At just 20 years old, Martin Coyle is the youngest referee in the GAA to adjudicate an adult Tyrone football championship game.
Having recently taken charge at the Junior Championship clash between Errigal Ciaran and Coalisland’s thirds teams, the Cookstown native will see out another championship meeting between Killyman and Urney on Sunday evening.
While refereeing is often seen as an older man’s game, with many in Tyrone around the 55-60 age bracket, Martin has been officiating underage games since he was 16 and has dreams of one day taking on a senior club final.
And the Fr Rocks clubman isn’t put off by the verbal abuse and negative connotations that usually follow the man in the middle of the pitch.
“I never really do think about that at all because it’s all in the playing side and as an ex-player you should explain to them as best as you can,” he said.
“It’s just about being cool-headed as a referee. It’s all in the head. It’s about being thick-skinned.”
“I played for my club from the age of eight and I sort of kicked on after I turned 16, and I lost interest in the playing side of things.”
After completing the referee training course four years ago, Martin took control of his first ever match — an u13 league game in Brocagh — two weeks later, although not everyone could understand his ambitions.
“I had friends saying that I’m not wise and I just said to them that I’m going to go with the flow and see how I get on,” he laughed. “I’m loving every minute of it.”
He told the Belfast Telegraph that he had never foreseen himself getting into refereeing before, despite his father, Paul, being well known as Cookstown’s club referee for 25 years.
But Tyrone GAA legend and All-Ireland-winning captain Peter Canavan encouraged Martin into the vocation when he taught him at Holy Trinity College, which Martin is now helping referee school games for.
Now, Martin says his dad comes to most games with him and is a “good mentor”.
Tyrone Referees Committee chairman John Devlin thinks it’s “brilliant” that Martin is involved with refereeing.
He hopes it will motivate other younger people to apply for the referee course, although he noted that time constraints and online trolls are problems when trying to attract younger entrants.
“A lot of them are still playing and getting time to do the course alone, and then getting a night that suits them to referee, would be a real problem,” said John.
“You’d find referees come into it more in their 30s when they are retired or at the end of their career, or you’d find young people getting into it if they have an injury that maybe causes them to retire earlier.
“Social media is a big problem and if we see somebody making a bad remark we try to get them to take it down or think about the fact that the person they are abusing at the end of the day is probably a good club person.
“The GAA is a small world, even though there are massive numbers playing it, everybody knows everybody.”
The committee has implemented a new mentoring system and John said that this has significantly combatted dropout rates for new officials.
“If a new referee comes in he won’t be going out to do a match by himself, there’ll be somebody experienced accompanying him. They’ll go and talk to the two managers before the game to say this is a new referee, he may make mistakes but just bite your tongue.
“We’ve found that a lot of our new referees are staying on because of that. The dropout was awful for new referees. They finished one year and because of the level of abuse, they stopped, but we’ve found this mentoring has helped that.”
John added that their latest recruitment drive for new officials has proved successful, and hopes the stream will continue,
“We got somewhere between 10 and 15 referees from it, and that’s very positive, and some of them have already taken reserve games, so we’re very happy in that respect. We’ll probably go again with another recruitment drive in January.”