Fergal Horgan decision to retire from refereeing is blow to GAA ahead of hurling championship

A three-time All-Ireland senior hurling final referee, the Tipperary native took charge of Liam MacCarthy deciders in 2017, 2020 and 2021

Fergal Horgan’s decision to retire from intercounty refereeing has left hurling without one of its foremost officials.

A three-time All-Ireland senior hurling final referee, the Tipperary native took charge of Liam MacCarthy deciders in 2017, 2020 and 2021. In an interview with Tipp Mid West Radio on Tuesday, Horgan cited a lack of match appointments as a key reason for quitting and went on to express disappointment at his treatment by Croke Park.

It is unusual for intercounty referees to depart in such circumstances, but it’s certainly not unheard of as there is huge competition among officials to be granted the responsibility of overseeing the top matches – particularly All-Ireland finals.

James McGrath walked away in August 2018, with the Westmeath official saying at the time he felt “betrayed by the Association” having been overlooked for the All-Ireland hurling decider between Galway and Limerick that year, while Pat Casserly stepped down in 1998 after missing out on refereeing the All-Ireland football final between Galway and Kildare that September.


But how are referees selected and who oversees the appointments process?

The GAA’s national match officials manager is Donal Smyth, who was a Meath goalkeeper during the county’s glorious era under Seán Boylan. After his playing days, Smyth turned his hand to refereeing and is currently head of such matters in Croke Park.

The Central Referees’ Appointments Committee (CRAC) is in charge of selecting officials for matches. Marty Duffy, a Sligo native who was the man in the middle for the 2009 All-Ireland SFC final, is currently CRAC chairman. Offaly’s Pat Horan, who refereed the 1996 All-Ireland SHC final, is also on the committee, as is current chairman of the Central Competitions Control Committee, Wexford’s Derek Kent.

There is a well-whistled pathway for referees to reach the elite level – they take stepping stones from county level to provincial level and ultimately to national level.

The process begins when a county board nominates a local referee to join their respective provincial panel of match officials, providing them with the opportunity to take charge of games across the province. If a referee impresses at that grade they can then be nominated by their provincial council to join the national panel.

Referees undergo fitness tests before both the National League and the Championship every year. The Yo-Yo test, a series of timed intermittent shuttle runs of 20 metres over and back, is used as a barometer. The time to complete the run gets progressively shorter. The current metric of a pass mark for the league is 16.8 and for championship it is 17.4. A pre-championship test took place last Wednesday, arising from which the panels of championship referees were selected.

In his interview with local radio on Tuesday, Horgan expressed frustration that a referee was recently appointed to a match despite failing to meet the above criteria.

For this year’s National Hurling League, the panel of referees used was roughly 32 officials, while for football it was approximately 40. The championship panels are different, with a dozen referees nominated for the Liam MacCarthy competition in hurling. In football, for the Sam Maguire and Tailteann Cup, a total of 24 referees have been nominated to cover both tiers.

A significant constraint facing CRAC, and something for which they must constantly be mindful of, is the age limit of 50 for intercounty referees. Once referees reach 50 they can no longer be considered for intercounty duty, and so those challenged with bringing through capable match officials have an obligation to continually develop younger refs and provide them with game experience.

Two referees on the championship panel will turn 50 this year and so they will not be eligible in 2024.

Horgan’s frustration at a lack of game appointments is understandable given his last match was the Division One meeting of Waterford and Antrim at the end of February, which was one of only two matches he was awarded during this year’s league. It could be argued CRAC gave game-time to less experienced referees during the league as a means of development.

Either way, given how highly Horgan is rated, it is likely he would have been appointed to several matches in the weeks ahead so his decision to step away is a blow ahead of the championship.

Horgan also expressed an opinion Munster referees were not “getting a fair crack of the whip” when it came to the selection of match officials, and while the Tipperary native was talking in general terms, many recent All-Ireland finals were officiated by refs from the province.

The All-Ireland club football final between Kilmacud Crokes and Glen in January was refereed by Derek O’Mahoney from Tipperary, while the club hurling decider between Ballyhale Shamrocks and Dunloy on the same day was officiated by Johnny Murphy from Limerick.

The 2022 All-Ireland hurling final between Limerick and Kilkenny was refereed by Colm Lyons from Cork, while Horgan was in charge of both the 2020 (Limerick v Waterford) and 2021 (Limerick v Cork) deciders.

Tyrone’s Seán Hurson was the man in the middle for last year’s football final between Kerry and Galway, while the 2021 decider between Tyrone and Mayo was marshalled by Cavan’s Joe McQuillan. Cork’s Conor Lane, in 2019, is the last Munster referee of an All-Ireland SFC final.