Seldom has there been such a public furore over the role of referees in Ulster Championship football than that which has accompanied the current competition to date.
Yet there is an inescapable fact that perhaps more than any other underlines the improved spirit in which matches are being played – not one player has been red-carded so far.
Derry’s Eoin Bradley was dismissed — rather harshly it was felt — after incurring two yellow cards in his team’s preliminary round defeat by Armagh but remains the only player to have been censured in this manner to date.
With Pat McEnaney having been lauded for his handling of the Antrim v Tyrone tie and Joe McQuillan earning praise for his firm control of the Donegal v Down tie the preoccupation — indeed frenzy — with the new handpass rule appears to be abating.
The three-man National Referees Appointments Committee comprising Fr Seamus Gardiner, Mick Curley and Seamus Woods has stood firm to date and now its decisions are seemingly being vindicated — at least in an Ulster context.
But that will certainly not breed the slightest complacency, according to Carrickmore-based committee member Woods.
The referees for all games in the National League, provincial and All Ireland Championships are selected from an 18-strong panel and Woods, a driving force within the Ulster Colleges Council and the current chairman of the powerful Croke Park Central Competitions Control Committee, is keen to stress that any controversy which emanates from a championship game is not necessarily attributable solely to a referee.
“It would be great if we were to have absolute infallibility in terms of refereeing but of course that is never going to be the case,” says Woods.
“While the referee generally tends to be targeted by the media when a talking point emerges from a game, it is conveniently forgotten that players, coaches and managers all have a responsibility to ensure that they are properly prepared and well informed on the rules that pertain and on the standards of sportsmanship expected from them.
“If such criteria were to be adhered to then you can take it that the referee’s job would be correspondingly more straightforward and certainly less onerous.”
And he reveals that clear instances have surfaced where players have not been properly coached in nor instructed in the new playing rules that were agreed at Congress.
“Only a week or two ago a very high-profile county player disclosed that his team only received tuition in the new hand pass rule some 48 hours prior to an important championship match,” adds Woods.
“When you consider that a county board might be involved in expenditure of up to maybe €750,000 to try and win the All Ireland title yet apparently fails to ensure that its players are cognisant of the rules well in advance of vital games, it certainly provides food for thought.”