Paddy Neilan is not alone the number one Gaelic Football referee in Roscommon but in Connacht too. He has been a grade one referee for the past four years and his reputation is improving all the time. Paddy works as an electrician in Sligo and is a St Faithleach’s man and he lives in the Ballyleague area with his wife Carol and young sons Adam (4) and Alex who is just two months old.
I spoke to Paddy recently about the increasingly tough job that referees have, the new rules which will come in on January the 1st, his relationship with players, the training he does, the reviews of his performance, abuse of referees and several other aspects of modern day Gaelic Football. But instead of a man under pressure I found a man that relishes his job and enjoys it every day he goes out. I think it would be fair to say that he is ambitious too!

You have had a very busy2019 but you were not around for the last couple of months. Why was that?
“That’s true but it didn’t affect the inter-county for me scene at all. I have a foot injury the past few weeks and my wife gave birth to our second soon recently so I was out of action then, but this was my busiest year so far at inter-county level. I started with the FBD League game between Galway and Mayo and the experimental rules were in for that match. I had four great National League games after that including Kildare v Armagh, I was in Ennis for Cork v Clare, then I refereed Kerry v Monaghan in Killarney on a very snowy day and it was lucky the game was played at all. I also had four championship games and they all went well. I had a lot of high-profile games which I needed as I felt that I had to step it up a notch this year”

You didn’t do as many clubs games in Roscommon as you normally do this year. Any reason why?
“No reason at all except to say that when you are on the national panel they expect that you will be free all summer long as long as the championship is ongoing which is fair enough. I try to fit in as much club stuff as I can but it’s not always easy”

People in the county would say that Paddy Neilan should be refereeing the club senior final every year because he is the best referee in the county what would you say to that?
“It would be unfair to the other referees who are working all year in the county if that was to happen. They all deserve a chance. I was at all the county finals recently and I thought that they were all refereed well to be honest. When the new baby came in September in my house it ruled me out, and that’s when most of the club games were being played so that was another factor”

You refereed what are commonly thought of as the two best games in the All Ireland SFC this year, Cavan v Armagh in the replay in Ulster and Kerry v Donegal in the Super 8’s ( it finished 1-20 apiece). That must have been exciting….
“I have to say that I love going to the north of the country to referee there is always a great atmosphere at matches in the north. The day of the Armagh v Cavan replay I was down to referee Waterford and Westmeath in the qualifiers in Mullingar and I was delighted to be doing that because I never refereed either county before. If I had refereed that qualifier it would have left Wexford as the only county that I have not refereed. But the game in Ulster was a draw and I got the call on the Tuesday to do the replay. It was a brilliant game of football, a sunny day and the two teams just went at each other and you knew that you were part of a cracker. Then we went on to referee Kerry v Donegal in Croke Park in the Super 8’s and that was another great game. It was the same day as Shane Lowry won the British Open. But to have refereed two of the best games of the year in the championship in 2019 was great. You have to take it that you made some contribution to the games being exciting. You will not get any recognition afterwards as a referee and I don’t’ care about that but it was great to be part of those two matches”

Is your injury a serious one?
“I did the line in the All-Ireland minor final and I took a two week break after that and I started training again but I knew it wasn’t right so I took a complete break after that hoping it would go away. I pulled out of the latter stages of the Roscommon county championships and the Connacht club championships as well. But maybe it’s just as well because it’s the first real break I have had in two years. It’s no harm really. I did the Roscommon county final last year and the Connacht club final too so I was going until December so I had no break. I want to get this injury fully healed and if I miss a round or two of the National League in the new year then so be it. I want to get the injury cleared up”

What training do you do as a referee?
“I run three times a week and I go to the gym twice a week. I have really stepped up the training in the past two years. If you want to referee at the top level you just have to do it”
There are new rules on the way on January the 1st. Will that make the referees’ job even harder?
“I have to say that it won’t be much harder. We have refereed these rules last year remember. There is no doubt that there is bigger scrutiny in the bigger games, but I would like to think that I referee every game the same. If you let your guard down you could make a mistake and for the players that are playing in that game it’s a serious matter. The new rules will certainly be a challenge, but we have been well briefed. The sin-bin is not a problem. The most black cards you ever see in a game is two or three and they don’t all come at the same time either. I have no fears about implementing the rules to be honest. I think that clubs will play ball when it comes to it too”

How important are your umpires?
“They are very important. The one thing that really bothers me is when umpires get critisised. Critisism never bothers me but I hate when the umpires get stick. People always say ‘sure they are all his mates and they are only going for the day out and the feed’ but nothing could be further from the truth. This year we were in Newry, Killarney, Derry and Ennis to name just four days. We leave Roscommon Town at 9 in the morning and we don’t get back until 9 or 10 that night. The lads I have don’t do it for a free dinner. There are far easier ways of getting a free dinner that that I can assure you. They do it because they love it and they are very dedicated to making sure they do a good job too. I can certainly say that only for my umpires I’d be lost”

Are you ambitious?
“Well I am, but I’m not obsessed about it either. After the Kerry v Donegal match someone asked me would I like to get the (All-Ireland) final and I said that I wouldn’t be disappointed if I didn’t get it, and that’s the way it turned out butI have had a great year anyway. But there is natural disappointment there because if you want to have ambitions to do the All Ireland senior final you have to do a minor or an U-20 or club final. The problem for me in recent years is that Corofin have been in a lot of club finals, Galway have been in three of the last four minor finals, and Mayo have been a lot of senior finals too and to add to that Galway and Mayo have been in the U-20 finals in recent years too. So it’s very hard for a Connacht referee to get a look in when there is a Connacht team involved and that’s just the way it is. I just have to bide my time and when the opportunity comes along I have to take it. But I have to say I am very happy where I am at the moment”

Do you chat to the players during a big game?
“Oh yeah I do relentlessly. I try not to overdo it because you don’t want to come across as you are to pally with the players, but you have to be straight with them at all times. I always try address them by their first names and I make sure I get to know their names. If there is a team and there are a few players in it I don’t know, I do my research beforehand and make sure I know them before I go out. I remember that I refereed Laois and Carlow a few years ago and it was my second time to referee Laois that year so I knew them, but it was the first time I did Carlow. I wasn’t sure of some of the Carlow players’ names but I learned them off before I went out and they were surprised at that. It’s all about respect. If you respect the players they will respect you. I try to do that in club matches too. If I don’t know a player I would ask the lads that I do know and then I chat to them. Referees deserve respect, but so do players”

What about abuse. How do u deal with that?
“I haven’t got a lot of abuse to be honest. If by abuse you mean people shouting during a match in the crowd then that happens in every game and I pass no heed on that at all. But serious abuse is very rare, it might have happened once or twice in my career and that’s it. Sometimes referees can be too sensitive too, and you have to take the rough with the smooth. Everyone gets grilled in whatever job they do so you just have to get on with it as long as it’s not serious and I find most people are genuine and there is no bad feelings at all. I find when you talk to most people one to one they are decent”

What’s the schedule for 2020?
“We do a fitness test in January, in fact as far as I know the fitness test is on the 10th January so while Christmas is not cancelled, it will be curtailed for sure. I am not a big drinker anyway so it won’t bother me but you have to mind yourself if you want to do the job. You are expected to pass that fitness test with a bit to spare and then we will have the league coming up very soon after that”

Any regrets since you started?
“I wouldn’t say regrets but you look back on some games and certain incidents and say’ I could have done better there’ or’ handled that situation better’ A lot of people think that when a game is over the referee goes away and forgets about it. Nothing could be further from the truth. If there is a video tape of the game that I have refereed I always watch it back and self-analyse. You have to do it to improve. You have to nit-pick, and I find that I get better if I am self-critical. If I don’t do it then I will never improve. We also get feedback from Croke Park who are constructive in their critisism. The top referees meet every two or three weeks during the championship in Abbotstown for training sessions and video analysis. It’s an open forum. It’s very well run”

I presume that to referee a senior All-Ireland final is the ambition?
“I’d like to think that some day I will get a final, but I am certainly not obsessed about it. If I get better every year it is something that will fall into place naturally. There are 40 lads on the national referees’ panels and every single one of them wants to referee a senior All-Ireland every year and I’m no different. There are lads there who have refereed two and three All Irelands’ and they still want more so in that way it’s very competitive, but in a good way. But it would certainly be an ambition into the future. But even if it stopped today I have had a great run. But I’m looking forward to more hopefully”

From Roscommon People Plus magazine.