Mike Quirke: We’ve turned refs into traffic cops without the speed guns

I was at a club game a couple of weeks back where, almost from the throw-in, the referee assumed the role of main protagonist.

This guy was like one of those gunslingers from the old western movies. He somehow managed to draw ire from every angle for his random distribution of what seemed like the most lethal weapon hanging from his holster — his black card.

I stopped counting after the fourth one because the game had descended into such a farce. What was a black for one incident was just a common foul or a yellow for other similar cases. In a game lacking any real bite, players and supporters from both sides began to lose all patience and were left seething at the inconsistent application of the rules by the man in the middle.

After the game, I met a supporter who had been on the opposite side of the field but who was still hot under the collar. He told me how he had given the referee a bit of a roasting from the stand. A real verbal battering. He was yelling at the top of his voice to go away and ‘learn the rules you blind bastard…’

As he was proudly regaling a few of us with his exploits, we noticed the referee leaving the ground heading towards his car with his wife. I could tell by the way the colour quickly drained from this man’s face that something was up.

He took a bad turn. Unbeknownst to him, he had been sitting directly behind the referee’s wife for the previous hour while he was verbally lashing her husband.

He even offered her a few Milky Moos at half-time. Ouch.

I got in my car and drove home that day and I remember feeling genuinely sorry for that referee and his wife. Like every walk of life, you have people who are better at their job than others, but we have given these referees a near impossible task by asking them to do a job and implement a black card rule on top of everything else, which, through no fault of their own, most are incapable of applying because of the amount of subjectivity involved in assessing deliberate intent.

Realistically, why would anybody even consider becoming a referee? I mean, whatever way you try to spin it, all you get every game is abuse. But we need referees. And we need to help them improve the standard of the job they do.

Rules are generally defined as a set of explicit or mutually understood regulations or principles designed to govern conduct in a particular activity.

So, take driving for example. We have signposts throughout Ireland telling us the speed limit on different stretches. If you choose to drive with a heavy right foot and exceed that limit, you run the risk of getting caught and penalised with points and a fine. But when they ask the gardaí to ensure drivers adhere to the rules, they equip them with speed guns to pinpoint exactly how fast a car is travelling. So when they stop you, they have certainty about what exactly you did and why you’re getting a ticket.

You won’t see the traffic cops standing by a ditch watching cars whizz by and take a rough guess at how fast they are travelling.

That would obviously be a ridiculous situation, for both the garda and the drivers who are getting caught in the wrong because they guessed incorrectly.

But that’s almost the precise equivalent of what we are asking referees to do in every county in Ireland at club and inter-county level, each week with the black card. We are essentially asking them to close one eye, squint the other a little bit, and take a rough stab at what speed they think the car is moving.

At this stage it seems like complete guess work.

I appreciate it’s very easy to stand on the terraces and give out about referees, but I would suggest that the rules, as they are, don’t provide the referee with the confidence or clarity they require to do their job effectively. If the limit is 100km, there should be no doubt, you are either speeding or you’re not.

Rob Carroll of Gaelic Stats noted recently that this championship season has produced the second highest scoring average of all time, at just under 34 points per game. It’s not inconceivable that the black card has contributed to this hike in scoring by affording forwards greater protection. It has certainly impacted on the amount of body checking of runners that goes on off the ball, and I’m in total agreement that any player who deliberately takes someone down with a clear goalscoring chance should be dismissed with a black. But that’s where the rule needs simplifying.

Mattie Donnelly’s black card for Tyrone in the weekend’s Ulster final typified the type of mess that the black card has now descended into. Nobody knows what’s what anymore. We’ve turned referees into traffic cops without the speed guns.

At the risk of being stoned for suggesting another rule modification, I was hugely disappointed that the 50m Aussie Rules type advancement of the ball didn’t make it through Congress. If I had my way, I’d make the black card strictly for those stone wall fouls intended to deny a clear goal scoring opportunity, and for any other act of deliberate ‘cynicism’, like the trip Cathal McShane got sent to the line for, or any body-checking runners out the field, the referee just advances the free 50m from the spot of the foul. It would at least provide clearer rules of engagement for everybody and still carry a significant punishment, while not as penal, for any deliberate fouls further out the field. With good free-takers, a 50m advancement from the spot of the foul could mean scores on the board.

We’re already asking too much of our volunteer referees, instead of berating their inconsistency, why not provide them with the clarity to do their job properly and reduce the guess work. The black card doesn’t need to be thrown on the scrap heap, it just needs be reconditioned.


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