discipline, our players were told it also included the referee.
In the same way that sometimes they would have to take the odd smack in the mouth or not react to a provocative comment, they would also have to accept bad decisions are part of the game.
I wish I could declare that I had always adopted this attitude to referees.
Sadly, that is not the case. It took me a long time to see the light.
But I don’t hold myself entirely responsible for the many years which I spent quite literally shouting in the wilderness.
Like any young fella, I was only copying what everyone else did. Fellow players, multiple managers, and supporters all engaged in the nation’s favourite pastime of blaming the man with the whistle.
My behaviour might have changed sooner if I had shared the same experience as a friend’s son, who recently started playing rugby. The young lad is not unlike myself. Let’s just he’s say opinionated. At his first rugby training session, he was sent off three times for airing his views to the team coach.
The move to rugby was a massive culture shock to him, because, while he plays football and hurling, he was never reprimanded for indulging in the same behaviour by the coaches at his local GAA club.
Rugby, as we know, is different.
In terms of the way rugby referees are treated like Zeus, the oval-ball game is repeatedly cited as the model which the GAA should attempt to copy.
Evidently, this inculcation of respect for rugby referees starts at a very young age.
In rugby, underage coaches teach children to obey referees. They start that process by leading by example.
Meanwhile, in the GAA, when it comes to shouting abuse at officials, underage coaches are often the worst offenders.
From clubs to schools to counties, it’s par for the course to hear managers heckling referees throughout the game.
Given the way we treat match officials, it’s easy to understand why the standard of refereeing is so deplorable.
But the GAA faces a Catch-22 situation, which is this: the calibre of referees will not start to improve until the game shows them more respect, but the game will not show them more respect until the calibre of referees starts to improve.
It’s a conundrum that has thus far proved impossible to solve.
But like all things in the GAA, the solution could lie in convincing managers that their players have a much greater chance of success by shutting their mouths and getting on with the game.
Crossmaglen provided a classic example of the benefits of stoic silence during Saturday’s All-Ireland club final.
In the first half, Garrycastle should have got a man sent off. In the second half, Jamie Clarke’s jersey was ripped off his shoulder as he bore down on goal. No free kick was awarded.
When a Garrycastle defender touched the ball on the ground, no penalty was awarded.
And when the referee could have played the advantage and allowed Crossmaglen to score a goal, he chose instead to award a 13-yard free-kick.
Now, consider how Crossmaglen players conducted themselves throughout the match. Despite what was at stake, they never squabbled with the referee. Instead, they stuck rigidly to their task and concentrated on the next ball. Always the next ball.
As they chase their sixth All-Ireland in 15 years, Crossmaglen are the benchmark for every other club in the country. Football skills and fitness play a huge part in the Crossmaglen story.
But if clubs really want to mimic the Cross blueprint, then they can’t afford to ignore the way their players and management treat referees.
Replicating rugby’s respect for the ref isn’t just the path to a better game, it could also provide the route to victory.
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