I REALISED I wasn’t going to referee any more near the end of my second game in black.
A big substitute midfielder fouled the ball on the ground five yards away from me. It was so blatant and clumsy it was as if he had been asked to use brute strength to drive the thing underground, while under no circumstances using his feet.
I whistled for a free, relieved at having an easy call to make for a change, expecting him to chide himself. Instead he sprang up, put his face close to mine, inhaled deeply, whispered “you’re a”, and screamed “c***” as loud as he could.
Long have I regretted giving him only a yellow card, but I was just perpetuating my basic mistake of wanting to be sound, to show that as a current player I was cooler, or whatever word the kids use these days, than the other refs.
I was like the substitute teacher on his first day who thinks he’s going to be like Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society and is instead a beaten man by the mid-morning break.
It mattered not that my motives were good, that I spent hours reading the rule book, got an early night before both games, concentrated as hard as I could.
Now, I wasn’t expecting to be chaired from the pitch, but nor did I anticipate bring told from a distance of five inches, with a free helping of spittle, that I was a CUUUUUUUUUUUUU**.
It’s the hardest job I’ve ever done.
About half the journalists I’ve covered matches with are hopelessly incapable of keeping track of the time, substitutes, cards and score of a game. Referees must do all that over an hour of navigating a massive field populated by 30 wired competitors trying to come up with the cleverest ways to cheat.
Was that blur a legal handpass or a throw? Did he take four or five steps before he delivered it? And that challenge as he released it, was it a great shoulder or did your man have both feet half an inch off the ground? Maybe best to let it all go. Shit, wait, why are they roaring murder on the far side? Why is that player lying on the ground? Is he playacting, or has he been decked?
You didn’t see it. You were following the ball. Not enjoying this? Want to go home and hit the beer garden instead? Tough. You have to decide now, right now, but be aware that whatever your decision, half of these people will hate you, really hate you, and the other half will shout that it’s about f****** time.
That’s what refereeing a meaningless Sunday morning club game miles from home is like. Amplify it by a great factor and park your car facing the gate if you have the misfortune to be refereeing a club championship game in Ireland.
And if you’ve been really bad in a past life, you might happen to be Cormac Reilly, amateur volunteer and target of 36,000 people, most doing their best impression of a playground bully, some on the precipice of violence.
You might think we’re being dramatic but you would feel differently if, like Reilly, you had to sprint from the pitch in the company of a cordon of Gardai as thousands of people, who may or may not want to assault you, pour on.
So what did Reilly do to deserve fearing for his well-being at the end of Mayo and Kerry’s enthralling All-Ireland semi-final replay?
Well, we’ve watched the game twice. He made two major blunders in 90 minutes. The first was not giving Shane Enright a black card and therefore a red for his concession of a penalty in the first half. The second came in extra-time, when he gave a phantom free for Kerry after Kevin Keane laid not a finger on Kieran Donaghy.
There were other contentious calls, but days on, with the benefit of countless close-up replays, people are still debating them. My first instinct for both Kerry penalty awards was that Reilly was spot on.
Almost a week later, I think James O’Donoghue might have conned him for the first and even in freeze-frame, I still can’t decide on the second. That does not qualify me to criticise the decisions of a man who had a far worse view and a split-second to reach a verdict.
What about all that Reilly got right? As bad as his oversight for the Enright incident was, how brilliant was it to spot from such a distance that the foul occurred inches inside the square?
And what of all the things the players got wrong? Why did no supporters chase Robert Hennelly from the field for failing with his attempt at a winner? Come to think of it, why are Mayo’s players not accused of gross incompetence for allowing a replay in the first place?
They are a highly-experienced team, prepared at great expense, and they blew a five-point lead in Croke Park in a matter of seconds through a series of basic mistakes. Should we do as some do with Reilly, and question whether Mayo wanted Kerry to win because they have an illogical hatred of Mayo? Ask why they were let near a pitch in the first place, and demand they never be seen in the vicinity of one again?
Well, that would be to question the cool kids, the equivalent of striding to the centre of the playground and pushing the jock rather than the nerd. The main reason that a gang of untamed horses wouldn’t get me back in that black jersey is because wearing it turned me from a normal person, worthy of basic decency, into an object of disgust.
Even in nothing games, the referee is a vehicle for people to grandstand for their friends and show how much it means to them, how much they disrespect authority – as long as they don’t have to do it face to face – and how witty they can be in demeaning the p***k with a whistle everybody despises.
Mayo would have been more likely to win had Enright got the line and Donaghy been told to play on. But they still might have lost. When two well-matched teams play for more than 160 minutes, there are hundreds of hair’s-breadth incidents that contribute to the outcome. It is childish to try to distil that madness to a sound bite, but if you asked us to do so, our best attempt would be this: Kerry won because they are a better team.
In that context it’s a little disappointing to find the Mayo camp inferring that Reilly cost them. It seems they want to have a pop while also not looking like sore losers. If that registers on the scale of distaste down near the slightly annoying end, then what some people outside the camp have been indulging in is outright cowardice.
Mayo and Kerry have many heroic players. But there is heroism, too, in what Cormac Reilly and his colleagues do. It is only enhanced by the certain knowledge that it is the kind for which there is no reward.