Referee Graham Kelly hangs up his whistle

Referee Graham Kelly hangs up his whistle

Referee Graham Kelly tossing the coin between Mayfield captain Christopher McCarthy and Cork City captain Alan Bennett prior to their Munster Senior Cup match at Mayfield Park. Picture: Dan Linehan

REFFING a match seems to have become more and more difficult. 

Unlike players or managers, it’s seldom that a referee receives praise after games. It can be a difficult role for some, but former League of Ireland referee Graham Kelly believes that growing up in a family who had refereeing experience, including his dad Pat and brother Alan, helped him cope with some of the challenges officials face.

“Growing up, we used to go everywhere with my dad to watch matches. Whether it was Casement Park, Everton Park or where ever. We saw what it was like to be a referee because we grew up with it. 

"I’ll never forget, I think I was around seven at the time, and my dad was refereeing a match in Ringmahon and he sent-off a guy during the game. I remember we were going to the car afterwards and the guy sent-off was standing by the car asking ‘what did you send me off for’? 

"My dad said, ‘you know what I’ve sent you off for’ The guy literally grabbed my dad, headbutted him and burst his nose open."

Those experiences ensured nothing was surprise when he became the man in the middle himself. A thick skin helps too.

“I’m not saying that some of the stuff that referees have to deal with is right but I had grown up seeing this with my dad. So in my mind the abuse that I received, I just saw it as part and parcel of refereeing. 

"You have to block out the verbal abuse and not let it get to you. When you go out onto the pitch, it’s just all noise. The only time you really notice the abuse is when you are walking off at half-time or full-time."    

He remembers one game last season between Droghdea and Bohs up in Droghdea and his assistant referee had been hit by a coin. 

"The game had to stop and when he was receiving treatment; I can remember looking into the crowd for a couple of seconds and seeing the hatred and venom on some of the supporters’ faces and noticing the obuse they were hurling at us. 

"I can remember just saying to myself, ‘Is this really happening’, bear in mind there were people at the game around them with children. 

Graham Kelly as the fourth official in Israel at a Champions League qualifier in which his brother Alan refereed.
Graham Kelly as the fourth official in Israel at a Champions League qualifier in which his brother Alan refereed.

"It was probably the first time I asked the question ‘Do I really need this’? At the time, I did have my doubts about refereeing in the future and it was things like that that helped make my decision.

“I remember earlier that day with my young fella asking if we could play football but I couldn’t because I had to go to the game. All I was thinking about while experiencing that abuse was my young fella asking me to play football and me leaving him down to come to listen to and seeing the abuse we received during that game. 

"It never really got to me until that night but after that I was thinking that this isn’t worth it anymore. Now that wasn’t the sole reason why I decided to retire. It was just another thing that helped me reach my decision when I was weighing up the benefits and drawbacks of continuing.” 

 Referees are more often than not criticised for the decisions they make on a pitch but Kelly believes that although some referees would like to have a more laissez-faire approach to the way they officiate that there can be no flexibility when applying the laws of the game.

“I always hear people talk about common sense with some refs’ decisions but there is no wriggle room. It’s a black or white scenario. The referee has to protect himself and his performance. They can’t be out there seeing to be doing favours for anyone. When it comes to certain decisions like a red card, refs have to implement the rules. 

"Like a guy handling the ball on the line. Sometimes they may not mean it but he has stopped a goal and the ref has to send him off because he has to protect himself.

“As much as refs would love to be lenient, they have to stick to the letter of the law otherwise it will be them that suffer the consequences. Perhaps refs could have been a bit lenient before, but they are constantly under the microscope now, that they have to be strict with rules to protect themselves.”

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