In March last year, Oey Mantsho, a 27-year-old referee with the South African Rugby Federation, was walking to a garage close to his home in Pretoria on a Friday night when he was approached by three armed men and forced into a waiting car.
The men drove him to his house, took his mobile phone and car keys, brought him to a remote location in Mpumalanga in The Veld and tied him to a post.
The next evening the men returned, knocked him about a bit, then let him go.
The kidnap had been perfectly timed. Oey was due to be married to his fiancee, Nomanya, on that Saturday morning. As he staggered back towards his home, he got a text from his beloved stating: “You have spoiled my life. I never want to see you again.”
Oey’s crime? A controversial penalty try award in a local rugby match. Who would be a ref?
A few months later, on a different Continent on a rainy evening in July, Moy referee, Simon Brady, blew the final whistle in the Tyrone ladies’ final between Carrickmore and Augher and was promptly poleaxed from behind by a Carrickmore supporter.
Martin Conway, the ladies chairman, went to protect Simon and was himself dispatched to the turf via a headbutt.
‘A collateral casualty’ as the Americans would say. Both men were taken unconscious by ambulances to Enniskillen Hospital before being discharged the next day.
It was the beginning of a very difficult time in Simon’s life, something he is only now putting behind him.
This week, their alleged assailants were due to stand trial at Omagh Courthouse. The case comes hot on the heels of the two Dundalk men convicted by Judge Bridget Reilly on Thursday past of assaulting Tyrone referee, Martin Sludden, after the Leinster final in 2010.
In spite of everything, Brady, a married man with young children, is back refereeing. “I love the football Joe,” he said to me this week, “You wouldn’t believe the kick I get out of blowing the whistle.”
They are not doing it for the money. One of the problems is that each County sets its own fee/expenses, so referees in neighbouring Counties get different amounts. The all-inclusive set-rate for referees in Tyrone is £25 for an adult game, £20 for underage. It is one of the biggest Counties in Ireland.
Say, for example, a referee from the Ardboe club has to travel to Castlederg to referee a game, this entails a round-trip of 118 miles on mostly minor roads and works out at 20p per mile.
It is a pittance which would not even pay for the petrol. Yet there are 70 adult referees in the County and no shortage of volunteers waiting in the wings.
Brady for example referees between 65 and 70 games a year. On top of that, there are six refereeing seminars and various workshops. Then there are the friendlies, for which Brady, in common with many referees, does not charge at all.
Did I forget to mention that to earn the black shirt and the whistle, he needs to be able to run 3.2 kms in 15.30 minutes and 2.8 kms in 12.30 minutes? It is a similar story in every County, including my own.
What makes someone want to referee? After all, whistlers are almost universally despised. Society brackets them with tax inspectors and car-clampers. There are the odd exceptions like Pat McEneaney. But for the others, they must run the gauntlet.
Rhinoceros skin is a pre-requisite, whether it is an under-12 game or a Leinster final. It is the same everywhere.
Three coaches and a player are currently awaiting trial in Sarasota, Florida on felony charges of assaulting a referee at the end of a High School football game between Sarasota Gators and North Port Huskies in September past. It was an under-14 game!
One of the accused is a 14-year-old, even if he doesn’t look it on the video. The referee was hospitalised (suffering facial injuries and a broken shoulder) when he made a controversial call right at the death. Watch it for yourself at: ‘flash mob football controversial call at kids game.’
Martin Sludden became the Country’s panto villain when he made the error that lost Louth the Leinster title they deserved. He literally couldn’t show his face for months.
Christy Cooney (the one who earns E150,000 per annum from the GAA and said last week that referees earning E30 or E40 a match “must remember that they are amateurs”) said Martin was “having a well earned break from the game.”
GAA folk celebrate the discomfort of referees. A year or two ago, Tyrone MLA, Barry McElduff, sent me a Tyrone referee’s report from the 1960’s. The ref was called Haughey from Carrickmore. His report reads: “Before throwing-in, I called the teams to the centre of the field and exhorted them to play the game in the spirit of the Gael, at which point I was struck an almighty blow to my left ear, which rendered me unconscious.
“I have nothing further to report.”
When I tell the story at GAA nights it sends audiences into convulsions. The main motivation behind refereeing is probably power. As a Derry referee said to me this week when I asked him why he enjoyed it: “It is the only time in my life when I have control over what is going on.” He was only half joking . . . .
The Inland Revenue is now coming after the men in black. Their position is that the maximum non-taxable match fee is E13.71 plus 50c per mile, with a tax-free ceiling of E40.
It is a pathetic attack by a Revenue system that has fallen into serious disrepute over the last decade. Instead of Christy Cooney and the highly paid hierarchy cheerleading for the Taxman, they should be standing shoulder to shoulder with one of our most valuable groups of volunteers.
While rugby stars have the advantage of truly enormous tax breaks on enormous wages, referees in the south are going to be asked to pay up to 52% on five or ten euro.
The GAA is the national treasure. In an era where physical fitness has become of crucial importance, neither the government nor the hierarchy should be undermining the critical role of referees for the sake of the loose change in Christy Cooney’s pockets.