Former Tipperary goalkeeper Fergal Horgan, who played in London both at club and inter-county level, speaks to Fiona O’Brien about the challenges of being a championship referee
Although Fergal Horgan can remember being ‘mortified’ after one bad refereeing experience, he would genuinely recommend that former hurlers take up the practice.
The Knockavilla Kickhams club man got into refereeing by chance, when there was a shortage of officials in his home county of Tipperary, and was asked to volunteer by his club chairman. “I said I’d give it a go and it has worked out brilliantly ever since,” he says.
In his short time of refereeing, Fergal has rocketed in profile to take the reins of big games, having won prestigious accolades along the way.
“I was coming to the end of finishing up playing senior hurling here in Tipperary when I was coming up to 30. I was going to a lot of matches when our chairman asked me to get involved, and I started in 2009 at juvenile matches.”
He sees it as a great way to stay involved with his beloved sport once he hung up his playing boots.
“I get a great buzz out of it. I was so used to playing throughout my life. I played with Tipperary at all levels, so I was used to playing in front of big crowds be it Munster Final day or All Ireland final day, and my only way to get back into that was to be refereeing at the highest level.
“Now I’m back in the midst of it. The most important aspect of it for me is the buzz, to be in amongst it, in the middle of all the top players.” Fergal’s rise to the top of the GAA’s selection of match officials has come unusually fast.
“Normally it takes ten or fifteen years for a referee to work their way up to championship inter-county games. I started seven years ago, and in 2011 I progressed onto the Munster panel.
“The next year I got onto the national panel of about 32 or 33 and in 2014 I made the championship panel after only being on the national panel for a year.
“For me, it was very quick. I think the fact that I was a former inter-county player and that I understand the game is a big bonus to people. They know that you’ve played the game at the highest level yourself. That has to be a plus for people who take up refereeing. If you start from scratch it is very hard to put you into big, big games.”
And Fergal is no stranger to big games himself. He has won multiple championships at inter county level, while playing in goals; U14 Tony Forrsital, two U16 All Irelands, two Munster Minor medals and an All Ireland Minor medal, as well as a Munster intermediate title and a Munster U21.
At club level he has won a county U21 title and a West Senior Hurling championship, still ruing two lost senior semi-finals to Tommevara. He came to London in 1999 when he joined Brothers Pearse, before joining Sean Treacy’s the following year, and reached a county final which was lost to Fr Murphy’s.
“I loved my time in London. I played county there too, and followed my cousin PJ Horgan who captained the Pearses to a senior championship in 1998. His sister Theresa played camogie with the Pearses too.
“I met my wife in London and she moved back to Ireland with me after my two years there. Her father was from Wexford and her mother from Longford.” And now living back in Tipperary with four children, Fergal notes the amount of commitment it takes to be a hurling referee.
“It is a big commitment. I’m on a big training regime where I cover about 40km a week and ref four matches every week. I could be gone all day on a Saturday. I could be gone Saturday at 12 o’clock and mightn’t be home until 8 o’clock that evening, or if it’s an evening game I could be out the door by 4pm and not back until midnight.
“It’s a big undertaking for families. We work around the GAA and big matches for holidays and things like that. But I’ve three boys, aged 13, 11 and seven, and a nine-year-old girl and they are all heavily involved with the GAA too.”
If people are willing to put in the time and effort, would Fergal recommend being a referee?
“I would recommend it but it’s not very everyone. You have to be a strong character, and shut out all the abuse. There’s a lot of abuse towards referees and if you can’t take that on board and constructive criticism then you’ve no business taking it up. I don’t think there is at club level, but it is excellent at inter-county level. The way it is controlled, there is no messing tolerated in a match.
“There is a lot of support at inter-county but not so much at club level in terms of abuse, but it’s part and parcel of the game.
“Hawk eye for example takes a bit of the pressure away from umpires and referees because if we do make a decision that is wrong, the machine, within ten or fifteen seconds, will rectify it for us.”
But there are further measures that he feels Croke Park could take to help smooth the running of the game further.
“I think the managers and coaches should be put into the stands like in rugby. They should be put away in a box so we don’t hear them or see them, and to stop them jumping in and out on the field during the game.
“I think it should be the next step for the GAA I think there are too many people on the sidelines. And with the fourth official all wired up we can hear everything.”
And what would be the sign of a good referee to Fergal, does he agree with the old-age description that a ref has had a good game if you haven’t noticed him?
“It’s difficult. The problem with refereeing in general is that people don’t understand the rules. Holding is a noting infraction offence, with others.
“If they happen twice in a match it is an automatic yellow card, but people in the stand don’t realise that. They think that the referees are flashing out cards for no reason. Even some of the managers at inter county level you’d be surprised to what extent they know the full rules.”
But Fergal has been noted as his refereeing career has progressed as his highlights of his career shows.
“One of the highlights so far have been when I got to referee the All Ireland Minor Final in 2014, as I won it as a player in 1996. “In 2014, I also won the award for Young Referee of the Year that same season so they’ve been a couple of highlights so far.”
The award in question was the first ever Shane Hourigan award, which was named in honour of Fergal’s friend and referee who tragically passed away in a road traffic accident in January 2014.
“We came up through the ranks together. Shane started refereeing slightly before me and we progressed together. We were always on duty together in Munster mostly, and the two of us would have probably been on the Championship panel together in 2014 only for his tragic death.”
At the time of winning his award, Fergal said: “When Shane lost his life so tragically last January it hit us all,” says Horgan. “You’d be in the same dressing room as him week in week out and it was an awful blow to refereeing in general.
“He was a top class referee coming through and he came through at the same time as I did. He was a Munster man, a Limerick man, a neighbour, and it was a huge honour to get an award named in his memory.
“We are a close bunch down in Munster – like a big family, really. Having worked with Shane, he was a true professional. Whether it was running the line for him or him running the line for me he was always great to work with and it was clear that he loved what he was doing.”
And are there days that Fergal wishes he could hang up his whistle? “Every second night!” he jokes. “There are times when you question it. I done the minor semi-final match in Croke Park, where the Hawk Eye got it wrong.
“I was mortified after that match that such a big decision could go wrong, but looking back you can’t do anything about it. It wasn’t my fault, it was the machine’s error, but things like that could kind of affect you.”
And what is Fergal’s advice to those thinking of taking up refereeing? “I’d like to see more former players take up refereeing. And don’t take it on unless you are going to be strong minded and be as fair as you can. Listen to people who are involved with refereeing like your officials and administrators.
“There’s more money in coaching. There’s no payment for referees, you just get compensated for your mileage and expenses. But it is good exposure, it’s great when you are looking for employment.”