Barry Kelly hasn’t retired. Not officially, anyway. The 2017 season was his last as an inter-county referee but not as a match official.
“If you say you’ve retired then lads are surprised to see you doing the line. Lads have copped that I’m not refereeing but I have been linesman.”
As he has done already this year for the likes of John Keenan, Seán Stack and, most recently, Colm Lyons in the Wexford-Kilkenny Division 1 semi-final, four-time All-Ireland final referee Kelly has made himself available to carry a flag this summer.
“I decided I was going to finish this year anyway,” said the 48-year-old, who steps away with 54 championship appointments. “I struggled a bit with fitness and the hunger and appetite is not there. Brian (Gavin) took us all by surprise when he announced in mid-January that he was jumping ship. None of us saw that coming. I’m a little different from Brian who said that he didn’t like doing linesman. I don’t mind that and that’s what I’m hoping to do now.”
New national match official appointments committee chairman Willie Barrett was agreeable to Kelly’s request, which came with a stipulation — he wouldn’t be selected as a standby referee. “I want to wean myself off it, to be honest, because it’s been a large part of my life for the last 20-odd years.
“I wouldn’t be standby in a match. That would have to be a guy prepared to step in but that wouldn’t be me. Willie said there would be no problem. I’m under no illusions that I’ll be linesman for the All-Ireland semi-finals or final — they’ll be using the 10 lads who are on the full championship panel. Limerick are playing Clare in four weeks’ time and if I can be any assistance I’d be glad to help.
“The older or experienced fellas, if you were standby you might feel that you could have got the match. That can happen too because it’s competition, it’s natural. But if I’m doing linesman and I’m not standby the referee knows I’m not a threat. All I can be is linesman and offer a bit of experience and know-how.”
Whether it was now or at the end of the year, 2018 was going to be Kelly’s final one as an inter-county referee. With his sons Manus and Theo becoming more involved in Gaelic games, he wanted to devote more time to them.
“Like any player I’m sure, I was looking at this coming down the tracks. I wasn’t going to go until 50 — I turned 48 in March. It was going to be a stretch. The levels expected in terms of fitness and the demands that are placed on you by the speed of the game, there was no way I would have gone until 50. I had planned to go this year at this stage.
“The twins will be eight in May and they’re beginning to play a good bit and I’m coaching them now in football and hurling. I’m minor board chairman in Mullingar Shamrocks. There is a gap I need to fill because refereeing has been a big part of my life, travelling to matches and seminars. Even the social aspect of it — a lot of phone-calls are made among referees and there would be friendships. I didn’t want to miss it too much.
“That said, I don’t necessarily want to be in Páirc Uí Chaoimh while the twins playing a match at home that is significant. I was able to bring them and my partner Maria to the game in Wexford Park. If I was refereeing and I’m bringing four lads (umpires), there wouldn’t be room for them.”
As mentioned, his absence from the middle of the pitch hasn’t gone unnoticed. Davy Fitzgerald was a recent inquisitor. “Fitzy came over to me before the Kilkenny-Wexford league semi-final and asked if I was refereeing and I told him that I didn’t think so. He was lovely in the sense that he said, ‘Would you not give it a go?’ It’s better than hearing from lads after a match that you should have given it up last year. Knowing when to get off the stage is the thing but, you never know, I might be doing this role again next year.”
As renowned a referee as he is, there were elements of his displays last year that disappointed Kelly. “Some player said a few years ago that it’s better to be asked why did you quit than why didn’t you. You do a match in July and it’s blood and thunder and you’re struggling with the pace and you’d be saying to yourself after it, ‘Why didn’t you get out when you had the chance?’
“I wasn’t overly happy with my performances last year. I had three matches last summer. Galway v Offaly in Tullamore was fine, no problems. Cork and Waterford in Thurles, I got away with it — I wasn’t convincing and I missed a couple of things. I made a significant effort fitness-wise after that.
“I thought I might get another game and I did — I got Galway and Tipperary for the third year in-a-row. It was another great game and I was much happier with how I did. I thought then that it would be good to get out with your reputation reasonably intact. You can never have your reputation fully intact.”
If Kilkenny were erroneously said to be in transition, the description fits hurling refereeing, where it has been all change this year. The pool has lost a wealth of experience in the departures of Gavin and Kelly while former All-Ireland referees Diarmuid Kirwan and James Owens were injured during the league and Kirwan will step down later this year.
“Diarmuid will finish up, Brian is gone and I’m all but gone — that’s three lads who have refereed 10 All-Ireland finals between them. It’s a natural thing now for John Keenan, Paud O’Dwyer, Colm (Lyons) and Fergal (Horgan) James (McGrath) and Alan Kelly to step up now.
“Brian, the two James and myself would have got a lot of big matches and other lads are now challenging and in fairness Paud and Alan Kelly have refereed national finals this year. There won’t be a word about us soon enough. No-one mentions Pat McEnaney, Dickie Murphy or Willie Barrett now but that’s probably the best compliment.”
After their drawn All-Ireland final with Tipperary in 2014, Kelly was never appointed to another Kilkenny Championship game. It’s not a fact that rankles with him nor does Brian Cody’s claim after the replay that his decision to award Tipperary a late free was “criminal”.
“I’m the last person in the world that would complain about what match I didn’t get. I was doing matches like London v Derry in 1997 and up to the last three years of Galway and Tipp, three of the all-time great games. I could always understand the mentality behind why appointments were made.
“Like, Michael Oliver won’t be going to Turin next October for a Champions League game regardless of the fact he was right. They’re not going to do that to him. I have no gripes. The various committees in Croke Park do phenomenal work and I’ve been very lucky.”
Kelly has even been able to smile about the matter with former Kilkenny chairman and secretary Ned Quinn, who is now Central Competitions Control Committee chairman. “I’ve had the banter with Ned and Ned is now in charge of us in a way. I remember when I heard he was appointed and lads would have known I was going. I was thinking the lads were going to put two and two together and get 10, thinking Ned wasn’t going to appoint me.
“I met Ned down at the Wexford game and he was asking how I was and I was telling him ‘I won’t be bothering you, put it that way’. Ned Quinn is a very genuine GAA man and all he would have seen is Kilkenny and all any manager sees is his own team and I can understand that. Sometimes things are said but there’s nothing personal.”
So this is not a farewell but more a long goodbye. Kelly knows the thrill of championship is just as intoxicating for anyone involved in games as it is for the players and managers. “There’s still a buzz parking the car and walking in with your gear-bag into Thurles. It’s still a great place to be, particularly in six weeks’ time when the weather is better. I don’t think I’m going to regret it. I achieved far more than I thought I was going to achieve. I got lots of matches and got out of it fairly unscathed.”
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