Drastic situations call for drastic action.
And that’s why today I am mooting the setting up of a special committee comprising representatives from referees, players and managers to help bring uniformity to the implementation of the playing rules as they are presently constituted and to defuse the tornado of criticism that appears to have engulfed gaelic football of late.
There is a palpable air of frustration prevalent in GAA circles right across the country at present with criticism of referees at what I believe to be an all-time high. And unless firm steps are taken to remedy the situation, the forthcoming All Ireland Championship could be assailed with rancour and controversy.
This is something that the GAA can ill-afford particularly with the World Cup soccer finals being staged in South Africa at the same time and now is an opportune time to address the growing disenchantment with the manner in which referees are perceived to be applying the rules — and I’m not just referring solely to the experimental rules here.
I am very conscious of course that at Annual Congress in Newcastle in a couple of weeks time the experimental rules will come up for formal ratification for the Championship and whether a yea or nay is recorded in this respect is certainly not at the core of my concerns.
What does worry me and many other managers with whom I have been in contact is that many referees do not appear to have what might be termed a real ‘feel’ for the game.
They are applying the rules with rigid fervour to such an extent that even winning sides are emerging from games voicing complaints and that surely drives home the necessity for grasping what is a particularly troublesome nettle.
I would strongly recommend that a committee made up of say five leading players, five managers and five prominent referees and perhaps chaired by President Christy Cooney himself or his nominee should be set up with a view to recommending ways in which there can be greater inter-action between referees and players in particular.
I believe that a top tier of perhaps 15 referees should be established and they should be brought even more into focus. They will be those who have already shown their capabilities in every sense although they will still come under close scrutiny from assessors.
These referees of course can have the occasional bad day at the office. But should any of them fail over a period to maintain their own high standards then someone from a standby group of five should be drafted in to replace them.
While some referees appear capable of handling games without generating controversy, others can on occasions find themselves in the eye of a storm because of some of decision-making. That is certainly not good for the image of the sport.
I am well aware that up and coming referees have to be given their chance but we now appear to have reached a stage where one of the most important groups under the GAA umbrella — the paying customers — are venting their ire at whistlers with much greater frequency.
And while there will always be a percentage of followers who seem to thrive in delivering abuse, it has to be said that much of the present criticism is not without foundation.
There is a need for greater communication between referees, managers and players — that has become increasingly evident of late.
I note that the National Referees Committee tends to move quickly to respond to criticism of individual whistlers and I don’t blame them for that but there are now more instances in which efforts are made to defend the indefensible.
Let me hasten to add that managers, too, can have a ‘blind spot’ when it comes to pinpointing players who have transgressed during games and this does not help the credibility of referees. The managers’ defence on occasions rings hollow and does little for the integrity of the sport.
All this myopic activity is leading us down a dangerous road and there is an urgent need for relations between referees, players and managers to improve.
Let’s admit it, we in the GAA actually envy the respect which rugby referees enjoy — rugby is a highly complex sport yet three officials appear to be able to control games in comfort.
For major GAA matches we have a referee, two assistants (linesmen), four umpires and a fourth official seated on the sideline. Eight pairs of eyes and yet controversy can still reign on occasions!
Leading referees like Pat McEnaney, Jimmy White, Rory Hickey, Syl Doyle and others have certainly been doing their bit to cast whistlers in a good light but the sooner that communication improves between all parties, initially at committee level and then on the field of play, the better it will be for the GAA as a whole.