Referees can shine or shrink in the September spotlight

John Coleman on the pressure facing All-Ireland final referee Fergal Horgan.

Referees can shine or shrink in the September spotlight

It’s one of the age-old questions, as perplexing as ‘what is truth?’ and ‘what is freedom?’ and ‘should we play a sweeper?’

The timeless classic, ‘who’d be a referee?’

The answer is just as elusive too, it must be more of a feeling than something tangible that we can all relate to.

On any given September Sunday, in excess of 80,000 pairs of needy, desperate eyes will be boring into you, judging you, questioning you and abusing you. It’s not just the marginal stuff either. Even the blatant and callous indiscretions will be fought over.

Your offence? Enforcing the rules of the game — or at least enforcing your interpretation of them. We’ll return to these interpretations later.

Of course the referee’s daunting responsibilities are made all the more difficult by the players’ willingness to abdicate any responsibility for themselves when it comes to all matters disciplinary. They will test you, talk to you, be the good cop and the bad cop, all because the occasion demands that they play as close to the edge as you permit them to.

Just like the other 30 souls that will be on the playing field with you, you will make mistakes.

It’s inevitable and human that you can’t and won’t see everything. However, unlike the players, there will be nobody there to defend you when you get it wrong.

There will be no past glories or achievements that will be recalled to try and excuse the mistakes you will make.

Only previous perceived transgressions and wrongings will be remembered. It’s confirmation bias at its finest.

Fergal Horgan is in an unenviable position. Between fair play, foul play, subsections and exceptions, he has well over 100 rules and bye-laws to remember and enforce on All-Ireland final day. And that’s just the rule book.

What about all the un-written and unofficial rules?

We all know them as well as Fergal does. He has to leave it flow, particularly early on. This means that he has to ignore a few rules — and they tend to be of a more physical nature as the blood is up. It’s easy to give the soft ones, like the jersey-pull, but the big hits can be problematic.

It results in situations like Jackie Tyrrell’s ‘challenge’ on Séamus Callanan in the opening minutes of the 2009 All-Ireland final.

“You’re not going to expect anybody to move out of the way today,” Michael Duignan told us in the aftermath. Indeed, you wouldn’t Michael. However, moving out of the way is one thing. A blatant, dangerous, shoulder charge into the chest is something else entirely. Anyway, let’s just play on, as Diarmuid Kirwan did back then.

Fergal Horgan can’t be fussy or overly officious either. This means he has to be careful of how many soft frees he gives. Too many and there’s no flow, too few and he’s losing control. As for over-carrying, and frees, and line-balls being taken from the right spot? Don’t worry about it. Too much.

Now, most importantly of all, don’t ruin the game. Do not ruin the All-Ireland final. I think this means don’t send anybody off, especially not in the first half. It lends itself to moments such as Tadhg Kennelly’s hit on Nicholas Murphy in the 2009 All-Ireland football final.

Once the last 20 minutes are reached, however, then you can issue the red, once it’s merited like with Benny Dunne in 2009 (what was it with that year?) and Cyril Donnellan in the 2012 replay.

If that isn’t enough, the referee must also think about the players. He must remember the work and sacrifices that they have made to get themselves to All-Ireland final day. The long winter of physical torture, the family occasions lost out on, the missed holidays. Cut them a bit of slack; don’t be too hard on them.

More than anything, Horgan will be implored to use his common sense. Once he does that, he’ll be fine.

Of course, he will not be afforded that very same common sense when his own performance is analysed. Forensically.

What constitutes success for a referee on any big day? The common consensus seems to edge towards anonymity. Go about your business quietly and efficiently and try not to be noticed, despite the incredible pressure and contradictions that you are subject to.

How Fergal Horgan succeeds in enforcing his interpretation of the rules, both written and unwritten, will define how his performance is appraised on Sunday.

It’s one of the few occasions in life where anonymity is seen as a success. Anonymity in a cauldron of 80,000.

Why would anybody bother?

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