‘I had no doubt in the world it was a free’
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
Tommy Sugrue – long considered Ireland’s greatest referee – has spoken for the first time in over three decades about his glowing career as the man in the middle.
The GAA official oversaw many memorable occasions, including
Donegal’s historic first title in ’92, and the ‘88 final between Meath and Cork which ended in a blaze of controversy over a late free.
“I had no doubt in the world it was a free and if it happened again I’d still award it. But the days after that final weren’t easy,” he said.
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 versus Derry clash was rated among the top FIVE best games ever.”
Tommy stressed he always made it his business to 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 appreciated 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 health 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 of 52 Sundays refereeing and you don’t do that without 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.
I’VE LOVELY MEMORIES AND I ONCE SPENT 46 OUT OF 52 SUNDAYS REFEREEING - YOU DON’T DO THAT WITHOUT FAMILY SUPPORT. I LOVED EVERY SINGLE MINUTE OF IT, WHETHER IT WAS IN CHURCHILL, ARDFERT OR CROKE PARK – TOMMY SUGRUE
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 All photos by Domnick Walsh