By Steve Kelly
David Gough is known for being one of the finest Gaelic football referees in the country. From Slane, Co. Meath, the 37-year-old has enjoyed many fine years at the top. He has also helped improve the standard of inter-county refereeing.
One of Gough’s finest moments came in 2019 when he took charge of the All- Ireland Senior football final between Kerry and Dublin. For him, success started fairly early on. He said: “Well, firstly I got into refereeing by sheer accident. I was a student in St Pat’s Drumcondra at the time and the Games Development Officer in the college asked me to referee a game as there was no referee available. After the game had finished, I was told that I was naturally good at it, so I decided to referee underage games and it just progressed from there really.”
Many people underestimate the level of dedication and preparation it takes to referee at the top level. A lot of this work is down to the individual. Matchday for them is a completely different experience altogether. “Well for me a typical matchday takes place the day before. You would have to pack your bag and get your lunch ready in advance so that you can just relax before setting off to Kerry or wherever you might be on duty. I have my team of officials ready. Nobody gets our stuff ready for us. The players would have that.
“We, unfortunately, do that work ourselves. Before the game, I would have a briefing with my team and make sure everything is ready to go. I am lucky in that my umpires are family of mine. This makes it a lot easier to communicate with them and they keep me relaxed and we have a bit of banter also which helps.”
Having his brother Stephen, uncle Terry, father Eugene and cousin Dean onboard clearly means a lot to Gough. Referees are constantly under the microscope. It is not a job for the faint-hearted. Gough believes that nerves are a part of the business: “Nerves mean it is a big game, it’s natural. They mean you care. They also allow you to think and remember why you are there in the first place.”
Having about 1 million viewers around the world watching, along with the 82 thousand plus people inside Croke Park, may seem like a daunting prospect for many people, but Gough has mechanisms to help him relax before big games: “Before a semi-final or final, I would play tennis. There is something nice about being on the court. I would not be one for tuning into the media too much. I do not buy the newspaper. I keep myself fresh and tennis helps keep me focused on the job at hand. I play at quite a competitive level too.”
Being a referee at the top level takes a lot of dedication and learning. It is not something you can overthink too much. Gough said: “For one, nobody likes the referee. To get to the top you need to learn the rules inside out. Be organized and stick to the fundamentals of refereeing. Whether it is a division 7B game in Meath or an All- Ireland Final you must have mutual respect between players and implement the rules accordingly. You cannot allow yourself to get too caught up in the emotion of it all. Just be decisive.”
There are many aspects of refereeing games which people seem oblivious to. Supporters would value the time and training their county players put in all year long. This is the same for referees. Gough admitted: “First things first, I am probably fitter now at 37, then I was at 27. The training takes place approximately three times a week. I do core work in the gym to make sure I am physically at my best. I do upper body training so that I avoid any injuries and I also do runs and sprints to make sure I am at my best. I remember my heart rate being extremely high on many occasions. It is an aspect people from the outside would not have thought about. So yes, it is quite intense.”
Gough has had his fair shares of challenges as a man over the years. He is a proud Meath man firstly and being gay is something which he is proud of. In a world where people are quick to judge and have views, Gough took it in his stride: “To be honest coming out felt so natural to me. I was more worried about telling my family, than anyone else. They were and are still supportive of who I am. Outside them, nobody cared that much. I remember refereeing up in Down one weekend and the players came over and said fair play to you. The people involved with GAA were fine with it and overall coming out was a positive experience for me. I remember listening to Leo Varadkar on the radio and hearing him coming out, as a leader of the country, I said to myself if he can do it, so can I. Once it’s out there that’s it.”
Gough is known for his extreme knowledge on the game. He is a man who has learnt his craft over the years. He makes decisions confidently and this is well respected in the GAA sphere. He said: “I stick between black and white, in my view the grey area causes indecisions. It is something I have always done. I never regret the decisions I make because I only make them if I am 100 per cent sure. I only regret the ones I don’t make.”
After a couple of semi-finals in 2016 and 2017, Gough was eventually rewarded with the ultimate accolade of being the man in the middle for the All- Ireland Final between Kerry and Dublin in 2019. For him, the feeling was one of pure joy: “Delighted I was. It was a rush of emotions. My nanny is my biggest supporter and we were in tears. It is like all those years of hard work had finally paid off. The fact that the media felt I should not have gotten the game, because I live in Dublin was not the best. Jim Galvin and Peter Keane did not say much about their teams, so the story was blown up. I moved to Slane for a while to get away from it all. I just wanted to prep myself for the game and not be around all that politics.”
Gough feels his relationship with players is something that has changed over time. He said: “Players now are trying to learn the rules. I have a great relationship with them, but I always tell them you are a brilliant player in your position, that is your job, mine is to manage the game. If you want to stop that and take it into your own hands, it is you that is stopping the play, not me.” Gough has many strengths as a ref. He knows the rules inside out and this is echoed by the man himself. “Yes, that is my main attribute. I know the rules like a book. I suppose my weakness would be my impatience at times.”
Nowadays with the punditry and analysis, referees’ performances are constantly under scrutiny. Gough is his own biggest critic: “After games, I would do a post-match analysis on myself. I have a journal and I would jot down things I may have been unsure about. It can be difficult at times. My umpires are always in my mic keeping me motivated. I suppose during the game, if they see me getting nervous or on edge, they keep my spirits up. They would offer their advice. I am not one to watch the Sunday game. I would watch the game again, but the Sunday Game is over-analyzed and it is not for me if I am honest.”
Gaelic football has changed a lot in the last 10 years. Every year congress is adding rules to the game. Gough shared his views on the current rules: “If I am honest, I do not understand the rule on catching a ball into the chest. For me, I do not understand why that skill is rewarded and the likes of block downs and turnovers are not. There seems to be confusion. We need to go back to basics. Rules were brought in to make the game a competitive affair and to stop teams holding onto possession for a considerable amount of time. The execution of the rules isn’t right, however.
“Along with this, we see other sports where referees are aided with decisions. We have VAR in Soccer and technology in Tennis and assistant referees in Rugby. “I am all for the technology that is used in Rugby and Tennis. Have challenges per team and a video ref like in Rugby. Keep fans in the loop. You need that to avoid confusion and frustration. If it helps us get the decisions correct of course.”
Gough is a man whose performances have gotten him to the top of the refereeing pyramid. He is a man that played club football himself over the years and has seen a lot. He said: “For me, my favourite sporting memory is winning the U21C Championship with my club Slane. We beat our local rivals at the time, St Mary’s. You cannot describe the feeling winning with lads you went to school and nightclubs with. It is a unique thing, almost indescribable.”