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History-making referee Maggie is in the middle on merit

By Declan Bogue

Published 02/01/2016

Pointer: Maggie Farrelly, first woman ref to be handed control of a county game
Pointer: Maggie Farrelly, first woman ref to be handed control of a county game

On a sweltering Arizona night in mid-August, two women came together for a post-match handshake, providing the photographers at the University of Phoenix with the perfect historical moment, framed.

In a baseball cap was Jen Welter, there in her capacity as inside linebackers coach for the Arizona Cardinals, becoming the first woman to coach an NFL game.

The year previous, Welter had also been signed, at the age of 36, as a running back for Texas Revolution in the Indoor Football League.

Despite being merely 5'2", and weighing less than 60 kilos, she was the first woman to play in a 'contact' position in professional American Football (others have been place-kickers).

Grasping her hand, dressed in the classic black and white striped referee's uniform was Sarah Thomas, a line judge in her first appointment as a full-time NFL official.

In a society such as America, this kind of progress is inevitable. The culture is so sports-driven and the population so vast that women, given the right encouragement, would enter professional sports in some regard.

Even a franchise as successful as the San Antonio Spurs, with head coach Gregg Popovich not given to meaningless gestures, has found room for Becky Hammon as his assistant coach.

Before the appointment, he said: "I'm confident her basketball IQ, work ethic and interpersonal skills will be a great benefit to the Spurs."

Some time afterwards, he enthused: "She's been perfect. She knows when to talk and she knows when to shut up. That's as simple as you can put it. A lot of people don't figure that out."

For years now, women have been involved in the physical and mental preparation of inter-county squads in the GAA.

Even in Ulster, we only have to think of the role that Caroline Currid played with Tyrone as Performance Coach in their All-Ireland winning season of 2008. Or the reputation that Julie Davis carries as a strength and conditioning expert.

This Sunday, weather permitting, a more localised, humble piece of history will be made in the GAA.

Maggie Farrelly of Cavan will plug in her ear-piece, check her watches, pen, book, cards and whistle, and throw the ball in to become the first female to referee a county senior game in the 132-year history of the association.

The game is in Brewster Park, with Fermanagh welcoming St Mary's in the opening round of the Bank of Ireland Dr McKenna Cup.

Farrelly's progress as a referee has always been of interest within the province, and in particular to the Ulster Council President, Martin McAviney.

Some years ago, Ulster were the first province to establish a referee's academy, aiding Farrelly's progression. However, McAviney leaves all the praise with her for the progress she has made up until now.

"I am not going to take credit for it because she has done it herself," he insists.

However, he will admit that he kept nudging those in charge of referee appointments to make sure those being granted the fixtures were there on merit.

"I would have maybe kept an eye with the boys that she would have got her turn," is all he is prepared to concede, although he hastily adds: "That's not in an interfering way because I always said I wouldn't interfere with referee's appointments, and I never did in three years.

"I've seen in the past where men were picking refs from their own counties or their own men and that sort of stuff. I have no time for that. It should be whoever is the best at the time - my argument is that Maggie had to show she was good. She has shown that so far."

It's both curious and odd that it should be Brewster Park, for Farrelly's sake.

It was there in 2012 that she was running the line in an Ulster club match between Tempo Maguires and St Gall's.

At one stage a Tempo player went to reach a ball that was spilling towards the sideline and launched himself into a slide. He ended up colliding with Farrelly and although it could have ended with injury, she got up and laughed it off.

Last summer, she was the referee for Fermanagh against Antrim in the Ulster minor Championship, a game that McAviney himself went along to.

"I purposely went to see her in that match because I wanted to see for myself rather than depending on anyone else telling me what she was doing," he recalls.

"I would have seen her at different games as well and she had a good games. I raised the argument at the time, was it the attitude of the players, or was it good refereeing that helped her in that game. Which was it?

"But she was good that day, there were absolutely no issues there at all."

There will be no lip-service to this achievement, and the notion of the Ulster Council now expecting a recruitment drive among females for referees is a fanciful one.

"To be fair, I don't know who asked Maggie in the first place or if she was strong enough in the first place to come through," says McAviney of her progress to date.

"But she came through to us from Cavan as she was doing her work there before being nominated to come to Ulster.

"It's the issue we have with all volunteers, unless someone is asked to come on board, they might never. If we look at her example as an idea to get more referees, I would have no problem with it whatsoever. But this is a test case, we will see how it goes."

Referees abide by a rule of not commenting on any upcoming game and Farrelly has kept to this, politely turning down interview requests. You sense from her a slight impatience to get to the game, throw the ball in, and referee the game.

Get it over with. Get on to the next one.

As it should be.

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