The Man in the Middle

Corduff whistler Pat McEnaney has seen it all and done it all. He talks to Shaun Casey about an eventful officiating career.

PAT McEnaney was the man in the middle the last time Kerry and Galway clashed on All-Ireland final day and this Sunday Ulster will once again be represented as the two great counties do battle.

Tyrone’s Sean Hurson, McEnaney’s protégé, will get the chance to referee his first All-Ireland decider.

“Sean Hurson was a lad I brought into inter-county refereeing so that gives me a bit of pleasure ahead of Sunday,” said McEnaney.

“Sean came through the Ulster referees, and I was involved then when he made the step up to inter-county at Croke Park level. Myself and Sean would have talked over the years but it’s just bits of advice.

“Sean Hurson is refereeing the All-Ireland final because he’s a very good referee and he’s gotten very good over these last few years, and he’s earned the right to be there.”

McEnaney will impart some words of wisdom ahead of Sunday’s game and he knows a thing or two about calling the shots on the biggest day of the year, but we’ll get to that later.

The Corduff man was raised on “a diet of football and farming” and everything revolved around Gaelic Games from a young age.

“I was one of nine so there were five boys and four girls, and we reared on a diet of football and farming, that was the two things we were fed on. The five boys played football, we played right through for Corduff but we would have played our early juvenile football with Carrickmacross because we didn’t have enough to field juvenile teams.

“I was probably the only one that was interested in soccer. I played a bit when I was growing up. I was a bit of a renegade really when I went to play soccer with Carrick Rovers during the wintertime. It was all Gaelic football, that was the first and only thing you were allowed to play.

“My mother was a good camogie player, but it (football) would have filtered down through both of my parents. My Dad was a big Down fan, even though he was a Monaghan man, because of the ’60 and ’61 All-Irelands probably.

“I played a couple of games at county minor and one challenge match at u-21. I wasn’t good enough for county football and the four other lads played a bit. Frank played for a long time with Monaghan.

“Michael, who died two years ago, he was only 54, he played county football, ‘Banty’ (Seamus) would have played underage football with Monaghan but not senior and then Tom would have played minor, u-21 and senior.”

When dreams of lining out to represent the county as players were dashed, ‘Banty’ went one way and Pat went the other. Seamus pulled on the bainisteoir bib and marched up at down the sideline while Pat reached for the whistle and impacted the game in a different way.

He loved to play the game though and while the management gig never appealed to Pat, he still gets great enjoyment out of coaching.

“I was still playing, I played until I was 38. I tore my cartilage when I was 21 and that’s when I got into refereeing because at that time it was like a cruciate, it was like an open-heart surgery, I could only run in straight lines.

“I was a year out of football and in the later six months, Paraic Duffy, who was on the appointments committee in Monaghan, he asked me to come in and give them a hand with refereeing. Playing football came first for the club and then refereeing came after that. Two of them ran in tandem right up until I was 38.

“I coach in the club. Corduff would be a strong Intermediate club now this long time. I took a team of u-8s and u-10s, we would never compete at Division One, we’re always Division Two, Three or Four but I took a group of young lads right through to minor and we won the Division One minor double in 2017.

“I’d rather coach (than manage), I’m still coaching the younger kids and I’m involved with the senior team, Corduff are an Intermediate League this year and I’m in as a selector with them.

“Banty was the playermanager when we won the Intermediate title, we beat Inniskeen in the (1998) Intermediate final. We won our first Junior Championship ever and there were five McEnaneys played that day. We all played up the centre, full-back, centre-back, midfield, centre-forward and full-forward.”

McEnaney made his name as one of the finest referees in the country and was handed the task of managing the 1996 All-Ireland final between Meath and Mayo. The two counties played out an intriguing encounter which ended all square and while the Royals won the replay, the game is famously remembered for much more than just another final defeat for Mayo.

With Pat Spillane’s recent retirement from The Sunday Game, his highlight reel began to do the rounds on social media. One of the Kerry legend’s best bits was his breakdown of the brawl that ensued that day.

“Here, John Casey jumping in to readjust John McDermott’s head a little bit,” described Spillane as the free-for-all kicked off.

“Pat (McEnaney) had no choice today but to stamp his authority on that and send someone off, he could have sent anybody off,” added Tony Davis.

Liam McHale and Colm Coyle were the two sent for early showers, but McEnaney admits that a few more red cards could have been waved.

“I’ve always said that I was the coolest man on the field that day, we needed to make a statement, something needed to happen,” recalled McEnaney. “The row was big enough for four (red cards) and only two got sent off, but we finished the match and that was an achievement in itself.

“Even that time there were two umpires and two linesmen, and I remember making a statement, I said ‘listen lads I don’t care if it takes half an hour to sort this out.’ We’d fed everyone’s opinion in, and I suppose we came up with two men.

“My initial reaction was Liam McHale and John McDermott, and then other people had their say and in hindsight, my recollection was that the row was big enough for four, the row could have been big enough for ten, but you needed to have a game of football.

“It was like a dartboard, you had to throw a dart and take two out of it, it was as simple as that. It was more difficult to establish who was not involved, so it was easy to pick two. (Looking back) I would take four.

“The first game was a good game of football, it was a drawn game and there was great excitement, and the second game was quite a good game, but all people remember is the row, that’s what grabs people’s attention, people love a good row.”

HEADS OR TAILS…Pat with captains Seamus Moynihan of Kerry and Pádraic Joyce of Galway prior to the 2000 drawn All-Ireland final

McEnaney got another chance to referee the showpiece in 2000 as Kerry met Galway while in 2004, he called the Kingdom’s dismissal of Mayo.

“That was always the big challenge, people would have said after ’96 that my career over and that was the end of me, and I know that for a fact.

“The big challenge for me was can I get back to the level I know I’m capable of refereeing and it took me four years to get back to refereeing an All-Ireland final. When you’re at that level, if you’re in the top five or top ten referees, you always want to referee the All-Ireland final.

“I had zero nerves when I was refereeing matches, my problem was getting myself motivated for the game. I would be more nervous togging out for the club. I don’t have a nerve anytime I’m refereeing. I don’t suffer from nerves when refereeing football matches, never did.

“I remember refereeing an Ulster final with Tyrone and Cavan in ‘95 and I was playing centre half-back on my intermediate team in the championship at 8pm that night. I was struggling to get my mind away from the championship match rather than concentrate on refereeing the county match.

“I was more nervous togging out for my club team than I was refereeing an Ulster final. My problem was getting up for the game to make sure I was motivated.”

McEnaney had no need for nerves because the hard work had been done. Physically there was never an issue as club football kept the fitness ticking over and when the referee exams came around, it’s fair to say McEnaney soon got his eyes open to the work that had to go in.

But he had great friends, great leaders who offered advice and helped out along the way.

“We done group sessions in Ulster; Ulster was quite advanced in refereeing even in my day. We used to have written exams, we used to look at videos, that’s back in the late ‘90s and 2000s. We used to do fitness tests all that time.

“The big advantage I had was I was playing club football and I was in good shape. You do exams all the time, we were doing a written test every six months, so you were always training for that to make sure you knew all the rules. The fitness came easy to me.

“When you’re attending referee seminars, all the awkward ones (rules) come up. Like the one where a player takes a short free to a teammate, he’s not 13 metres away, what is that rule? You would see some referees hopping the ball but it’s actually a free kick the other way.

“A goalkeeper taking a kick-out, can a goalkeeper soccer dribble the ball out and without taking the ball into his hands, kick the ball 40-yards up the field? Yes, he can.

“People mightn’t know that but when you repeat all of them and they keep cropping up and you’re with a group of referees who maybe have other problems, over a period of time you get to know all of the rules.

“I remember doing my first referees exam when I was 22. I thought I knew it all and I got 56 per cent and the pass that time was 96 per cent for Ulster senior level, so you could only get two questions wrong. That was an eye-opening.

“We used to have seminars, Paddy Collins (a former referee), who was a big hero of mine, came to do a seminar and I always followed his mantra. If someone was asking him a whole load of questions, Paddy put his two hands up and he said, ‘Lads don’t complicate a game that’s already complicated.’

“Paddy Collins made that statement when I was about 21 or 22, so that’s almost 40 years ago and I never forgot it and I always carried that mantra with me.”

Over time, McEnaney learned the rules inside out, and he still knows them, but is it tougher nowadays for referees with additional rules such as the black card, the mark, the back pass to the keeper from a kickout? The Monaghan man doesn’t think so and believes there are tweaks that still need to be made.

“You just get used to them, you might miss one but it’s about practice and when you continue to practice, and referee matches every week you just get used to it. I think we need to get rid of the forward mark, I don’t like it.

“We need to change that, and we need to change the sin bin for players sent off (black card), we need to go to playing time instead of actual time. Those are two rules that need looking at.”

Despite his knowledge of the rules, McEnaney, like everyone, still made mistakes. He recalls a big one in his last ever inter-county game. Down edged past Kildare in the All-Ireland semi-final thanks to a first-half Benny Coulter goal.

Marty Clarke’s long-range effort dropped dangerously inside the square and Coulter was on hand to punch home the crucial goal, although the Mayobridge man entered the small rectangle before the ball, which should have resulted in a free out.

Nowadays, the referee can call on Hawkeye for assistance and in the near future, according to McEnaney, VAR will help with such instances as the one that happened in 2010.

“If that happened today that goal would be legit. We don’t have a big problem with square balls now because of the new rule, that was a good rule change. But it was a square ball that day and that was a mistake.

“VAR will happen in Gaelic football, there’s no question about that. I said it when the Premier League introduced it, it will come to GAA, it just takes a bit of time. If you look at all the changes that’s been made this past 20 years in GAA refereeing, between the black card, Hawkeye, body checking going out of our game.

“The standard of refereeing is very good to me at the moment at national level. The game is cleaner, the sport is a more disciplined sport now than it was back in the early ‘90s. Is it more entertaining? Well, there’s a question mark over that, but to referee it is a little bit easier.

“You look at all the changes that happened in the last 20 years, those same changes are going to happen in the next 20. You will have VAR in the GAA within the next 10 years, if not we’re losing a trick.

“What happened with Hawkeye was a mistake (Hawkeye indicated that Sean Walsh’s point in the All-Ireland semi-final was a wide, but referee Brendan Cawley overturned the decision), no doubt about that, but it’s been very good to us. People forget this, Hawkeye has been a brilliant introduction to Gaelic football in Croke Park and in Thurles.

“It takes the doubt out, it’s been brilliant, it’s served us very well. We have a hiccup and then there’s a question mark over it, but Hawkeye can be fixed, and the Association was right to pull it (for Dublin vs Kerry).”

While the existing technology and whatever comes in the future has been a great help to referees, the growth of social media may be seen a hindrance. When McEnaney started out, the most abuse a referee would receive was from someone behind the wire but now “everyone’s got an opinion.”

You have to be thick skinned and McEnaney never took any abuse to heart.

“The bottom line is, people talk about social media and it’s terrible and all the abuse, but that’s part of our life now. Everybody has a say now so people need to get over it, that’s the world we live in, we need to deal with it.

“If people are getting abused on social media, then you just don’t go on social media because if you’re looking abuse and you going on social media, you’ll get plenty of it.

“I could deal with abuse okay. I probably had a reasonably strong mental strength. I built about three or four really important people around me like John Gough from Antrim, he became a referees assessor, and he was one of my go-to men.

“I would take advice from him because he refereed the game at the highest level, and he understood the game. Paddy Collins, people like that, so you surround yourself with good people.

“Everyone’s got an opinion, but you can’t listen to everyone’s opinion, you’ve got to get three or four advisers around you, and you stick to your plan, and you go with it. Abuse never stuck with me, I made a lot of mistakes during my career as you do. When you make 100 decisions every game you need to be at 98 or 99 percent all the time at the top level.

“You’re hoping that the one or two mistakes you make are not crucial mistakes, they’re not like a square ball goal or those sort of mistakes. I got to the stage of my career refereeing quite early on where I didn’t care what people thought.

“When you’ve had a bad day and I had them you just hold your hands up and move on. When I had a bad game or I made a mistake, I don’t need anybody to tell me I made a mistake, I know I made a mistake, I know I had a bad game.

“It is more difficult now I would say because of Twitter and Facebook and social media, and everybody’s got an opinion now, but the bottom line is that’s the world we’re living in, and people have to deal with it.”

Intertwined in playing club games and calling county matches, McEnaney got the chance to learn a new sport, a hybrid sport, the International Rules. The Monaghan man was part of the furniture when it came to Ireland taking on Australia and his first trip Down Under remains one of his proudest moments.

“The International Rules was something. I nearly got tired going to Australia, I was in it three times.

“It was brilliant at the start, I really enjoyed it, representing your country and the game I remember most is the first game in Melbourne in the old cricket ground where there was almost 90,000 people in it.

“Standing in front of Amhrán na bhFiann was a very special moment and we’d very good players that time like Anthony Tohill, Pádraic Joyce, Brendan Devenney, we’d a really good team at that time.

“It was only about six to eight weeks you have to prepare (for the different rule-set). I found it easy enough, I was comfortable enough with it. I didn’t like the idea of two referees, I’d rather referee it on my own. When you’re refereeing only half a game you can lose concentration, that’s what I found.

“If the ball was down the other side of the field, you’d be looking at the game, you weren’t switched on so that’s why I don’t think two referees will ever work with Gaelic football, it could be worth trying with hurling but not Gaelic football.

“The first time, on my first trip, I travelled with the team and that was interesting really because then on match day you had to separate yourself and you had to be ultra-disciplined and call it as you seen it. It was enjoyable and it was good but in the latter stages it wasn’t the sport for me.”

After hanging up the whistle at county level, McEnaney took on a different role in administration. He was talked into heading the referee’s committee at national level after a lot of convincing.

“I did that for three years afterwards and that was an eye-opener. That was something I did not want to do, I had absolutely zero interest in it, but I came under a bit of pressure to do it and I did it and I did enjoy it.

“I did the three years and I got out, I worked hard when I was at it. It’s quite amazing because I had absolutely zero interest in doing that and I landed myself that job and I cursed for two or three days after for accepting the job.

“But then I bit my lip and I got stuck into it and I quite enjoyed it. Since that then I just referee club matches, I’d still referee the odd club game in Monaghan, I refereed the county final a couple of years ago. I’m very much involved in my own club; coaching kids and I’m involved with the senior team this year.”

McEnaney will be a proud onlooker on Sunday when Sean Hurson gets the game underway. The Monaghan native will be on hand for advice and there’s no better man. When it comes to All-Ireland final day, the Corduff man has seen and done it all.

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