There was some Cork interest in Monday night’s Bord Gáis Energy Munster U20HC quarter-final between Tipperary and Waterford as Pat Ryan’s side – having just claimed the 2020 All-Ireland – awaited the winners in the 2021 provincial semi-final.
Ultimately, Tipp prevailed to set up a clash next week and, as well as delight for them, there was also joy for referee Nathan Wall, who was taking charge of his first inter-county championship game since late 2019.
The Carrigaline native, now living in Ballincollig and representing the club there, suffered a cruciate ligament injury in March of last year, just before the first lockdown, and, after an arduous road back, he is keen to push on again.
Wall first took up the whistle in the spring of 2010, but it was another injury, in 2004, which started the chain of events.
“I shattered my patella when I was 22, playing in an intermediate hurling challenge match,” he says.
“It had to be reconstructed and I was told I’d never play again. Kevin O’Driscoll, an absolute legend and a gentleman, was club chairman at the time, I was in hospital for six weeks and he called me in nearly every second night, he kept me involved.
“I was PRO for a bit and then junior hurling coach, but I was too young to be doing those things. Then, in 2010, an in-service referees’ course came up and Jim Forbes, God rest his soul, asked me if I’d do it.”
Things snowballed quickly and Wall was added to the county board panel in 2012 and the Munster panel a year later. In 2014, he was in the middle as Sarsfields beat Glen Rovers in the last senior final at the old Páirc Uí Chaoimh. He credits Michael Keane, the county referees’ co-ordinator at the time, will helping him to progress to the point where he took charge of the 2018 Munster Club SHC final between Ballygunner and Na Piarsaigh. Senior inter-county games were obviously the next step.
“After 2018, I was happy enough but I was unhappy with my fitness and physique,” he says.
“I always feel that if you go out and look fit, you’ll get maybe five percent more respect from the players and that’s a lot.
“In October 2019, I started working with Eoin Fehily of F1T in Ballincollig. I always looked at fitness as being about running, but he brought in weights and strength and conditioning.”
After a good fitness test in January 2020, he was relishing the year ahead. He had been appointed to referee a Division 1 Allianz HL game between Limerick and Westmeath when a communications exercise at a referees’ seminar went wrong.
“I jumped up to catch a ball – I probably jumped higher than I’ve ever jumped,” he says, “and as I landed on the surface, my ankle just stuck into the ground and I snapped my cruciate off the bone.”
Initially, surgery was meant to be on March 15 but Covid postponed it until July 6. However, he praises the care of his GP, Dr Denis Twomey and Professor James Harty, as well as his own family and the wider GAA one.
“My wife Elaine and the three girls – Olivia, Matilda and Ruby – were my rocks,” he says.
“The support I got from Croke Park and Cork County Board was immense. Croke Park covered the surgery and the county board provided me with Brian O’Connell as a full-time physio.
“I was in regularly with Brian, doing pre-op rehab which absolutely stood to me. While I was waiting for the surgery, I ran 11.2km on May 9 for Pietà House, I did it in 55 minutes and fellas were like, ‘Whoa, that’s incredible.’
“The support from the wider GAA community – people who might be effing you out of it at a match! – was amazing. There were messages and phone calls and Conor Lane and Colm Lyons were checking in.
“Johnny Dwyer in Ballincollig said I could get involved in any team I wanted, I was with the U16s and they got to a county semi-final. It was great to give something back while not refereeing.”
Now that he is back, he is keen to pursue that goal of a senior championship match, even if the schedule has been put back slightly.
“This year is about getting back on the horse and getting the experience under the belt,” he says.
“I look to next year and the objective is to hit a Division 1 game. The journey continues but I’ll have to be realistic – in my eyes, the injury has set me back two years and I think it’ll probably be 2023 before I get a senior inter-county championship game but I enjoy what I do and I would say to any GAA person who’s considering getting into refereeing to give it a go.”