My father wanted me to ref final, says Sexton

THERE was a poignant moment before Sunday’s Munster club SHC final in Páirc Uí Chaoimh, as referee John Sexton blew his whistle to end an impeccably observed minute’s silence to respect the memory of another John Sexton, his father, who had been buried the previous day.

At game’s end, however, as John was coming off the field he was greeted with boos for a few disgruntled Thurles Sars supporters unhappy with a few of his decisions in their defeat to De La Salle, Waterford.

On a weekend in which the Scottish FA were forced to look elsewhere for their match officials due to a strike by their own upset by the flak and disrespect they face, it was a timely if unwelcome reminder that, and even in circumstances such as prevailed on Sunday last, for our own men in the middle, life can be very difficult also.

And they are our own. John Sexton isn’t just a referee, he is also heavily involved at juvenile level with his adopted club, Ballyhea, the parish in which he has lived for over a dozen years now. His late father, Johnny, had imbued that passion in his son and was involved all his life with his native Bruree in Limerick. It was because of that passion, that John refereed that game on Sunday.

“I had gone to see him last Sunday evening and he said nothing to me about the match. But he did say something to my brothers. An hour after he passed away I was talking to the lads and told them I was going to pull out of it (the Munster final). But two of my younger brothers said no, he had wanted me to referee it. For a while I was wondering – will I or won’t I? Finally I decided I would.”

It wasn’t just John who had to make a difficult decision either; Bruree had won a rare football championship in Limerick and were due to meet Waterford champions Tallow in the Munster JFC club semi-final. Several of John’s younger brothers are members of the Bruree team.

“I told the boys, to go and play they match, and they did. They won – sure he had the best results ever over the weekend. The boys won their match, I refereed the Munster club final, and Manchester United — he was a fierce Man United fan — won 7-1 on Saturday! He was only 72, but he was only ill for the last six weeks so we didn’t get a whole lot of time with him. But, life goes on, and he would have wanted it to go on. He was as soft as I am myself, he’d put on a brave face no matter what but he was as soft as putty, and yet in his own way he was tough – you wouldn’t get anyone rearing a family of 12 nowadays!

“He often had to work double-shifts to keep us going. He was a perfect gentleman and an unreal GAA man. He was coach of the underage for years but his dream was a senior title and when Bruree won one in 2006, he was very emotional afterwards.”

That’s the man behind the whistle, the man who was abused by what was, admittedly, a small section of a small crowd on Sunday last, but the kind of section who make themselves heard over and above the rest on Sunday after Sunday on the playing fields of the world.

We should have no tolerance for it, even if the referees themselves – as John does – dismiss it.

“The way I look at it, every decision I made was justified. In fairness, four of the five Thurles Sars players I booked in the first-half put their hand on my shoulder and said ‘Sorry about that’, they admitted their mistake.

“The fella up the wing, I think it was the number two (David Maher), I had ticked him earlier but he said to me, ‘Look, I had no other choice, I had to foul him’, which I thought was very fair; I said ‘I know that, but thank you for admitting it anyway’.

“But look, in any major game you’re going to get that, and if I let things like that affect me I’d give up. It only makes me stronger.

“You have to get over that, to be a referee you have to get over that. I said to several people, if you come out of a big game like that without upsetting anyone, didn’t get any bit of abuse, sure it probably wasn’t a game at all.

“There was only one man guiding me and that was my Dad. I looked to heaven before the throw-in and I prayed – ‘Dad, look after me today’. I think he did.”

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