Confessions of a GAA umpire

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I am the GAA umpire. I am the butcher in the white coat who takes his cleaver to your county’s chances of winning close games. I am the eunuch in the harem of hurling and football officialdom. I am one of the wise monkeys who inspired the principle, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” You love me when your county is winning. You hate me when your county is losing. Most of the time you probably just think I’m a bit of sheep grazing on the grass either side of the goalposts. You’d be wrong to think that.

I actually do a highly-specialised job that requires a lot more training and know-how than we are given credit for. Fellas think we just improvise those signals. They take practice. The week of a big game is no different for us than it is for the players. We’d head down the field with the ref and do the full work-out. None of this running crack or anything. Just drills that will help us on the day. He might kick a ball over the bar so we can practice backing back to see if it went through the posts or outside them. Then we have to synchronise our response. I’ll point in a dramatic fashion and my partner will raise the white flag.

It might look easy on the telly but it takes years of practice to get this stuff right. Not just any gombeen with two hands and a lab coat that barely stretches across his belly when fully-buttoned could do this. Oh no, we are specialists, highly-trained professionals (in mindset anyway even if we don’t get any few bob). We have to be. We are deciding the championship fate of counties every week. You can’t leave that to amateurs. Tisn’t just anybody can back backwards without hitting the fence in order to see if a ball is nipping the right or the wrong side of the post. That’s why I treat my bifocal lenses with the same care as a surgeon does his favourite scalpel.

We are handpicked for this job. Well, kind of handpicked. I happened to be standing outside the pub one Sunday morning, waiting for the cure of course, when [name of inter-county referee removed for legal reasons] stopped. One of his regulars let him down and he was heading up to the North for a league match so I agreed to fall in once he told me there’d be a bit of free grub on the way and maybe a few sly pints on the way back. He could have picked any of the other lads hanging around waiting for the pub to open but I was his man and he knew it too.

And I have to say I’ve loved it from the very start. Walking onto that field with that crisp, clean white coat on me, the baseball cap tugged down over the eyes, and the wiseacres in the crowd shouting things like, “here come the men in the white coats”, and asking us questions like, “Has Roy Keane not sorted ye out for guide dogs lads?” And that was only the way in. On the way out, the quips were even saltier. Well I think they were. I couldn’t hear them because we had the cops escorting us out and we were half-walking, half-jogging the whole way to the car. Then the only sound I remember is the rocks bouncing off the roof as we drove away.

That’s the other thing. You have to be brave in this job. We have to make the tough decisions. What was it that Guinness hurling billboard used to day back in the day? This man can break a county’s heart from 80 yards away. That’s us. We are breaking hearts every time we get on to the field but that’s what we signed up for. Whether it’s refusing to tell the referee that the full-back is a proper scut who has been blackguarding the full-forward off the ball or calling a point as a wide, we have the power to influence games and we don’t take that power lightly.

I was watching the Spiderman film there recently and he kind of summed up our role in matches. With great power comes great responsibility. There isn’t a night that I’m not sitting in the pub sipping pints and holding forth about the state of the country that I’m not conscious of that. I know there are inter-county players out there working hard, making all manner of sacrifices for months at a time, trying to win games that will ultimately be decided by whether or not I couldn’t get into a proper position before the sliotar flew past. Sure, that’s what makes the GAA the great organisation that it is. Where else would you get it?

The players are sound enough too. They often ask questions during matches. “Have you the jersey on under that coat?” “Why don’t you put a saddle on us to make it easier to ride?” “Was it with Paddy Power you made the bet?” Sure that’s only good-natured banter. And it’s not like I bear grudges and keep a notebook of all the insults hurled at me, the type of notebook a fella might check the morning of a match to see if anybody in either squad is on the list. I’ve heard of other umpires doing that but not me, I’m above all that retribution malarkey.

For me, the joy of umpiring comes down to the little triumphs. Disallowing a score for instance. Never mind whether it was within the rules or not, there’s no thrill quite like walking across the small square in the last minute of a match and crossing the two flags for all the world to see. Those are the little moments that make umpiring worthwhile. The ability to bring a stadium to its knees with one audacious play. It’s almost like being a player really except there’s no training, dedication, sacrifice or skill involved.

Too many of Ireland’s best are no longer good enough

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Eighteen years have passed since Liam Brady became head of youth development at Arsenal. As one of the club’s greatest ever players, the man who once won the Scudetto for Juventus with a penalty in the final game of the season arrived back at Highbury with a specific task. He was charged with rebuilding the academy and under-age set up. Of course, as an Irishman, Brady gave himself a wider remit than just that. The Dubliner wanted to bring more Irish on board because it just seemed wrong even in the mid-90s that Niall Quinn had been the last of his compatriots to break through from the youths to the first team.

 

After close on two decades in office, Brady retires this month with not a single Irish lad at the club. Worse still, nobody came through in the interim to replicate the journey made by Quinn.  When asked about the lack of Irish over the years – Graham Barrett, Keith Fahey and Anthony Stokes all threatened to make it to the first team but had to move on to do so – Brady was typically candid. He felt that the coaching in Ireland was so far behind other countries that an outfit like Arsenal had to look elsewhere. Many people took that criticism badly but Brendan Rodgers said something very similar last week.

 

“It’s a lot more difficult now,” said Rodgers when asked about the lack of Irish at the top clubs. “A lot of them (Irish lads) start the apprenticeship at 16 but even then it’s too late as a lot of boys across the water are beginning at the age of eight and by the time they’re 16 they’ve been trained technically, tactically, physically and mentally and then they’re ready to step into full-time football.”

 

So the most skillful Irish midfielder of the past half century and the Irishman most likely to manage a club to a Premier League title anytime soon have basically told us the same thing. The Irish boys are not getting the coaching required to allow them to measure up against the best teenage talents from other countries. This is not news to anybody who has been paying attention. The problem is not everybody is paying attention. Too many people in positions of power seem to be ignoring the fact there is something seriously wrong with the way Irish players are being developed.

 

Witness the recent over-reaction to Seamus Coleman being voted onto the PFA Premier League team of the season. This was a great accolade for the Everton man and an acknowledgment of his growth as an attacking force over the course of the campaign. Even if his defending still needs some serious work (something that could be said about most full-backs these days), it’s obvious that his fellow pros have seen up close that he’s become a serious player at that level. But, the worrying thing here is that too few people were willing to point out something truly troubling about Coleman’s award.

 

The Donegal man was the first Irish footballer in five years to make the Premier League’s best XI and nobody thought this was, you know, seriously worrying. One every five years? Is that what we are reduced to? Is that the kind of token recognition that will make the decision-makers in the FAI convinced everything is going fine? Just as a comparison to that depressing statistic, three different Belgians have figured on the PFA Premier League team of the season in the same time frame. A small illustration of how we are falling behind nations we once considered our equals.

 

In a different country, this might be cause for alarm. The head honchos in charge of the sport might convene a conference at which those with a vested interest in the future of the game might come together. Over the course of a few days, they could talk about the problems on the ground, the issues confronting the grass-roots and the obstacles impeding the progress of our brightest young players.  They might even come up with a few solutions to the most glaring problems. They could even invite experts from abroad to offer advice on what changes to implement.

 

In Ireland, under the stewardship of the FAI, there is no crisis. The World Cup will go on without us next month and nobody will care that we aren’t there. Unlike Wales or Sweden, the cognoscenti won’t be lamenting Ireland’s failure to qualify for Brazil because it’s denying a special talent like Gareth Bale or Zlatan Ibrahimovic from playing on the biggest stage. Why not? Because we have no special talent right now. And, from what all those working at the coal face are saying, there isn’t any coming through. But, never mind, there’s no crisis.

 

Roy Keane and Martin O’Neill have been attending matches all over England and Scotland but the nearest we get to a hint of them adding new quality to their squad is talk of persuading players born and reared in other countries to consider switching allegiance. That’s a legitimate tactic in a world where nationality has become an all too fluid concept in so many professional sports. But, even if we persuade one or two up and comers with Irish ancestors to wear green, we shouldn’t be blinded to how bad things are in terms of the type of players we are producing these days.

 

Unless something crazy happens with Coleman’s future at Goodison Park, Anthony Stokes will be the only Irishman with a serious chance – Celtic’s successful navigation of the qualifying rounds permitting, of starting a game in the group stages of the Champions’ League next season. Like it or not, the Champions’ League is now the benchmark in the world game. It is where the best play and the best want to play. That the Irish representation has diminished from the glory days when two Corkmen could start a final for Manchester United to Stokes ploughing a lone furrow is another reflection of the falling standards. But don’t worry, according to the FAI, there’s no crisis.

The night Rory Gallagher blew Aerosmith off the stage

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In the late summer of 1974, a New York brewery called Schaefer’s organised an outdoor music festival at the auditorium in Central Park. Over the course of 12 nights, locals were afforded the opportunity to see a whole host of acts, covering all musical tastes. From Ray Charles to Lynyrd Skynyrd, from The Pointer Sisters to Bad Company, the line-up each evening ran the gamut of some of the most popular outfits of the time. On September 7th, the last night of the run, the bill was topped by Aerosmith and the warm-up act was one Rory Gallagher.

Wearing his standard uniform of jeans, denim jacket and a check shirt, Gallagher took the stage in front of a crowd who’d paid $1.50 and $2.50 to be there and he seemed determined to give them value for money.

“It’s quite a few months since we were here,” said Gallagher as he tuned up. “I think it was October of last year. We’ve got a few new tunes since that, a few things you might like to hear. This next one is called ‘Tattoo’d Lady,’ I hope you enjoy it.”

From the opening riff, he was on fire for the next hour and 12 minutes. The location for these concerts meant the promoters were never quite sure how the Manhattan outdoor audience was going to react to such a diversity of acts. No such worries for the Corkman of Donegal origin (you see what I did there!). Coming off a few weeks in which he’d played gigs alongside ZZ Top, the J Geils Band and Sly Stone, Gallagher had them eating out of his hand from the off. As the performance wore on, there was only one serious problem. Most of those watching didn’t want it to end.

Yet, New York’s curfew laws and Aerosmith’s outsized egos meant that Gallagher eventually would have to stop. According to eyewitnesses, he ignored the first couple of signals he received asking him to wind up the show. He was having too much fun, and judging from how those present react when you listen back to the live recording (no footage exists), the crowd were too.

An hour in, he started Bullfrog Blues. With the stage manager presumably giving him the sign to come off, he just kept going. For almost 13 minutes of what those watching seemed to savour, he kept it going and going and going. The audience were loving it, those running the show perhaps not. Finally, Gallagher gave in to the demands of the authorities and ended his set, much to the chagrin of those in front of the stage. They wanted an encore and more.

In an incident that has become part of rock folklore, Aerosmith walked on and were greeted with derision. As they started into their set, there were still jeers and boos from fans irate at the Gallagher virtuoso display having been curtailed. In all too typical New York-style, things soon got out of hand. Some newly-converted Rory devotees fired bottles at Steven Tyler and his cohorts who were unable to produce anything like the magic Gallagher had just delivered.

“The result was a certain amount of self-expression from the audience,” wrote Ian Dove in the New York Times’ report on the incident, “trash and garbage, with an occasional bottle, were thrown onto the stage at the hapless and helpless road crew changing equipment for the following group, Aerosmith.”

According to some reports, the Aerosmith drummer was cut by a flying bottle. That cannot be confirmed. All we can say for certain is September 7th, 1974 is known in rock history as the night Rory Gallagher blew Aerosmith off the stage.