28 May 2022

Men in the middle

Thoughts of a GAA referee

Men in the middle

Without a referee, there can be no game. (Pic: Philip Fitzpatrick/Sportsfile)

With news of a return to club activities, thoughts turn to the season ahead. In a special feature this week Michael McMullan looks at those who take up the whistle. Football referee Paddy Devlin and hurling whistler Micky Quigg talk about their experiences.

So you think you can do better? Put your whistle where your mouth is. Those words struck a chord with Micky Quigg. As Derry GAA's Facebook post came calling for new referees, Quigg thought he could do better.

The Swatragh man followed it up with a short email to Sean Curran, who was looking after referees at the time, and he's been there since.

After taking up the whistle in 2014, a spell in the 'Big Apple' as New York GAA's Hurling Development Officer saw him referee his first senior county final three years later. Tucked away in the Bronx, under the shadow of Manhattan College and the passing trains, Ulster took on Tipperary in the decider, with Dublin's Danny Sutcliffe and Clare goal machine Shane O'Donnell in action.

Micky Quigg taking change of the New York county final in 2017.

“I also did the semi-final and TJ Reid was playing for one of the teams, so that was pretty cool,” Quigg states.

Hurling and refereeing have been kind to him. In summary, Quigg sees the glass as more than half full in relation to what is often perceived as the toughest gig in sport.

When a call needs to be made, the eyes will be locked on the referee. Two sets of players, supporters and management teams.

“It's not even the decision,” Quigg explains. “It's the split second you have to make it and the pressure that comes with it.”

There are more good days than bad. Enjoyment comes from the rapport fostered from the relationships with players and managers alike. Provided a referee has the 'right personality' there is craic to be had.

It's not all a bed of roses. There is the verbal and sometimes physical abuse attached to the role. Many forget there is a person behind every referee. A family, a job and the challenges life throws at them.

“That's a fair point,” Quigg accepts. “It is to do with the GAA community as a whole, we are a very passionate group.”

In his coaching and playing days, he would offer his handshake and a word of thanks in the direction of the referee 'regardless' of his agreement with 'all' the decisions.

“If I am in the middle of pitch and am focussed on the game, I don't hear it,” Quigg states of any abuse hurled in a referee's direction.

“They are just chancing their arm. The majority of the conversations to me have always been respectful.”

Referees, in Quigg's opinion, are only as strong as the advice they get. And with every game, comes new learning. He cites Eamonn Hasson, Tarlach Conway, Owen Elliott, Eddie and Alan Nash on those he can bend the ear of.

“If there is a game where I'm not sure how that went, I'd pick up the phone and give them a call,” Quigg points out.

“A lot of boys have been good to me down through the years. With refereeing in general and Derry GAA they'll have your back and look out for you. Advice, a hand doing a line or umpire or whatever it may be.”


Quigg took a 'real liking' to refereeing and with the fitness gained comes travelling around the county extends as a social aspect many others gain from sport.

He is thankful for his pool of umpires. His brother John Joe, Neil McAllister, Brian Óg Corbett, Francis McEldowney, Rory McGurk and the Mullan brothers – Cathal and Dominic.

“You need people you can trust and point out what everyone has to look out for,” Micky explains and is thankful whichever four he calls on will be on his channel. A trusted set of eyes when an off the ball incident needs a decision.

“Those boys are always there for me...and we have some craic on Sunday mornings,” adds Quigg of the early Sunday morning trips to a windy Garvaghey to some corner of Antrim.

“Get a group of your mates to do umpire for you,” comes his advice for anyone thinking of taking up the whistle.

“When you get the first couple of games under you, you'll start to enjoy it. They do say refereeing is a hard job, but generally the majority of people have an appreciation for you at the end of a game or if you see them through the county during the week.”

Having another referee casting their opinion on his performance was a help to Quigg early on. Like a player wanting to reach the top level, there is no substitute for watching. And learning.

“Look what the referees at the top level are doing. How they deal with decisions, communicate with players and go back to their umpires.”

One of the roles of any captain is to take the toss. It gives the referee a chance to get his message into the respective pre-game huddles. The simple message that is easily carried. A popular one is a warning against dissent.

“I'd always have it in my head before a game what I am going to tell the captains,” Quigg states. “I tell them that it needs to go back to the team and if it isn't, it's on them.

“You'll miss a pick-up, you'll miss a score and I will make an odd mistake, but I will be consistent and I will keep up with the play,” Quigg explains of his message.

“If I call a free (during the game) captains will often ask me what they need to do differently. Sometimes I will call the captains, separately, at half-time before the teams are going in for the break. It could be something as simple as warning them to stop chopping. They'll appreciate it more that you went to them in their role as captain.”

Looking at refereeing as a whole, Micky puts himself in the position of the player. What would they want from the man in the middle?

“I wanted someone to be consistent, whether it is right or wrong for both teams. I want them to keep up with play and explain (a decision) as opposed to just blowing the whistle and pointing. If you ask them the score, they are not ignoring you.”

There also, he feels, needs to be an openness to error and the 'possibility' of a referee making a mistake. Others may see as a 'sign of weakness'.

“I would completely disagree,” Quigg states. “If you can be honest and open with a player, that's all they want back.

“I am not saying (to a player) I'm right and you're wrong. I am saying that from my point of view, it looks like, for example, a pick off the ground. From my angle, it looked like a pick off the ground. I am going to stick with it.”


Two years ago a torn cruciate ended the footballing career of Desertmartin's Paddy Devlin at the age of 26. As someone with a deep interest and an avid watcher of games, getting back involved was a must.

Tied in was a fascination for the rules. In an age when 'black card ref' became the common shot at grounds across the country, Devlin would often evaluate it.

“Sometimes it wouldn't be close to the right call,” he adds.

“I was always very interested in  the game as a whole. I would have followed football...I'd have nearly gone to every championship and league match, as many as I could.”

Played right, the advanced mark, which he finds 'interesting' has helped the game. Two minutes into a conversation is enough to convince you of Devlin's constant thirst for knowledge. And improvement. In a similar fashion to the player wanting to constantly evolve.

From refereeing his first game in an U14 Féile na nÓg game, he was on the line for Greenlough's win over Steelstown in last year's intermediate final.

“I was working along with Polo (Mark McGeehan) and Declan O'Connor that day,” Devlin adds. “”Those boys have a lot of experience and seeing them dealing with pressure. Every day is a learning day.”

Every day is a school day and every game is a fresh script. Use of a rule may pop up for the first time in a few games and it's time for another refresher. It's all about preparation.

“You have two teams who have trained all year for a championship match, you don't want to let yourself or anybody down. You try to do it to the best of your ability,” stresses Devlin, who referees two minor championship games last season and Greenlough U14's final win over St Patrick's.


Criticism can crush or polish you. Paddy filters through it, but chooses the latter.

“Some of it is constructive, some of it is unfair,” he says. “You evaluate it and have a good team of umpires around you that you trust, who are not going to lie to you and tell you that you did well, when you really didn't.

“You want to get as much information to try and improve every game. Sometimes you are going to be wrong, you just have to take it on the chin and move on.”

Watching senior championship games was part of the learning curve and reaching out for help. No question was too trivial. It was all learning.

“Listen to the older hands and every one of them has always guided me, taking time to show me things to keep myself right,” was Devlin's advice to anyone who finds themselves in his shoes two years ago, ready to step on the refereeing ladder.

In terms of getting into the zone for a game, he echoes Micky Quigg. The background noise is irrelevant. And there is enjoyment.

“It's about keeping your head and staying calm, if you are doing it properly and watching the game, anything else is just like a humming noise.”


Devlin's knee reconstruction ruled out the twisting, turning and contact required for five-a-side football to keep himself ticking over. He now turns to walking and running. His 5 and 10km runs keep his engine primed enough to put him in the best place on the pitch to make a call.

His job as a lorry driver for GO fuel sees him away early in the morning and home late in the evening, with just enough turnaround for a quick bite before darting out to a game. Having everything organised the day before avoids any late panic.

“The worst thing is rushing into a game unprepared. I like to be there in time and warmed up and show the players, I am taking this seriously,” he points out.

“There is nothing as bad looking as a referee landing late and unprepared, it gets the people's backs up right away.”

On the pitch, it's about remaining calm and settling into a game early, while getting on the players' side.

“The game is about the two teams, not the man in the middle,” Devlin states. “I tell them I am here to let them play, and I don't want to blow this whistle.”

He will look for a 'bit of reasoning' and concedes that mistakes will be made, but his bug bear is high and rash tackling. It is uncalled for in his opinion.

“At underage, a lot of it comes down to coaching and people need to remember you have to tackle the ball,” explains Paddy, who also refers to the 'Give Respect, Get Respect' logo on referees' clothing.

Paddy Devlin looking across his home pitch in Desertmartin.

“If you give respect, you'll get respect back,” he stresses. There has to be a balance between too much authority and having control over a game. The referee shouldn't be in the spotlight.

“At the end of the game, if nobody knew who refereed that match, it is a job well done in my eyes,” Devlin continues. That's real success.

He was keen to stress the point of only being able to make a decision on what he can see. In a championship, there will be umpires and linesmen. But on the average Sunday when he follows the play, he is on his own and someone gets struck off the ball. His hands are tied.

“I don't think people fully understand that,” he says. “You have to make the best decision on what you see. That's the's on what you see.”

For someone with an interest in the game, Paddy sees getting involved as a referee as a step forward.

“It is a good way of getting fit and getting to meet different people,” he sums up. “It reflects your personality and how you can keep calm. There are a lot of stressful situations and it is all about coming out on top of them.”

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