VINCENT NEARY’S standing as a national referee is growing by the day. Two stern tests of his ability – the recent All-Ireland U21 final and last Sunday’s championship tie between Laois and Longford – have won the Bonniconlon man praise for his firmness and conviction.
The goal he disallowed will not have endeared him to Longford followers, but controversy would have accompanied whatever decision he made. That’s a feature of refereeing. In this case the Mayo man’s decision was firm and final, and authoritative.
In the cauldron of partisanship, when all around him are losing their heads, self possession is essential. When the opprobrium of the masses is directed towards him, the referee can’t afford to be other than dispassionate, and even-handed.
No referee will ever get everything right, but experience and repeated rigorous assessment are undertaken to ensure that the man in the middle is adequately qualified to handle the most important of matches.
The training of referees is the responsibility of the National Referees Committee which is chaired by Mayo’s PJ McGrath. The committee recruits, assesses, monitors and appoints those who take charge of our games.
Mayo’s Vincent Neary and Michael Daly, who handled the All-Ireland minor final two years ago, are now at the top grade - which is 3.2 - and are on the national panel of referees in the company of such well established names as John Bannon, Paddy Russell and Pat McEneaney.
Their training includes a physical fitness test. Each must complete 3,200 metres(eight laps of the track) in less than 14 minutes. He must also cover a 45-metre dash in less than seven minutes and a 200-metre dash in under 32 minutes. These are conducted annually at four or five different venues and reaching the targets is mandatory.
Tests in theory are also set for referees every two years, and four times a year seminars are held in Athlone to discuss every aspect of refereeing.
“We show clips of games at these seminars where things went wrong and where things went right,” said PJ McGrath. “We do not criticise. We pick out an incident and without naming him state whether the action taken by the referee was right or wrong, whether the infringement warranted a red or yellow card. We show all types of fouls committed in games and how the rules were applied by the referees.”
He said that in a recent championship match a player pushed an opposing team official. According to rule the player should have been red-carded, but the referee failed to take action. That matter would be discussed at the seminar.
Experts are invited to the seminars to speak on certain topics. Recently, they had Niall Moyna, head of sport at DCU, talk about physical preparation. At their next gathering, mental preparation will be the topic.
Referees are not instructed to be severe on any one particular infringement. “What we do is provide them with a list of offences that are categorised as red card, yellow card and black, according to the rules, so that they can become familiar with them,” said P.J.
Another contentious regulation relates to a player in possession being bottled up and hit on the arms by three or four opposing players in an attempt to dispossess him, yet is regularly punished for over-carrying.
“We have told referees that in such a situation the man in possession ought to be given preference. He is fouled but they let it go and then give a free against him for over-carrying. We get a lot of complaints about that . . . even last Sunday with John Bannon as referee. There was a fellow on the ground being thumped and he awarded a free against him.”
A referee is measured by his handling of every game. Assessors are there to inspect his work. Afterwards they complete a detailed report and submit it to the Referees Committee. County boards should also have assessments done at every game, says PJ McGrath.
Those who take on the work of appraising referees undertake courses themselves. A thorough knowledge of the rules is vital, and while some may not have had a big career in refereeing, they are keenly interested in taking up the whistle, and many do a good job, according to P.J. McGrath.
The three Mayo assessors on the national panel are Dr Mick Loftus, Brother Sebastian and PJ McGrath, all noted referees in the past, whose assessments are more readily accepted by current referees . . . because of their experience.
Those who are not happy with assessment reports on their performances can question their marks and will be given an explanation why they were not up to the mark.
The Central Referees Appointment Committee (CRAC) which is also chaired by PJ McGrath makes refereeing appointments. They are responsible for all national appointments at home and abroad.
Daly and Neary are among the 140 fully trained nationally, and are now qualified to referee All-Ireland finals, but in making that decision the Committee will keep in mind the teams involved and who might best handle it. “Horses for courses,” says P.J.
Castlebar’s Eoin Shaughnessy is also making a name for himself as a hurling referee.
PJ McGrath says that at the request of President Nicky Brennan, who appointed him, his committee have now recruited 440 referees nationally, eighteen of which are in Mayo. All of them have already passed a special programme laid out for them, including a grind in the rules on DVD, after which each must pass a test.
“We are also introducing the DVD into schools for transition-year students, and PE teachers are delighted with it. They undertake the same course, and those who pass are presented with a certificate and are qualified to referee first year college games where they are monitored and marked accordingly. Naturally, there will be a fall-off when they go to third level, but it is hoped some will eventually return to refereeing later on.”
PJ said it was up to the Mayo County Board to appoint the eighteen recent graduates to games, and to bring them along at the various stages. Having gained sufficient county experience they could then be promoted to provincial level.
“From the assessors you begin to hear of impressive young referees emerging which are recommended for further games on a higher plane. Given charge of an inter-county challenge or a league game is the next step up the ladder. He may then be ready to join the group of higher level referees at national level for whom the strict programme of physical training and theory is laid down.”
A new innovation is the attention being given to good and efficient umpiring . . . smart and clear signalling. “We have clips showing an umpire using his phone, and another standing between the posts while a kick-out is being taken and we want better presentation,” said the chairman.
Radio links have now been introduced connecting one umpire at each end to linesmen and the referee in order to help the man in charge make a more informed decision. “These will take a while to get used to, but they are in operation now.”
Another first is the committee’s recent meeting with county managers in their efforts to develop better relations between them and referees . . . all of it in the interest of providing the best qualified people to take charge of our games.