Knight of the whistle
30 April 2011
John Joe Brady's long service to refereeing in the Lake County was recognised last year when he was honoured by the Westmeath Referees' Association at their annual awards night in Kinnegad.
The Hilamar Hotel in Kinnegad was the setting for the annual Westmeath Referees' Association awards ceremony on May 14 last.
County chairman Tom Farrell and the GAA's National Match Officials Manager Patrick Doherty were on hand to present the various awards, while former county PRO Doherty also presented each of the county's 25 newly-qualified referees with their certificates from Croke Park and, of course, new whistles!
Specially designed Mullingar Crystal trophies were presented to top inter-county referees James McGrath (Turin), Sean Carroll (The Downs) and Pat Fox (Rosemount) for taking charge of All-Ireland finals over the previous 12 months. McGrath refereed both the All-Ireland club and minor hurling finals in 2009, Carroll took charge of the All-Ireland junior club football final, while Fox was the 'man in the middle' for the Hogan Cup final - a competition he had won as a player with Carmelite College, Moate 30 years earlier.
There were also special presentations to the Lake County's two longest-serving referees, John Joe Brady (Milltownpass) and Terry O'Dowd (Mullingar Shamrocks). Both are in their sixth decade of refereeing and look set to carry on whistling for another few years yet.
Brady has been refereeing slightly longer than O'Dowd, having first taken up the whistle as a 17-year-old in 1966. He holds the distinction of having played in and refereed every county final from under 14 upwards and his appointment to last year's junior shield decider between Ballycomoyle and Loughnavalley meant that he has now refereed finals in six different decades.
"I wouldn't have stuck it this long if I didn't enjoy it. A lot of people look upon refereeing as a thankless task, but I never viewed it like that. People will give out about you, but there is great unity and cooperation between referees and clubs at the end of the day. I've never turned up for a game where there hasn't been someone there to help out with the umpiring or linesman duties," he says.
Like many of his peers, it was by chance that John Joe became a referee. Back in 1966, he was playing a minor match in Cusack Park for his native St. Mary's, Rochfortbridge. Immediately after the game, the then county secretary Paddy Flanagan called him into his office, handed him a whistle belonging to the late minor board chairman Owen Dalton, and asked him to referee a junior championship match between Tubberclair and Streamstown in Ballynacargy later that afternoon. And so began a long and illustrious refereeing career which is still going 45 years later.
John Joe's first big assignment was the 1971 senior football final between Athlone and Moate. Aged just 22 at the time, he had been married only eight days to Mary Whelehan from Milltownpass and was forced to cut short his honeymoon in the UK to return home for the big game.
His appointment to that final was particularly prestigious as the practice at the time had been to appoint referees from outside the county.
"The likes of Eamonn Moules and Jimmy Hatton from Wicklow had refereed finals in the preceding years, so it was nice to be able to break the mould," he remembers.
John Joe refereed his second senior football final in 1989 when Rosemount defeated Athlone. He has also taken charge of five intermediate and four junior football finals. Asked why he didn't follow fellow county man Paddy Collins into inter-county refereeing, the affable whistler replies: "I simply hadn't the time. As well as refereeing at local level, I was still playing football and hurling. I played football for St. Mary's and later with Milltownpass, and hurling with St. Brigid's. And then there was the small matter of rearing a young family! I refereed inter-county games at underage level, but never at senior."
John Joe did, however, get to experience refereeing at the highest level as an umpire with St. Loman's clubman Pat Casserly. For nine years, he travelled the length and breadth of the country with Pat and fellow umpires Tony Robinson, Tom Barden and Leo Irwin, during which time they officiated at some of the biggest games in the GAA.
"We did All-Ireland club, National League, All-Ireland under 21, All-Ireland Colleges and Leinster finals. Pat refereed championship matches in every province and did two All-Ireland semi-finals as well," he remembers.
"The only one he missed out on was the All-Ireland senior final, which he should have got in 1998 when Galway played Kildare. There was a lot of politics involved unfortunately, and Pat walked away from refereeing after that. He never returned to refereeing, but is now the top referee's assessor in the country."
John Joe has been involved with the Westmeath Referees' Association since its formation and is currently serving his third term as Milltownpass chairman. He played in St. Mary's 1967 senior football final defeat to St. Finian's (now Coralstown/Kinnegad) before moving to nearby Milltownpass and lining out for them in their back-to-back junior and intermediate championship successes of 1980 and '81.
Milltownpass marked the 30th anniversary of that junior success by regaining the Hugh Daniels Cup last year and, rather fittingly, John Joe's sons Gary and Paul lined out in goal and corner back respectively. Milltownpass' winning run was ended by Meath champions Ballinabrackey in a controversial Leinster club junior semi-final which saw the Westmeath side lost by three points and finish with just 12 players. The 'Pass were left to ponder what might have been after Ballinabrackey went on to lift the Leinster title.
"We had a fantastic year, but it was very frustrating to miss out on a place in the Leinster final in those circumstances," John Joe says.
"We had three players sent off and felt we got a raw deal from the referee. But that's history now and we have to start focusing on the year ahead. There is a big incentive for the lads to emulate what the 1980 and '81 team achieved, and it would be great to see them doing that. It's a big ask, though."
John Joe is always available to offer advice to up-and-coming referees and takes great encouragement from the fact that there are now 72 referees officiating in Westmeath.
"I try to give lads encouragement and advice, especially if they're preparing for a big game like a county final. A lot of my time now is spent running the line for the younger referees. But I still referee my fair share of matches," he continues.
The Milltownpass chairman is proud of Westmeath's vast contribution to refereeing at the highest level down the years and is equally proud of the fact that the county currently supplies the aforementioned Pat Fox, James McGrath and Sean Carroll to the national panel of referees along with Barry Kelly (St. Oliver Plunkett's), Rob Cornally (St. Oliver Plunkett's), Damien Maher (Ballynacargy), Niall Ward (Garrycastle) and Peter Daly (Athlone).
"We continue to produce some of the leading referees in the game and this is recognised by the games they are appointed to," he says.
"Last year, the GAA selected 12 referees each in football and hurling to referee their championship games and we had three on that list - Barry Kelly, James McGrath (both hurling) and Pat Fox (football). That was a phenomenal achievement for a small county."
Barry Kelly, who is Westmeath's most high-profile referee at present, opted off the inter-county panel last summer following the birth of his twin boys. He announced he was taking a break from the scene just after taking charge of the big Munster SHC first round clash between Cork and Tipperary in Pairc Ui Chaoimh.
James McGrath, meanwhile, refereed the All-Ireland under 21 final between Tipperary and Galway in Thurles and is surely a step closer to realising his dream of taking charge of a Liam McCarthy Cup decider.
While expressing delight with the response to their recent recruitment drive, Westmeath Referees' Association coordinator Liam McDaniel feels there is always room for improvement.
"It's important to have a big panel of referees because it ensures that the games can go ahead. The situation has improved drastically in recent years and we now have record numbers refereeing in Westmeath. But it's disappointing to think that certain clubs still aren't pulling their weight. Ideally, every club should be providing at least one referee, but that isn't the case," the Kilbeggan man says.