This week, I caught up with Ulster's top referee Barry Cassidy, who hails from the famed Bellaghy club in south Derry.
His dad was a referee before him and you can see the drive to improve with each game, no different to any other sportsperson. It's that drive, the understanding of the game and a large helping of common sense that has Cassidy heading right to the top with an All-Ireland Final appearance the final piece of the jigsaw.
With that goal in mind, he continues to drive the standards in an area where the GAA still has work to do.
Oisin: Why take up refereeing?
Barry: My father was a referee and I took it up at 22. In Bellaghy there were so many good players and I was well aware that it was going to be extremely difficult to get a game. But I love the GAA and refereeing was a great way for me to stay involved. I loved it and 20 years on here I am.
Oisin: Was it a long process to get on the inter-county Championship panel in 2012?
Barry: I joined the inter-county panel in 2011 and then progressed to the Championship panel in 2012. The criteria to get on the national panel was to do a Final in your own county first and then I was lucky enough to be part of the first ever Ulster academy. I did the Ulster U21 Final. My progression was quite quick from 2011 to make the Championship panel in 2012, it definitely helped that I’d done a MacRory Cup Final. Seamus Woods was head of the referees’ committee so he had seen me first hand and recognised my ability.
Oisin: What are the biggest challenges of being a referee in the spotlight?
Barry: I think the big one is dealing with pressures before, during and after the game, very much like a player. The week before the game I’m planning how I will deal with certain scenarios that may pop up and how to deal with different aspects. The nerves kick in a few days before and that surrounds not wanting to make a mistake. Myself and my team of umpires get to the ground two hours before the game. The pressure is getting things right on the field, the crowd might not agree but that’s when you have the courage of your convictions and stay strong. That’s when you have to say to yourself you are good enough and believe in yourself when making that split-second decision. My wife Claire is as much a part of the team as anyone, she is the one at home looking after the kids when I’m away refereeing or in Croke Park at seminars. If I’m refereeing it’s a full day away and then there is the training. Claire is left with the kids, Elena, who is seven, and Dylan, who is five. So the decisions I make on a Sunday also affect my family — if there is a specific incident that I get wrong it will take a few days to process before moving on. I have to take those emotions out of it before moving on to the next game.
Oisin: What do you enjoy most about being a ref?
Barry: I really like the fitness side of it. I also enjoy being in the middle, watching players time their tackle perfectly and kicking great scores. I also enjoy the interaction and communication with players.
Oisin: The game is so quick, how do you keep your fitness up and what tests are put in place to make sure you meet the criteria?
Barry: I train all year round which helps. During the season I train three nights a week, or if I have plenty of matches it’s two sharp sessions of 20 minutes each to keep me ticking over. The eating habits have to be right, and they usually are — that’s down to Claire. For example, today was a full salad. All this means I can push myself on the pitch when needed. As far as tests go, we are tested pre-League and pre-Championship.
Oisin: Do you see yourself and your team-mates as the third team on the pitch?
Barry: The way I look at it is I never get a game on my own, we get a game. It’s always us and we. The five of us always travel to the game together as a team and we would chat during the week to make sure everyone is right.
Oisin: Officials come in for criticism, is it ever justified?
Barry: It’s not fair to say it’s ever justified, the referees are doing the best they can to make their club and family as proud as they can. There is too much criticism levelled at refs. There is so much going on at the one time for referees to get right. There is a certain level expected from the elite referees and we need to meet those expectations but refs are human, they’ll make mistakes but none of them are intentional.
Oisin: Have you ever felt concerned for your safety on the pitch?
Barry: No, never.
Oisin: When will be the time to hang up your whistle?
Barry: At national level 50 because those are the guidelines.
Oisin: What game sticks out in your mind as a favourite one to officiate in?
Barry: The Connacht Final last year between Galway and Roscommon, the crowd came on to the field near the end and that was pretty surreal. It was a dreadful day but the atmosphere was electric and the intensity of the game was something else. The other game was Crossmaglen and Scotstown in the Ulster Club Final in 2015, the game went to extra-time. That game was again in desperate conditions but the pace, intensity and excitement made it stand out for me. I feel in those games when people come away feeling entertained and talking about how good a game it was as a ref you take great satisfaction in that you have facilitated it.
Oisin: What is a good age to get into refereeing?
Barry: I started at 22 and I think the earlier the better. I reffed the Asian Finals in Shanghai a few years back and that was a nice perk of being a young ref.
Oisin: How do you get your head around all the rule changes?
Barry: That’s our job, we have to know the rules and apply them. Whatever obstacles there are, it’s up to us to carry on and do what the rule book says at that time.
Oisin: Have the GAA been kind to refs?
Barry: Croke Park have genuinely offered huge assistance, in that regard things have improved dramatically. There are regular seminars and an online learning portal, videos are uploaded to that on a weekly basis. We have access to sports science and Aidan Traynor from DCU is our fitness coach. We also have access to a sports psychologist. Croke Park have also been very receptive to ideas from ourselves and that has worked well in pushing up the standard of officiating.
Oisin: What is the pinnacle for a GAA referee?
Barry: The All-Ireland Final. I’ve already done a club Final as well as the All-Ireland minor and Under-21 Finals, so I wouldn’t take anything for granted but the next goal is an All-Ireland Final.
Oisin: When you began refereeing, did you model yourself on any particular ref?
Barry: I would have looked at the guys at the top at the time so Pat McEneaney and more recently David Goldrick and Joe McQuillan, but as I progressed I very much wanted to be myself and put my own stamp on things. That has worked for me lucky enough.