This month four years ago, the GAA launched their referee development plan.
A three-year strategy up to 2021, the vision for officiating in the organisation was “to recruit, develop and inspire referees to reach their full potential and officiate at the highest level, and control our games, uniformly and consistently, in accordance with the playing rules.”
Needless to say, many of the objectives were foiled by the pandemic. Nevertheless, the enthusiasm for attaining the goals since hasn’t returned. One of the actions was to consider the need for additional full-time personnel involved in refereeing at national and/or provincial level. If it was weighed up, it appears to have been rejected despite the obvious and urgent need for such supports, particularly in light of recent events.
Another idea was the possibility of introducing a general welfare programme for referees. That too doesn’t appear to be advanced even if the GAA’s new strategic plan released earlier this year states the association will analyse the requirement for additional resources to support the 2018 referee development strategy.
Referees must be tired of wondering exactly how high their stock is among the GAA’s authorities. Credit to Croke Park, they were quick in reaching out and offering assistance to attacked Wexford referee Michael Lannigan following his ordeal last Sunday. However, similar to the aftermath of Kevin Naughton’s incident in Roscommon, the GAA leadership have been silent.
Earlier this week, director general Tom Ryan was available for comment on a recent Government funding package following the Budget. However, no senior official spoke about a third alleged assault on a referee in the space of six weeks.
Refereeing was such a pressing matter for Ryan in his annual report in February that he mentioned it 24 times. “Without the referee, there is no match,” he wrote. And yet the amount of money spent on referees development at national level is small. In the 11-month financial period up to September last year, it was €76,474. The 12 months before that, it was €138,075.
In the pre-pandemic years of 2018 and ‘19, the annual figures hovered around the €230,000 mark. Spread those numbers over 32 counties and the figures look decidedly slim, especially held up against the IRFU who spent €549,882 on referee support costs in their 2018/’19 financial year.
Four-time All-Ireland SHC final referee and Irish Examiner columnist Brian Gavin clearly identifies a lack of investment relating to the drop of standards and referee shortages. “I wouldn’t condone any referee being abused and most certainly the punishments for assaulting a referee need to increase from 96 weeks but the quality of refereeing from U13 up needs to improve.
“We only do attend to refereeing on an ad hoc basis and it’s a box-ticking exercise. We are so far behind in promoting refereeing and getting the standards up. People can do a course that takes two or three nights to become a referee, they’re put out into some game and it’s sink or swim. Four out of 10 might survive but that’s not good enough.
“It also beggars belief that we have never created any education programme about the rules of the game for players and supporters. How do we improve refereeing, how do we entice more people to become referees? Making people understand what they are doing would be a start.
“How many mentors, players and supporters know the rules and know why a referee is making a decision? It’s up to Croke Park and the provincial councils to educate them on these things.”
It was TG4 who did just that by putting a live microphone on referee John O’Halloran for August’s Kerry senior hurling final. However, plans to repeat it a week later for the Wexford decider were shot down by Croke Park pending further discussion and education. Yet it is a failure to communicate or, to be more precise, a failure to be allowed to communicate that has partly contributed to the breakdown in the relationship between referees and others.
Incidentally, that Bruree man O’Halloran was brought to Tralee to referee the game wasn’t the greatest reflection on homegrown hurling match officials in Kerry either. But then the practice of recruiting Limerick men to officiate finals goes back a number of years, another Bruree man Mike Sexton taking charge of the 2019 and ‘21 final and Donnacha O’Callaghan in 2020.
By a whisker, Wexford avoided a strike this past week after implementing and proposing a suite of measures that convinced referees not to down their whistles. The proposals were of course reactionary and in keeping with Gavin’s belief that officiating only becomes a concern when it is absolutely necessary.
“Where’s the real abuse?” asks another prominent refereeing official. “What some managers and players are doing to referees – sure there is nothing new there – or the lack of support for referees from the authorities in general? There’s nothing new there either but I know which one I believe is the greater form.”