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When It’s All Going Wrong, It Must Be The Ref’s Fault!

If you play any sport then you’ve already been there. We all have. And it’s without doubt the referee’s fault when things go wrong because it definitely can’t be yours! Your team mates may have some explaining to do but you know in your own heart of hearts that you behaved as any rational human being would do. Right? Well no, probably not, because few of us are rational all the time.

Four years ago I took to refereeing Gaelic Football in Europe and I got a different view of the action. As a referee you usually start to see this behaviour before any of the players or mentors do because it is often directed at you or you hear it being directed at a team mate. This is because referees observe the action from completely different viewpoint. A good referee will detach themselves from the emotion of a game as much as possible and make decisions on what they see unfolding in front of them at that moment. Almost any referee can start to see when a player or team is starting to lose control and momentum and decisions are going against them. The great teams will figure out how to regroup and reassume control and the top referees will not let their previous decisions, no matter how aggrieved the players may feel, affect the ones they are about to make. The bigger the occasion the more discipline is required on the referee’s part. 

A classic example of what I mean is this clip from Rugby between the referee Wayne Barnes and the Northampton captain Dylan Hartley in the English Premiership Final in 2013. To watch how the sequence of events that led to Hartley’s red card is interesting because we see how a small error escalated to a red card and a defeat for that team. But what I admire most in the clip is that Wayne Barnes, the referee, made one really difficult decision after another knowing that he was surely being cursed by every Northampton supporter and player. It didn’t affect Barnes’ judgement though and all the calls were correct calls in my opinion and those of the analysts. The fact that it was all going south for Northampton had absolutely nothing to do with the referee but a less strong referee may have buckled in such a situation.

The sequence of events goes like this:

Barnes warns Hartley about his language towards him. Separately, he advises the kicker after the restart that he cannot kick the ball directly out of play. What does the kicker do? Kicks it directly out of play! So now it’s advantage Leicester whose tails are up having opted for a scrum in an ideal position whilst Northampton look at the referee bewildered and bemused.

Bewilderment doesn’t win you scrums and Northampton concede a penalty right in front of the posts when mentally they’ve been in the dressing room since before they kicked the ball into touch. Instead of rallying his own team mates, Hartley decides that none of this can be Northampton’s fault so he lashes out at Barnes who immediately whips out the red card. It’s game over for Northampton with a full half still to play. They end up losing the match by 20 points.

This may be rugby but the principle is the exact same for Gaelic Games. The fact that we can hear the referee’s conversations on the field in rugby gives us more insight into incidents. Gaelic Games referees converse with and give guidance to players all the time but the spectators and mentors don’t get that insight so they often feel aggrieved when the referee seems to be overly picky. Barnes warned Hartley about his language and he also advised the kicker about not kicking the ball directly into touch. Had he not penalised Northampton after these warnings he would have looked weak and foolish and teams would take advantage of that. He wisely used the microphone to his advantage by repeating what Hartley had said to him, thus ensuring that the millions watching him, along with the studio analysts, understood his decision.

Here’s one I see regularly on the pitches of Europe. A 13m free is awarded but the angle is a bit tight for the kicker.  I warn him not to steal ground to reduce the angle and what does he then do? He steals ground to reduce the angle by starting his run from the location of the free kick, takes three or four looping strides and slots it over the bar. Everyone is happy, except me (the opposition rarely complain at this one!) until the score is cancelled and a throw ball is awarded. It’s the same story with players crossing the line for sideline kicks, not being far enough away for kickouts or any one a list of situations. It’s not the referee’s job to advise players of the rules, but in Europe we try to do that as much as possible given that we have so many new to the game. The problem that then arises is when you don’t advise you get “you never told me I couldn’t do that ref!”


JJ Keaney is a Gaelic Football Referee in Gaelic Games Europe


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