Tommy Su­grue’s life as a ref­eree

The Kerryman (North Kerry) - - FRONT PAGE -

Kerry’s se­nior foot­ballers may not be grac­ing the Croke Park turf this Sun­day but re­porter Stephen Fernane caught up with one Kerry man who’s been at the heart of the ac­tion on fi­nals day on more than one oc­ca­sion. In an ex­clu­sive in­ter­view, ref­eree Tommy Su­grue re­calls some of his more mem­o­rable games and, for the first time, opens up about a cer­tain de­ci­sion that Cork - and Meath - fans will never for­get.


JUNE 1987 and I’m full-for­ward for Austin Stacks’ U13s. Mid­way through a tense sec­ond half, moms roar­ing like pro­tec­tive li­onesses along the side­line, a ball is played into the square. Side-step­ping my op­po­nent I win pos­ses­sion, turn, and with the left foot kick the ball over the bar. The um­pire waves it wide and the roar from the side­line fades. Sud­denly, to my left, Tommy Su­grue comes into view, notebook in hand, he points at the um­pire: ‘ put up the flag, that’s a point’. A point it was and still is. No Hawk­eye, just Tommy’s eye. That was the first time I heard of Tommy Su­grue.

Fast for­ward a year to the dy­ing em­bers of the 1988 All-Ire­land fi­nal where Meath are fight­ing for their lives try­ing to draw level with Cork. David Beggy wins pos­ses­sion on the 14 yard line. Tommy awards a free. Meath get a point and the game is level. Tommy is swarmed by a hoard of an­gry Cork men.

A tale of two con­tro­ver­sial points, al­beit world’s apart.

“I cer­tainly can re­mem­ber the Meath point, but I’m sorry to say I don’t re­mem­ber your point as clearly,” said Tommy with a smile.

“Lis­ten, it’s a free I’ve al­ways stood over. I had no doubt in the world it was a free. Had it hap­pened 20 sec­onds into the game there wouldn’t have been a word. But the days af­ter that fi­nal weren’t easy and it was tough go­ing. The phone was ring­ing all hours of the night and peo­ple were send­ing me love let­ters! But there was also a lot of sup­port, in­clud­ing from Cork peo­ple.”

In fair­ness to Tommy, he was closer than an eye­lash to an eye­ball when David Beggy was fouled. Keep­ing up with the play was al­ways a pri­or­ity for him as he said play­ers tended to kick the ball more in those days, which meant get­ting from A to B re­quired stamina.

“I trained four nights a week. I would do a five mile run and then cy­cle out to Bal­ly­heigue and back. No one re­alised this at the time. There is no point be­ing 30 or 40 yards be­hind the play. I was very fit; I needed to be.”

Tommy feels more de­spon­dent about the ‘88 re­play how­ever. A day when things just didn’t fall right for the Blen­nerville of­fi­cial.

“The re­play was a low point for me as it was a ter­ri­bly phys­i­cal game. I didn’t cover my­self in glory that day. The me­dia had built up how Cork were un­likely to push Meath around again. All hell broke loose and I sent-off Meath’s Gerry McEn­tee. On re­flec­tion, I could eas­ily have sent more off. It just felt like ev­ery­thing I did that day didn’t work out. But it was a great learn­ing curve and I bounced back from it.”

Bounce back he did and Tommy’s ca­reer is re­mem­bered more for its highs than lows. He started ref­er­ee­ing in 1977 and the first break came in 1983 when he took charge of the Kerry County Fi­nal. From that point on things just sky­rock­eted. He of­fi­ci­ated the 1983 Na­tional League semi-fi­nal be­tween Dublin and Cork, af­ter which he was ap­pointed to the in­ter­county ref­er­ees’ panel.

His in­ter­county ca­reer lasted over 13 years in which time he of­fi­ci­ated Na­tional League semi-fi­nals and fi­nals (mem­o­rably ref­er­ee­ing the 1990 league fi­nal in his socks), four All-Ire­land semi-fi­nals; an All-Ire­land U21 and Club Fi­nal, and Mun­ster and Ul­ster Cham­pi­onship. But Tommy’s crown­ing glory is the four All-Ire­land fi­nals (in­clud­ing a re­play) he mar­shaled: Cork v Meath in 1988; Done­gal v Dublin in 1992, and Dublin v Down in 1994.

“I would say 1992 gave me the great­est sat­is­fac­tion as it was Done­gal’s first All-Ire­land. My first semi-fi­nal be­tween Mayo and Meath in ‘ 88 was an­other spe­cial day and I re­mem­ber on ‘Morn­ing Ire­land’ they were prais­ing me and say­ing how ‘a great ref­eree had been un­earthed’. That gave me great plea­sure,” said Tommy.

Iron­i­cally, it was Kerry’s famine on the field that co­in­cided with Tommy’s feast as a ref­eree. A proud St Pat’s man, he calls it an ab­so­lute hon­our to have of­fi­ci­ated along­side his fel­low club­men, Gerry Leni­han, Peter Breen, Michael Su­grue and the late Mossy Bros­nan; com­rades he de­scribes as his ‘eyes and ears’ from 21 yards in.

“That’s what it’s all about. To go from a small club to the big­gest stage in the GAA is some­thing you can’t de­scribe. Th­ese guys were the bedrock of my suc­cess.”

In an­other mem­o­rable moment min­utes be­fore the ‘92 fi­nal, it looked as though Tommy had handed the day’s du­ties over to the Pres­i­dent of Ire­land. “I pre­sented Mary Robin­son with a ref­eree’s whis­tle as a me­mento as she was shak­ing my hand. She is a lovely per­son and peo­ple for weeks af­ter were won­der­ing what I had given her. I was glad I did it.”

Tommy pin­points Derry’s An­thony To­hill and Down’s James McCar­tan and Mickey Lin­den as the best play­ers dur­ing his time. Ul­ster’s ad­mi­ra­tion for Tommy’s own abil­ity was ac­knowl­edged in 1993 when he be­came the first man from out­side the prov­ince to ref­eree an Ul­ster Cham­pi­onship match be­tween Derry and Down.

“I ex­pected that game to be tougher, but it worked out per­fect and in 1994 I was asked to ref­eree the same fix­ture. It was dur­ing the Trou­bles and I re­call a bomb-scare the night be­fore the ’93 game in our ho­tel. I said no way was I driv­ing up there again. A pri­vate plane was ar­ranged by the Ul­ster Coun­cil to take us from Shannon to Derry. That ‘94 Down ver­susv Derry clash was rated among the top FIVE bestb games ever.”

Tommy stressed he al­ways made it his busi­ness tot earn a player’s re­spect and ad­mits he of­ten - even dur­ing the white heat of an All-Ire­land fi­nal - said to a pass­ing player, ‘that was a great score’.

“I used to do it a lot in games and I think play­ers ap­pre­ci­ateda it. Re­spect is a mu­tual ac­tion and some of the of­fi­cial­dom to­day is too se­ri­ous. The only thing that’s go­ing to save foot­ball is the sin bin. At the moment foot­ball is dy­ing on its feet. They’ve tried the mark and black card, which I feel is be­ing mis­used. With the pan­els coun­ties have to­day, the black card is no de­ter­rent as the play­ers com­ing on are as good as the starters,” said Tommy.

Life is a lit­tle less hec­tic th­ese days for Tommy as he en­joys time with his wife Mary and their three chil­dren - Kerry, Edel and Enda. He ad­mits his healthh isn’t as good as it once was and on oc­ca­sions he likes to re­flect on what has been a great ca­reer; one that saw him in­ducted into the Hall of Fame and re­ceive a Civic Re­cep­tion in Tralee in 1994.

“I’ve many mem­o­ries and I once spent 46 out ofo 52 Sun­days ref­er­ee­ing and you don’t do that with­outw fam­ily sup­port. I loved ev­ery sin­gle minute of it whether it was in Churchill, Ard­fert or Croke Park. I treated ev­ery game and player equally,” said Tommy.

And just in case you’re won­der­ing, yes I did thank him for over rul­ing that um­pire all those moons ago.

All photos by Dom­nick Walsh

ABOVE & TOP: Tommy Su­grue pic­tured at his home in Tralee with the ref­eree jersey he wore on Al­lIre­land FI­nal day in 1988.ABOVE LEFT: Tommy checks out the Austin Stacks pitch be­fore the teams en­ter for the Tralee venue’s first game un­der the power of light

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