Thursday, March 01, 2012

Lost for the Want of a Ref?

How many GAA games are played in Ireland in a year? Everybody knows about the inter-county games, but they only represent a tiny, tiny fraction of the totality of games.

The vast majority of games are played well away from spotlights or TV cameras. These aren’t games that echo in eternity. These are games that are played because playing them is better than being in school, or because we’ll all be soon enough old, or because it’s so much better than sitting like a slug in front of the telly.

Thousands and thousands of games, all across the country. From little kids who couldn’t reach the crossbar without standing on a ladder, to the teenagers who think they have a shot with the minors this year, to the drinkers and crack-merchants who turn out groggy and bleary-eyed for the Junior-Bs, all the way up to the serious club men and the inter-county elite.

Thousands and thousands of games. And there isn’t one single ball that could be kicked or sliothar pucked without a referee to turn up and run the whole show.

Everybody hates referees. Listen to the crowd sometime. The ref can’t do anything right. He should have blown it up, he should have let the game flow. He should do this, he should do that.

Our psychotic aversion to making rules and sticking by them make Gaelic games extremely difficult to referee even at the highest level. Imagine what that’s like when you percolate down the grades. Imagine just what a thankless job it is, trying to referee thirty men with only a passing suggestion of athleticism between the lot of them in a game played on the side of a mountain somewhere in the sheeting spring rain.

The continued existence of the GAA, an amateur sporting organisation, is one of the continuing miracles of the country. The GAA and the music are the only truly Gaelic things that have survived the first ninety years of the State – every other dream has been quietly laid to rest, and not spoken of again.

And still the GAA marches on in an Ireland unrecognisable from that in which it was born. For ten years we worshipped money; now we fight among ourselves in the bitter mourning of its loss. And still the games continue, Sunday after Sunday, year after year.

There’s an heroic timelessness to the GAA. Where everything else in the country is so bitter and mean-spirited in the mourning of the Tiger, the volunteerism of the GAA continues to drive the Association. The GAA is the Leaning Tower of Pisa of Irish public life – it should come toppling over, but it hasn’t. Yet.

Is the referee payment issue the tipping point that will see the tower come crashing down? It has all the signs of it. People expect the end of great institutions to be heralded, after Shakespeare, by the heavens blazing forth. Instead, the ship is often sunk before the crew even know the hull is breeched, and by the time the disaster is discovered the ship is past saving.
Thousands and thousands of games. Thousands and thousands of referees. Some good, most bad. But a bad ref is still better than no ref at all and if there are no refs at all there will be no games at all.

Not everyone is motivated by altruism. If a fifty Euro sweetener to one man is what it takes to facilitate the altruism of thirty others, then it’s a small price to pay. If the fifty Euro makes the difference between thousands of matches being played, matches that make no difference to anyone except the participants themselves, it’s a small price to pay.

The Revenue’s chief problem is with the existence of a black economy and they are right to be concerned about that. But the Government and GAA must act swiftly and in unison to ensure that the GAA can still provide referees for the thousands and thousands of games is overseas, only a tiny percentage of which will be immortalised by the Fourth Estate.

Charlie McCreevy introduced a player grant scheme – Michael Noonan can do the same, on the basis that GAA referees provide a service to the community that is unlike any other in the country. The figures are there to make the case.

Whatever the solution, it must be found quickly, before the momentum turns and the altruism that keeps the GAA going slows down and stops, to the extent where no defibrillator in the world can bring it back to life again.

This is not a trivial issue. This cuts right to the heart of the GAA whose fundamental remit, above all others, is to allow as many people as possible to play Gaelic games. For want of a ref the fixture was lost; for want of a fixture the competition was lost; for want of competition the Association was lost, and all for the want of a ref.