IN his memoir There’s Only One Red Army, Eamonn Sweeney recalls the time his mother ran the line for a Sligo/Leitrim Junior League game between Gurteen Celtic and Ballinamore. Her beloved Gurteen were getting hammered when somehow they engineered a goal, Mrs Sweeney jumped for joy and moments later, the referee sprinted across the pitch to relieve her of the flag. “‘I’m afraid you’re no use to me because you’re biased,” said the whistleblower, who subsequently sent her off for dissent.
It’s unlikely that Damien McGrath will ever be prematurely ejected from a game he’s officiating at. The Inver official was recently awarded a Fifa badge which entitles him to act as an assistant referee at international matches as well as games in the Champions League and UEFA Cup. McGrath, who was one of only two Irish recipients of the badge, got his first taste of European club action in Iceland last July. He also ran the line for the League Cup final between Derry City and Shelbourne, the FAI Cup semi-final between Derry and Sligo Rovers, and the league decider between Derry and Cork City. His next European assignment will probably come early in the summer.
Asked by this newspaper about his ultimate ambition in 2005, McGrath said it would be great to get to a World Cup. “I’ve moved a stage closer to that now; there’s a possibility of getting to the top tournaments. To get the best games possible is the dream at the minute. We’ll see how it goes,” he said.
A ‘pretty poor’ player by his own admission, McGrath turned to officiating as a way of staying in the game. His rise through the ranks has been meteoric. He pays tribute to FAI Referees’ Committee chairman Willie Bradley, Mayo assessor Michael Cresham and his fellow referees, and has a simple message for aspiring officials: know the rules of the game inside out, have a good level of fitness, get on with players and use common sense.
“You can achieve what you want to achieve. In four or five years, I’ve gone from being a schoolboys referee to being a Fifa assistant referee. So it doesn’t take a huge amount of time, but if you want to get there you have to put in a huge amount of effort, and listen to the advice of others around you.”
Interestingly, he believes running the line is in its own way more difficult than refereeing. “You have to be tuned in 100 per cent at all times,” he notes. “It takes a huge amount of concentration. You’re judging offsides, so you’re looking at the ball, looking at the last defender. It is quite difficult to keep your concentration, so if you’re in a stadium where there are 7,000 or 8,000, all that noise has to blocked out.”
Verbal abuse is, of course, the bane of every official’s life. At eircom League matches, McGrath can ignore the wall of sound. At local level, however, there are fewer spectators, they are closer to the pitch, and individual shouts can be heard.
“Some of the abuse directed at officials in local games can get really personal,” McGrath adds. “It’s nothing to do with your performance as a referee; it’s you as a person. There are certain supporters within Mayo who are completely anti-referee. Without referees, there would be no game. So respect is what we need. No player can come off the field and say ‘I had a perfect game today’. We all make mistakes. You accept that you’re going to get a certain amount of abuse, because obviously you’re not perfect. But there’s a limit and people just over-step that mark a little bit too often.”
The Mayo League takes a hard line against any offenders cited in referees’ reports, and McGrath hopes that more young people will be willing to take on the task. As for the immediate future, he has an eye on ‘some mouth-watering ties’ as the eircom League kicks off next weekend. Like the players he will keep order between, his hopes for the season ahead are straightforward. “If I stay injury-free and keep performing as I have performed in the last season, then hopefully things will go well.”