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Dublin: 14 °C Sunday 26 May, 2019

What's it like to prepare for an All-Ireland final as a referee?

John Bannon has been in charge of two football finals.

John Bannon with his linesmen before throw-in.
John Bannon with his linesmen before throw-in.
Image: Billy Stickland/INPHO

THE 1998 ALL-IRELAND football final between Galway and Kildare is widely regarded as one of the most open in living memory with both teams seeking to end long waits for Sam Maguire with free-flowing, attacking football.

Indeed the number of frees that day, 28, is one of the lowest in a final. And the man in the middle, John Bannon, can take a lot of credit for just letting both teams get on with it.

But how did the then 34-year-old become a whistleblower in the first place?

“Unlike a lot of lads who might take up refereeing because they’ve had to step in from the sideline to replace a referee who might not have turned up for a match, I made a conscious decision to get into it.

“There was also a rule back then that, if you were a referee in Longford, you were entitled to an All-Ireland final ticket and I suppose that was the carrot that tempted me to give it a try.

“I was doing a bit of refereeing around the county but I took an inter-county refereeing course around 1990 in Navan and I was appointed.

“For a good few years after that I had very little other training bar one meeting a year where they’d go through any rule changes but that’s obviously improved a lot in recent years.”

Jarlath Fallon and Dermot Earley 27/9/1998 Dermot Earley of Kildare and Jarlath Fallon of Galway contest the high ball during the 1998 final. Source: Patrick Bolger/INPHO

Bannon played most of his football at junior level, though he did pick up a man-of-the-match award in a senior ‘B’ final with his club Legan Sarsfields where he played midfield.

However, with his inter-county refereeing career taking off, and games clashing with his club commitments, he decided to hang up his playing boots a couple of years earlier than he would have liked.

It proved a wise decision as Bannon established himself as one of the best in the business though, like most overnight success stories, his was a long time in the making.

“People might see me getting an All-Ireland final as a meteoric rise but I came onto the Leinster panel around 1992 or 1993 and it was slow progress up until 1996.

“In August 1997, I came on as a sub referee during the three-game saga between Meath and Kildare and I got on for 15 minutes.

“That series was so high-profile that it put me in a position to get some of the bigger games and, in 1998, I was given the Leinster final, an All-Ireland semi-final and, of course, the final.

That was three big games all in the one year so it was very exciting.”

As for the build up to the game itself, Bannon’s experience is one that is unlikely to be repeated in this day and age.

“I’m not sure how it ended up happening but the GAA put me up in the Burlington Hotel the night before which was where the Galway team were staying.

“It wouldn’t happen today, of course, the referee and his linesmen and umpires all stay in different hotels than the players but it was funny to be seeing the Galway players on the morning of the game.”

Dara O'Cinneide and Kieran McGeeney 22/9/2002 DIGITAL Bannon also refereed the 2002 All-Ireland final. Source: INPHO/Patrick Bolger

Bannon says that referees can’t prepare for an All-Ireland the same way that players can — with the exception of ensuring their fitness is up to scratch — and that he’d never go into a game with preconceived notions about particular players.

Instead, Bannon preferred to referee the game on what was happening in front of him, not what he believed could happen, and that’s something he feels all the best referees do.

As for Sunday’s game, he says Conor Lane — refereeing his first All-Ireland final — should relax and enjoy the occasion.

“I’d like to wish Conor the best of luck. He’s a good referee and it’s a great day for his family, his friends and everyone.

“I really hope he enjoys the experience.”

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