'I built up respect so that even when I made a mistake I’d get away with it'

The messages have been plentiful as they have been humbling. Heart-warming texts from Derek McGrath, Anthony Daly, and Nicky English. 

'I built up respect so that even when I made a mistake I’d get away with it'

The likes of Ned Quinn and Paul Kinsella have been in touch from Kilkenny too as well as Eddie Keher in the form of a letter.

Brian Gavin now knows he was well got but the deluge of well-wishes since announcing his retirement from inter-county hurling earlier this month has humbled him.

“You probably think at the time you wouldn’t be as respected as much. It’s very seldon we get any feckin’ praise!”

Four All-Ireland final appointments and four Munster finals are the highlights in a career that many believe he is prematurely ending at the age of 40, 10 years shy of the inter-county cut-off point.

But Gavin maintains the timing is right.

“Better to go out now before I make a mistake I’m remembered for!”

The biggest factor was life outside of refereeing. There’s his day job with Arramount Furniture in Tullamore coupled with his role as Clara chairman. And there’s also his burgeoning GAA commentary work with Midlands Radio.

But if the truth be told refereeing at the highest level had become a bit of a trudge.

One championship appointment last year — the Kilkenny v Limerick qualifier — and two league games — Cork v Tipperary and Laois v Limerick — was the total of his appointments.

For the effort put in, it wasn’t worth it.

With a six-foot plus frame, Gavin struggled with early season fitness tests — the word is many found the most recent exam last week difficult — but then he would question the timing of it coming soon after Christmas and the nature of it — a 20-metre bleep test, which he says has increased by 16 runs in recent times.

“There’s nothing easy about it. Then the amount of flu and sickness that is around this time of year, I would not have been able to do it anymore than the five or six lads who couldn’t do it last week.

“I’d be thinking early March would be early enough for the first test but that’s only my opinion. The bleep test is a very difficult test, turning every 20m. My hips would’ve been killing me from turning so often. Croke Park know it’s not a test I would hugely be in favour of but that’s what DCU recommend and that’s what the GAA feel is the best.”

Gavin also believes the GAA’s method of appointing inter-county referees for championship games led to disenchantment among some of the panel. “The last few years, we had a panel of 14 referees and there were only 23, 24 championship games.

So doing the maths, some lads were only going to get one game. The lad who got the final was going to get four so there was a problem straight away because here you were doing the training, going to the seminars, going to meetings and by the end of it getting little.

“It led to a bit of unrest in the room because lads were jockeying for a game and the championship is what it’s all about.

“It was awkward the last five or six years but this season with the extra games should give everybody a fair chance.

“James McGrath only had one last year too and it’s a huge effort for only one championship match. I was late with the fitness test. A few of us found it hard to get over the line in that sense.”

Another element he won’t miss is going solo to matches when on linesman duties.

“I remember going to Cork last year for Cork and Clare in the league. I left at 2.15pm and was home at 12.15am. It was a cold February night and you’re on your own. At least when you’re reffing, you have the umpires and you can have the craic.

“In saying that, when you ref some of the biggest matches you don’t care how long you are away, especially if things go okay.”

He fears partisan crowds which will be part and parcel of the new championship format could cause issues for inter-county referees this summer.

“It’s going to be very difficult for referees this year because of the home and away element in the provincial championships and there will be hostile enough atmospheres in grounds.

The referees will be under a lot of pressure whereas before there would have been more neutral venues. It’s not the same in the league; the championship will be a whole different ball game.”

The only regret from his career was missing an important seminar in Athlone in 2007 days after he had taken charge of the drawn All-Ireland quarter-final between Cork and Waterford. His stock was rising at the time but his absence was noted and he paid the price.

“In ’08, I was being given a couple of league games but not as many as I thought I might have. I rang (then national referees co-ordinator) Pierce Freaney at the time and asked if I was getting any championship games and he said: ‘No’.

“You could nearly have crashed the car on me. Here I was gone from reffing All-Ireland quarter-finals and semi-finals to no game. To go back and tell your family that and my umpires was hard but it taught me a lesson and I knuckled down after that. I made the breakthrough eventually but it held me back two or three years.”

He departs now regarded as arguably the players’ favourite.

“You’d like to be courteous to the players but you have to mindful not to be too much because they’re not giving you a whole lot of respect. I was fortunate because I had a great relationship with them. I never had many of them getting on to me about things.

“I built up a name for myself and built up respect so that even when I made a mistake I’d get away with it because they knew I wouldn’t be out to do anyone. You have to try and get yourself a good name.”

Gavin’s four ways to aid referees

Cut them some slack

“A big thing now — and we saw it with the Austin Gleeson incident last year — is the number of camera angles. I wouldn’t have believed there was a camera angle that could show that incident so clearly. If a linesman or an umpire doesn’t pick something up in Croke Park or Thurles you can be sure a camera will. That adds a lot of pressure because you’d go in at half-time and an umpire or a linesman might just check the phone and someone would have texted ‘you missed such a thing’ and you’d be wondering what they were on about. Things are being scrutinised so much now because in most of the big games there is only a puck of a ball in it.”

Have two of them

“You have to be able to read the game. You can hardly afford to go in past the 20m line because if you can’t see anything from 20m you shouldn’t be refereeing, number one, but number two you don’t want to be around the 13m line and the next thing the ball is gone and you’re so far away from it. I’d say down the line you might have to consider two referees in hurling. A goalkeeper can now puck a ball nearly down on the 20m line and a corner-back can puck it back another 80 or 90 yards so it’s a lot of ground to cover in a couple of seconds.

“It’s not about following the ball but anticipating where it’s going to go. It saved me in a lot of games that I could read the play.”

And a TV match official too

“It’s probably the only thing we’re missing. In an All-Ireland final or semi-final, for the sake of 30 seconds or a minute, it’s worth getting the decision right. It would be another tool in the box.

“With HawkEye, we were wondering what it would be like but apart from the one occasion, it’s been perfect. I’m sure if Martin Sludden had the chance to go back to 2010 he would have loved to go to a video referee to disallow Joe Sheridan’s goal.

“For massive matches in the likes of Thurles and Páirc Ui Chaoimh, I’m sure it could be used.”

And redefine a sending off rule

“We probably need to give more definition to striking with the hurl. You can receive the same punishment for tipping lads on the head and being reckless with no due care as you can for sticking a hurl out and striking a lad on the leg.

“We need to look at whether there is intent and how severe the strike is. Conor Gleeson missed a game last year. It’s black and white in the rulebook but to find a better definition would improve things.”

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