Maggie Farrelly: Game changer

By Shaun Casey

LIKE most people in the profession, Maggie Farrelly stumbled upon refereeing almost by accident. She took up the whistle to help her club, while still playing and coaching, and hasn’t looked back since.

Cavan GAA were enforcing a rule that all clubs must provide a referee or their senior team would lose home advantage in the league, so Farrelly, a member of the Laragh United club, took on the role.

“It’s not something that I anticipated I would ever do,” said Farrelly. “I was asked by the club chairperson just to help out in order for the club not to give up home advantage in the league at senior level.

“It was a recruitment drive that the county board kind of instilled for all clubs to have at least one referee. I suppose I was playing and coaching within my club, and I got asked the question.

“I don’t know how meaningful the question was in terms of picking the right person or whatever, but I said I would because at the end of the day, I was given the opportunity to play Gaelic games in my club.

“I got involved, did the referees’ course and the fitness test like everybody else. I also refereed a couple of underage games and progressed then the following year into adult football.

“My story probably just went from strength to strength then – I got on to the provincial panel and national panel and there I am now for the last couple of years.

“It’s been a steady progress, a steady progression for me. It’s one of those things that has happened by default more so than anything else – this is not something that I ever thought I’d have on my CV, but it’s how it worked out.”

Farrelly has soared through the ranks and created little pieces of history along the way. The Cavan native became the first female to referee a men’s inter-county match, calling the shots from the middle for Fermanagh’s McKenna Cup tie with St Mary’s in 2021.

She became the first female to referee a men’s county final in the Breffni County and was the first woman to referee a men’s National League match, the Division Four tie between Leitrim and London in 2022.

That’s a lot of firsts in a small space of time. While nerves played their part, as they would for anyone, Farrelly soon found her groove and the enjoyment levels helped overcome any form of early unrest.

“When you’re starting out, you’re just kind of going through the motions,” added Farrelly. “You’re just refereeing games and for me, it was like still playing. It’s one of those things then that you get a feel for and you start to enjoy.

“Then it’s probably difficult to step away when you are enjoying it. You definitely have more successful days than days that are maybe a little bit harder, a little bit more challenging.

“That’s what probably keeps you there, that retention part. And I suppose then you see the rest of the lads progressing on to maybe provincial and national plans and you start thinking, why can I not do that?”

Farrelly continued: “The opportunity was given to me to be able to follow the footsteps of Joe McQuillan and Noel Mooney within my own county, and I was delighted with that opportunity. You’re always going to be anticipating a wee bit of anxiety and stuff like that.

“You’re converting that into positive energy and trying to keep creating that adrenaline that gets you through the game. Of course, after a while, you become a little bit more settled and you build a routine.

“That routine is hugely important in terms of my preparation. Then that’s your go-to in terms of how you prepare for a game and you’re not getting over-anxious when it comes to bigger games and bigger challenges that you’re faced with in terms of appointments and so on.”

Much like a player getting in the zone for a big championship game, Farrelly meticulously plans out her day-to-day structure in terms of training and diet to ensure she is at the top of her game come throw in.

“Because I’ve played all my life, I probably had that structure and I was able to adjust it and change it into something similar in terms of nutrition, hydration, training load, rest, recovery, sleep, all those bits and pieces.

“It does take a wee bit of time to embed that and getting the right formula that suits you. In terms of when you pack your bag and even though I wash my boots after training and after games, I would always wash them again the morning of a game.

“It’s just one of those things that I do, it’s habit. It becomes embedded into your routine and I always read the rule book before the game, they’re essential to me now in terms of my preparation.”

Knowing the rules is key of course and Farrelly referees both men’s and women’s football matches, which have two completely different rule books. There’s the mark in the men’s game and the black card while women can lift the ball off the ground for example.

But experience is the key and Farrelly can balance the two fairly easily. “When you’re refereeing in both codes, you’re probably particular about it. It just becomes part and parcel of your routine and how you prepare for the game.

“A massive amount of time goes into it and that’s something that maybe people are not aware of. People probably don’t know what we do in terms of our training and in terms of how we prepare ourselves for games at this level, but I enjoy the training aspect.

“I’ve been doing it for that long now, it probably just comes naturally enough. You just have to prepare yourself and think about who you’re refereeing, and reading the rule book helps before the game just to realign.

“It brings its own challenges, of course it does, and there’s the challenge of making yourself available for both codes. It’s important to have open lines of communication with people in terms of your availability and so on.

“But you’re trying to give both the best of you and the best version of yourself when the opportunity comes.”

Something that raises its head quite a lot when discussing refereeing is the impact of abuse that the people in the middle often experience, whether that’s from the players themselves, from the sideline or indeed from the stand.

But there’s also the faceless and over-opinionated person on X or Facebook that will always be keen on sharing their thoughts. It’s a tough part of the job and something that can and has turned people off picking up a whistle.

“I’m not on any social media myself but I think in the last couple of years, some instances (of abuse) have been highlighted maybe more significantly than others.

“We have to take a positive from that – that instances (of abuse) are being reported and hopefully within our county boards and at national level or provincial level they are being dealt with accordingly.

“Players are subject to the rules but it’s different with people in the stand as you have no control over that. It’s getting that consistency of reporting those instances because if they’re not reported, they can’t deal with it.

“The new system now of CODA has helped significantly in terms of getting people fined and getting clubs dismissed or club members dismissed for abuse, that’s helped clean up things to a certain extent as well.

“Nobody ever wants to go out and to get abused from start to finish. We don’t do it for that reason, and that’s the deterrent factor for even getting people involved at the recruitment stage.

“It would also be the reason why people drop out – because of the level of abuse that people do encounter maybe at the early stages of the refereeing career.

“Abuse happens all the time and it’s something that we need to deal with, but we as referees have to be consistent in terms of reporting that as it can be a deterrent factor in keeping referees in the sport, unfortunately.”

It’s not all doom and gloom of course and the craic and camaraderie that comes with it is the best part of the job says Farrelly. “It’s great being out at the weekends with the umpires and the practice you have with them.

“At the end of the day they’re an extension of you and you handpick them. They’re the ones that back you on match days. They’re there through thick and thin and they put in a huge effort to be there with you to support us. Their role is very significant in terms of our development and sometimes they’re kind of the forgotten ones.

“Referees can be forgotten about too and we don’t get All-Stars and whatever, but without assistance it would be even harder. We’re very fortunate that we have good people around us.”

Farrelly has refereed three All-Ireland Ladies finals and getting the chance to officiate a men’s All-Ireland decider is high on her to-do list. “For everybody that’s on this journey, the biggest dream is to get to referee an All-Ireland final. Whether that comes to me, who knows, so I just have to be patient and wait and see what happens over the next couple of years. It’s one of those things that you would aspire to do, but not everybody gets those opportunities, so we just have to wait and see.”

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