OUR greatest referee, David Gough, was on an elite referee’s night out in Dublin. Everyone had passed the fitness test earlier that day so they were all, as he puts it, “on a high.”
David: We were in the Croke Park hotel having pints and the craic. It was getting late and the lads were mad to go into town. It was bedlam at the bar and someone says ‘Goughie will sort the venue he knows where it is.’ Ciaran Brannigan came over to me and mentioned a well known bar in the city. I said not a problem, made a phone call to make sure we could get in and ordered taxis for all of us. The taxis stop. We all hop out. The lads are all dressed in the check shirts and the brown shoes.
David: God no. I was in a trendy grandfather shirt, designer jeans, white gucci trainers.
Me: A straight man’s shoes could never be as white as yours. (David, who is wearing gleaming white trainers, laughs.)
David: We all troop in, giddy with excitement and the referees’ jaws hit the floor. Wall to wall gay men. Over moisturised, hair immaculate, tanned, tattoos, Abba blaring out from the speakers and in the corner, spinning the decks, all 6’4” of her, Panti Bliss. Ciaran Brannigan came over to me and said “why did you bring us here?” I said, “You told me you wanted to go to Panti’s Bar.” He said (laughing), “I said Banty’s Bar.”
Me: Did you stay?
David: Of course we did. It was a great night’s craic. They are still slagging me about it.
It is clear our elite referees are a very close knit bunch. At one point I say to David I am surprised he was overlooked (again) for this year’s football final. He immediately says, “Let me stop you there, Joe. Sean (Hurson) is a great pal and a great referee. I was delighted when he got the final. Getting your first All-Ireland is the greatest day in any referee’s life and Sean richly deserved it.”
Me: You must have been disappointed
David: Don’t go there.
Me: You have been overlooked for the final three years in a row
David: The standard of refereeing has never been higher
Me: I agree with that. But you must have been disappointed.
David: Not my calls. All I can say is we now have a terrific group of top class referees.
Me: You sound like a politician
David: No comment.
David strongly supports my four rule changes. They are, he says, easy to police and uncomplicated. The key, he believes, to releasing the game, is banning the sweeper. “He can be spotted a mile away. If we can give a 21 metre free every time we see a zonal defender, it will soon put an end to it. Even at club level referees will have no trouble spotting it.”
David: The rules have become unneccessarily complicated. There are 45-50 personal fouls with different punishments. You have to be able to forensically analyse what’s happening in a split second, apply it to the correct sanction.
Me: On any objective view, it is an impossible job
David: It is.
Me: What is your solution?
David: There should only be four fouls and four sanctions:
1. For a tackle that is not proper: a free
2. For any type of rough play: a yellow card
3. For any type of cynical play: a black card
4. For any type of dangerous play: a red card.
Me: How would you define cynical play?
David: A foul on a player that is cynical i.e. one that is designed to slow down the game or prevent a scoring opportunity. In basketball it is called ‘a give foul’.
Me: I love it.
David: The referees talk about this all the time. if we had an elite referee on the Rules committee it would make a massive difference.
He strongly supports the video ref for sendings off, penalties and decisive moments (for example a disputed goal), making the point that the game is so fluid and spread out that it is often difficult to see an incident. My four rules involves – at club championship and inter county level – the sideline referees taking one half of the field each and two volunteer officials deciding whether the ball has gone over the sideline.
David: Agree completely. At the moment, the sideline officials are following the play, running along beside it as it moves up and down the field, so we miss a lot of what is going on behind us.
Me: Also, the ref in each half would make it extremely easy to spot the sweeper
David: It would.
Me: There, we have solved all of the game’s problems in half an hour.
Somehow, the conversation turns to God. I am telling a yarn about Peter when we played together for Ulster when David interrupts.
David: He didn’t pick the ball off the ground in the 1995 final.
Me: I don’t think so either. Peter was an expert of his craft. A master of precision. It would have been beneath him.
David: I don’t know about that, but he didn’t pick it off the ground.
Me: You wouldn’t have given that free out? (It would have been the Tyrone equaliser and they would probably have gone on to win it)
David: Definitely not. It was a valid point. In any game, you have to be 100 per cent certain a foul has been committed and that simply was not possible in that incident. It was not picked off the ground. The point should have stood.
Me: All I can say is I’m glad you weren’t refereeing that day
He is the 10 in a row Stackallen tennis club champion. He plays at Open level internationally, meaning he is the equivalent of a scratch amateur golfer. He has played in international tournaments at the Olympic Stadium in Munich, in Nuremberg, Holland and France. He is also a fluent Irish speaker and Radio Na Gaeltachta’s resident Wimbledon expert.
David: I am intensely competitive. I hate losing. Tennis is my outlet for that.
Me: And the football?
David: God no. On the football field I don’t get to be competitive. I must be the epitome of calm.
Me: You are an immensely courageous referee
David: What do you mean?
Me: You are quite happy to overturn a decision if you believe you have made a mistake.
David: I am
We talk about the time he accepted he had made a mistake in sending off Ronan McNamee (he actually rang the player that night to apologise and made sure the CCC did not continue to suspend the Tyrone man). On another occasion, he awarded a penalty for Dublin against Cork in a quarter final. His umpires asked to speak to him. He consulted with them and overturned his own decision.
Me: What did they tell you?
David: That I had made a mistake, that the Dublin player had simply fallen over.
Me: No one else would have given that penalty against Dublin in the 2019 drawn final with Kerry
David: it was a clear penalty. Jonny (Cooper) physically moved David Clifford away from the ball while it was in the air.
Me: When I looked at it again, I realised you were right, but at the time it just looked like jostling you would see from a corner kick in soccer,
David: It was a penalty.
Me: Where does your confidence come from.
David: I stand on my values and morals. I hate bullshit. I think it is because of my experience growing us as a gay person pretending to be straight to fit in and the awful unfairness of that.
Me: Go on
David: I think because of my life experience I’m uniquely placed to make honest decisions on the field because I don’t care about the consequences or what anyone thinks of me. I never ask myself ‘How is this going to look for me?’ I make the decision because I believe it to be true.