“Boys!” roared the middle aged man, slapping the changing room table. “The referee’s a South Derry b*****d; the linesmen are South Derry b*****ds and the umpires are South Derry b*****ds. Are you going to let them beat you out there today?”
The occasion was an under-14 Championship final. The speaker was one of our coaches. The year was 1982. Thirty years later, nothing has changed.
Padraic Duffy admitted as much recently when he conceded that the GAA’s “Give Respect, Get Respect” initiative has failed.
The idea behind the campaign is a good one. It is impossible to disagree with it, in the same way as it is impossible to disagree with a crusade to stamp out hunger. But the culture of disrespect, particularly towards officials, is so deeply entrenched in the psyche of GAA people that it will take more than a sugary PR campaign to change things.
Referees wearing jerseys carrying the strapline “Give Respect, Get Respect.” Handsome posters. Feel-good photographs of officials sharing a laugh with the opposing captains. It’s not that the ‘Respect’ campaign has failed. More that it hasn’t started.
GAA officials are as popular as wheel clampers. Like clampers, they need to have the skin of a rhinoceros.
At all levels, from under-10 to the adult grade, they run the gauntlet of constant criticism, verbal and even physical abuse. It is no surprise that, over time, the job has become less and less palatable.
It has got to the stage where you need to be perverse to want to do it. What sensible adult would touch it with a bargepole? The problem is that to field an adult team, a club must provide a referee. So, like the priesthood, clubs and counties take what they get.
The vast majority of referees are disliked even in their own clubs. When they take to the field, they take their revenge. We complain bitterly that small minded officials are destroying the game, scattering yellow and red cards like confetti. Yet it is our behaviour that dissuades enlightened people from taking the job. It is a vicious circle.
Rugby provides us with a road map out of this cul de sac. When Martin Sludden didn’t see Joe Sheridan throwing the ball into the Louth net in what is now known as that “infamous Leinster final,” he was universally pilloried by Gaels. When he was surrounded by enraged Louth players and attacked a few moments later by Louth supporters, we more or less agreed that he got what he deserved.
In this year’s rugby World Cup semi-final, when Welsh captain Sam Warburton was the victim of a terrible sending-off for an alleged spear tackle on a French opponent, there wasn’t a word of protest.
This was a finely balanced game that turned on the sending off. Alain Rolland’s decision denied Wales a genuine opportunity to become World champions. The Welsh players, all 180 stone of them, simply shrugged their shoulders and got on with it.
Afterwards, a devastated Warburton was asked for his reaction. “I’m gutted. But I can console myself with the fact I had no malicious intent.”
In rugby, merely questioning an official’s decision is taboo. My second son plays Gaelic football for St. Brigid’s and rugby for Malone under-10s. At Malone, a single word of complaint results in instant dismissal from the field.
The son of a friend of mine who plays Gaelic for Bredagh also plays rugby. In each of the first three games he played, he was sent off for opening his mouth to the referee. His team-mates and coaches weren’t happy with him and made their views very clear to him on what was expected if he wished to remain a Malone player.
“Ah come on ref” quickly disappeared from his vocabulary. The other big culture shock for me was that at the rugby games, the parents leave the officials alone. He is anonymous.
Meanwhile, in our underage games, mammy and daddy keep up a running battle with the man in the middle.
We need to create a situation where like rugby, this is taboo. Why is it my son can zip it when he plays rugby on Saturday morning, yet on Sunday – in a sport half as physical – he feels free to argue the toss over every call?
The reason is that from the cradle to the grave in the GAA, it is open season on the referees and officials.
Meanwhile in rugby, the officials are anonymous. This is not because there is a more gallant streak in the rugby folk. They are not better bred. Nor is it because rugby officials are somehow superior or rarely make mistakes. It is because from the moment they first tape up their ears, the boys are stepping into a zero tolerance culture. They don’t want to sit on the sidelines or be sent home. So they shut their mouths. Over time, the officials disappear from their thoughts.
The starting point for the massive change required in our games must be an identical zero tolerance approach at every level of the game. Most crucially, this must start with the under-8 groups.
My own club have recently instituted such a system at underage level. Ten weeks ago when our year began we laid down the new law. I am one of the coaches for the under-10 and under-12 groups. In training, we now sin-bin the players for a criticism of the referee, coach or fellow player.
One offence brings five minutes in the sin-bin (an eternity for children). Two and they are out for the remainder of the session. In a match, the same regime applies.
We also speak to the parents about what is required of them at games and training sessions. The children are learning very quickly.
Team mates are themselves speaking to offenders. The coaches do not get involved in debates with the kids as to why they have been sidelined. This way, no time is wasted. A great extra benefit of all of this is that the players are learning to concentrate fully on the game.
The referee’s whistle does not distract them in the slightest.
Crossmaglen provided a classic example of the advantage of this sort of engrained discipline last Saturday. Garrycastle attempted to rough them up before the whistle, barging into them and the like. The Cross men simply ignored it.
The referee handed out yellow cards left right and centre. Again, the Cross men shrugged their shoulders and got on with it. A bad free against them was greeted with the same intense focus on the game as a good free in their favour. They play very, very hard, but they also exercise iron discipline.
Interestingly, we are finding in St. Brigids it is the coaches and the parents who are struggling hardest to comply with the new regime. Old habits die hard. A set of practical rules embodying these ‘zero tolerance’ principles must be swiftly codified and introduced into the laws of the game. Up until now, respect has been discretionary. It is time for the GAA to make it compulsory.
And as for those South Derry officials.... We didn’t let them beat us!
Joe Brolly wrties in the Journal every Friday