As he revealed in the comments a little earlier on today, ontheroad is just back from Medjugorje but, man of many talents that he is, he composed this topical piece before he left.
His wife walks in and hands him the freshly ironed towel. Folding it he places the towel on top of his little black bag. Finally with a bit of effort the zip closes and he makes for the door. A quick kiss from an unsmiling wife and a lash of holy water from the youngest child, thrown in jest, but appropriate all the same. Then out to the car and off to the match.
As he cruises along the road he gently squeezes the CD into the player. The Furey’s “Lonesome Boatman” fills the car. Appropriate really. Finally the car arrives outside the stadium. Parking it as near to the players and officials entry area is a two edged sword. On the one hand you are close to the losing team as they exit however if you park too far down their fans might redecorate the paint work with a key.
Met at the turnstile by an indifferent gate man who greets him with a negative “Yeah?” he replies to the Jackie Healy-Rae lookalike “I am today’s referee”. Unsmiling eyes that narrow in the dull daylight pulls a lever and the turnstile opens, “Thanks” is met with the turnstile clanging shut once more.
Inside he spots both teams milling around the dressing rooms. Studiously he avoids eye contact. Another official points him to a brown door. “That’s where the referee togs” he is told. Inside a two watt bulb lights a windowless cell. Behind the door sits two bags of lime, one burst. Cones, water bottles, nets and a pitchfork lie tangled on the floor.
After shifting this debris into a corner the door swings open once more. In come the two linesmen. They all speak in short bursts. Tension grips the pits of the collective stomachs. “Where are the umpires?” asks the Witchita linesman. The referee replies “They’ll be there when they have to”. They understand, words are not needed. The umpires will emerge from the crowd and as they near the pitch the white coats will be slipped down from underneath the training jackets. Quickly they will be slipped on as they make their way to the offending goal posts.
The clatter of studs and the roars of “letsgetfuckingstuckintothebastardsnow” come through the concrete wall. The Colosseum is open and the lions are hungry. As the last of the studs clatter in the distance, the match officials make their way to the field of dreams or maybe nightmares.
Once out on the pitch they stand alone in black, modern lepers. Slowly an official or two ventures over. The odd photographer takes a sneaky photo. They hop the ball, check the watches, and shake the pea in the whistle and talk. It’s the talk of men who feel as if they are about to go over the top and out of the trenches. “Why do I do this” asks the referee. Nobody hears the answer.
The two captains approach. All three, referee and capos eye each other for weak signs. Coin is tossed and a few instructions are given and promptly ignored. A sharp toot on the whistle and both sides take up positions. The referee’s head spins like a top watching for a sly belt here or there. Finally the ball is thrown in and the lid is lifted off Pandora’s Box. Time will tell what emerges.
Who becomes a referee and why? A hard question indeed. I’ll tell you who do not. Not a single inter-county player of note toots the magic whistle. They fall out of the Sunday papers like confetti, the Herald is like a retirement home for all the ex-Dublin players who scribble a few words. But none put their heads into the lion’s mouth like the man in black does. Come Monday or the following Sunday we will be treated to chapter and verse of what went wrong. Safety in numbers, soft seats, warm studios and a computer.
In reality what to we expect from a referee? The rules are framed in such a way that the clear definition of a proper tackle is impossible to give. One man’s free in is another man’s free out. A lazy slap on a departing back can be four weeks hard labour but a neat right hook into some fella’s puss might mean play on.
A properly executed shoulder charge is now a certain free against you but six men suffocating your star forward sees the man in black miming that he has caught Jaws on his line and the forward is penalised for over-carrying. Then your corner-back tangles innocently a la Donie Vaughan v Meath 2009 with the corner forward. Cue for outstretched arms that would land an F1-11 on US Aircraft Carrier John F Kennedy. The ref’s face looks as if is about to give the worst budget news ever as he points to the spot.
Until the GAA and its various Cóistes, Clárs, Maors, Units and codes actually define a tackle then the man with the whistle will walk a tightrope without a net. Today a referee is assessed. I kid you not, as Sepp Blatter might say; they lose marks if their umpires are not properly attired. So Joe “fashion conscious” Idiot gets to referee the All Ireland-Final because Joe “common sense” Normal lets the players and teams be the centre of attention and has to scrounge for a big day ticket.
Now I have to be careful about the word “common sense” here. Common sense is not sending a player off to even things just because you have sent one from the opponents off earlier. Evening things up is not in the rules. Neither is the addition of a minimum two minutes extra time but liberally interpreted as giving the big guys with the big mouth manager seven or eight minutes to even up or get the winner. Common sense is just common sense. If it has to be explained, then you don’t get it.
Two things I avoided as a youngster. I never played in goals and I never refereed. Both gave me chills at the thought of doing it. I can no longer play but I still won’t ref. There are certain things in life that only certain people can do. I admire the men in black for the job they do. I have to confess that I can count on the fingers of one hand the amount of men and women that have done this job to any degree of satisfaction to me. And therein lies the conundrum. Gaelic football is virtually impossible to referee properly. We in Mayo now that better than any county.