The big interview: Nathan Wall on the highs and lows of being a GAA referee

The big interview: Nathan Wall on the highs and lows of being a GAA referee
Glen Rovers keeper Cathal Hickey getting a yellow card from referee Nathan Wall. Picture: Dan Linehan

IN a fascinating interview referee Nathan Wall discusses a number of topics including the thorny issue that referees in Cork are too soft, his fitness battle, abuse of officials, and his admiration for the officiating in other codes.

Wall’s journey to becoming a referee began with a prompting from the late, great Jim Forbes down in Carrigaline where he grew up.

“Like most people, I’m a passionate GAA person who happens to be a referee. Recently I’ve asked a number of people who taught them the rules of hurling and football growing up. Interestingly not one of them had been taught the rules at underage level, ever looked or studied a copy of the rule book.

“The advantage rule is probably the one that creates frustration as most people are unaware that if a player has an advantage and he fouls the ball it’s a free against him, it can be a frustrating one but that is the rule.” 

Wall has made progress on the inter-county scene in recent years. After officiating at the Munster minor final this season he went on to referee the county final between Imokilly and Glen Rovers after taking charge of Ballygunner and Patrickswell in the Munster club decider last year.

“It’s about being patient and I was standby referee for this year’s final between Ballygunner and Borrisoleigh which was an absolutely cracking contest. Passion, heart, old school hurling, not a dirty stroke in the game. It’s all about gaining experience and its step by step just like in any other walk of life.

“Hopefully over the next year or two I’ll get on the championship panel for the Liam McCarthy Cup and referring an All-Ireland hurling final is the ultimate goal. On the morning of the Munster minor final in the summer my grandmother passed away which was tough but you can’t let the outside stuff distract your focus. The game went well for me on the day so I’m sure my gran was guiding me through it.” 

Critics on the bank or hurlers on the ditch regularly allege that Cork hurling is gone soft and the lack of flow and physicality to our games is caused by fussy referees who are whistle happy.

Wall smiles: “Surprise, surprise I disagree that referees in Cork fail to let the games flow. Firstly, it’s up to the players to let the game flow, the referee is only a facilitator.

“The referees in Kilkenny, Galway or Tipperary are all instructed from Croke Park so consistency is probably what everyone is looking for. When I hear people say that they are taking lumps out of each other in another county the question I would ask is are the rules being enforced. Inconsistency frustrates supporters and as referees we need to ensure that everyone reaches that level of consistency around decisions.

“Throughout the year the head tackle was the biggest talking point. From the early rounds of the league right up until the sending off of Richie Hogan in the All-Ireland final.

“As a referee player welfare is our responsibility. So in the biggest game of the year James Owens had a call that no referee wants to make, giving a player a red card in an All-Ireland. But after careful consideration and discussions with his linesman he makes the correct call, in my opinion, it was a red card. In this year’s county final I spoke to Seamus Harnedy and Brian Moylan before the game and instructed them on their responsibilities.

“After 15 minutes there was so much stuff going on off the ball, I was forced to issue four yellow cards in five minutes to get control of the game. Thankfully that worked, everyone calmed down and we had a very good game with Imokilly coming out best.

“And that’s what we need in Cork is for referees to the tested but at the same time be in control. So this year’s final was a good example of how two teams can go at it within the rules of the game. To be fair John Meyler who I had worked with during his time with Cork texted me after the game to basically say well done.” 

The extraordinary levels of fitness of our inter-county teams have ensured that referees simply have to follow suit. As former French football star Michel Platini famously remarked after attending an All-Ireland final, ‘this sport is only amateur in name’. Getting to the elite level of referring requires hard work.

“Following a discussion with my good friend Conor Lane I decided to set new goals after getting on the national referees panel. I was doing plenty of running on the roads but my overall training wasn’t right. So I met up with Eoin Fehily who is attached to Ballincollig GAA club and his crew at F1T gym. I’m down a stone after six weeks which is great.

“The guys at F1T have challenged me mentally as well and the benefits have been so positive. It’s been a real eye-opener to be honest. We go through serious fitness assessments and tests in January at Croke Park and again before the championship in April. The Munster crew train in Mallow every Monday night.” 

The use of technology has changed the officiating of sport across the globe and the Carrigaline native is a real student of learning from other sports.

“Technology has been huge in sport in recent years. But I don’t think the idea of two referees at inter-county level would necessarily work but that is another discussion. If we look at other sports we can see how VAR has created so much controversy across the water and has been a real turn off for fans.

“I think we can take a lot from rugby with the culture of respect for referees. Someone like Nigel Owens is a brilliant example and the way he communicates with the players. The TMO decisions are made as a group decision between the referee and his two linesman. I’ve no doubt we will see more technology in hurling in the coming years and a TMO might be introduced to Gaelic Games in five, 10 or 15 years. It may be the difference between winning and losing an All-Ireland final.” 

Finally, the ugly side of being a referee means abuse is a regular occurrence.

“My wife Elaine who has been incredibly supportive in every way brought our two daughters aged two and two to the county final. Despite the fact the game went well for me the abuse and foul language towards me from the stands was a real shock to her. So she wouldn’t be keen to bring the kids again when they get older, which is disappointing.

“Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention my team from Carrigaline who are the real foot soldiers of the association, Tony Barry, Michael Burke, Pa Burke, Michael Harrington, Paul O’Brien, Andy O’Keefe, Barry O’Keeffe, Peter McCarthy.”

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