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.