Referee Barry Kelly has claimed that many of his colleagues have a growing preference for refereeing ladies’ football club games, as they are encountering “less hassle, criticism and flak, and more gratitude”. Photo: John McCauley

Urgent need to address chronic shortage of GAA referees in Westmeath highlighted

A shortage of referees is a real threat to the stability of Gaelic games in Westmeath and should be addressed urgently, Westmeath GAA’s referees’ co-ordinator has said.

Speaking at the January meeting of Westmeath GAA’s county committee at the Mullingar Park Hotel last night, Sean Sheridan said that it was incumbent on clubs to re-stock the pool of referees available in the county.

“Without these people we have no games,” Mr Sheridan explained, adding that as it stands, Westmeath GAA hasn’t enough referees going into a calendar year which will be made all the more complicated by the new split season.

To illustrate how bleak the situation is, the Tyrrellspass clubman and former county chairman stated that he has organised a foundation course for new referees, which is due to take place in February. He requires between 15 and 20 new volunteers for the course to go ahead; as of last night, he had two.

Mr Sheridan paid tribute to the referees who stood up to the mark over a two-year period complicated by Covid-19. He said that at one stage last year, some referees were “out six nights a week” officiating at matches, and this was unsustainable.

“Every club should have at least one referee,” he said. Instead, a situation had crept in where clubs were happy to rely on the small pool of refs available. This was then made all the more complicated by the fact that established referees were then getting “attacked” from the sidelines for doing their job.

Mr Sheridan urged clubs to find volunteers for refereeing duties and to give their names to him or any member of the county committee.

Rosemount delegate Vinny Cox wondered if Westmeath GAA could embark on a concerted publicity and recruitment campaign, instead of relying on merely emailing club secretaries and hoping for a response. Vice-chairman, Donie Malone, said that he would liaise with PRO Marie Lynagh about putting together a social media campaign.

Vastly experienced referee Barry Kelly (Mullingar Shamrocks) returned to Mr Sheridan’s point about ongoing abuse of match officials from the sidelines. He said that he foresaw additional pressure falling on refs in this regard with the split season, and the intense run-in of matches after July.

He said that he was aware that a number of referees are recovering from injury, while one or two were considering retirement. Complicating this, he argued, is the fact that many refs are finding it “more attractive” to referee LGFA and camogie club matches.

“I think they’re finding there’s less hassle, criticism and flak, and more gratitude at these games,” Mr Kelly, a four-time All-Ireland senior hurling final ref, explained.

Competition from women’s games will add to the CCC’s woes when it comes to allocating referees in the summer, he added. “We’re not far off a crisis. We’re getting little take-up from emails being sent out to clubs. The county board has to do more to target young lads and get them interested in refereeing club matches,” he said.

Chairman Frank Mescall appealed to clubs to address the referee shortage with urgency, repeating Mr Sheridan’s point that every one of Westmeath’s 47 clubs should be able to produce at least one referee.

Joe Potter (Lough Lene Gaels) said that as one of the Lake County’s most experienced and highly regarded referees, Barry Kelly should head up a campaign to encourage a new generation of match officials.

Another delegate said that the county committee should do more to address the issue of abuse of referees, pointing out that in rugby, officials are treated with much more respect.

Mr Mescall accepted that there was a serious problem with “unfair and unwarranted” abuse, but added: “Clubs have more control over [addressing] that than we do.”

Meanwhile, Garrycastle delegate Peter O’Halloran said that referees’ foundation courses should be scheduled in such a way as to allow college students who might have given up playing to become referees. He also said that women should be encouraged to become involved.

Minor board chairman Alan Leech said that it was important that Westmeath GAA “minds the refs we have”. He said that he was sick and tired hearing complaints from people in clubs about certain referees being “unfit” to take charge of their games, for various reasons. Clubs, he said, have to realise that if “that fella you don’t like” wasn’t chosen to referee a match, there would be no matches at all.

Tom Hunt (Mullingar Shamrocks), a long-serving member of Westmeath GAA’s hearings committee, said that there was also an onus on referees to help their own situation. During his time on the committee, he had seen “only a small number of referees’ reports” detailing abuse from players, mentors or supporters, even though this was evidently a widespread problem.

“It’s important to say that referees can help themselves by reporting abuse, and detailing it in their reports,” he said.