When interviewing any athlete, the topic of officiating is more often than not, one that is best steering clear from.
When it comes to Gaelic games, it’s a topic that makes most want to run a mile. That’s because, for much of the last decade, rule changes and referees have found themselves front and centre for much of the wrong reasons.
However, when the player themselves has an extensive history of GAA officialdom, it’s almost impossible to skirt around the issue given the uniqueness of the situation.
David Garland sat down on Tuesday for a long-overdue chat following his excursions with DCU earlier this year when the Glasnevin college claimed a fifth Sigerson Cup title.
The Monaghan flyer’s standout performances saw him named Electric Ireland GAA Higher Education Rising Star Football Player of the Year. But rather than reflect on his impressive haul of 1-14 in this year’s competition, what was most interesting to learn about the 21-year-old was his extensive background acting as an umpire as part of Martin McNally’s officiating panel.
“I was yeah,” Garland responds when asked about being an umpire.
“I put on the white coat there. I put it on recently enough for the Trench [Cup] final as well. I do it the odd time whenever I can.
“I do it for Martin McNally there who is a Monaghan referee. I’ve done it for him right up through the years whenever I was a bit younger, 16, 17, 18 whenever you had more free time on your hands.
“I’ve got to travel the length and breadth of the country with him to see some great grounds and great games along the way.
“Ah umpiring, it can be a challenging game as well but I enjoy doing it, it gets you out of the house for a few hours and it’s all experience as well.”
Garland admits that it was a chance meeting with McNally that led to him taking on the role, something that seems very obscure for someone so young.
“There was a MacRory [Ulster A colleges] game on in Inniskeen which is only about 10 minutes over the road.
“Martin McNally was refereeing. I was just finished school and bumped into him. He asked, ‘What are you at tonight, would you do umpire?’ I said I would, it was a school football game so it’s nice to go out and see other schools.
“I think St Pat’s, Cavan were playing St Ronan’s, Lurgan in a league game. So I went out and done it and enjoyed doing it. It just took off from there. Did many a game after it.”
The role of an umpire can be unforgiving and quite often we see those of an elder vintage putting on the white coat. However, Garland’s experience proves that maybe we should be looking to younger officials and active players when it comes to taking up the position by the goalposts.
The Monaghan player admits that his experiences have allowed him to empathise more with officials who, at the end of the day, are doing as best they can, on a voluntary basis.
“Absolutely!” It gives him more empathy.
“Even myself, there’s a fair few players that would dog you a couple of times on the posts. They wouldn’t hold back and you’re just saying to yourself, ‘Jesus Christ, do I act like that in games?’
“You’d be sort of thinking to yourself, at the end of the day it’s really worth saying nothing to the umpires. Because as every one of them says back to the players, ‘I’m not the one that has the whistle and it’s as simple as that.’
Another key area where getting involved in officialdom can help younger players is how they see the game.
Garland finds himself in a unique position, not just as a 21-year-old umpire but also as an inside-forward.
His experiences have granted him the opportunity to get as close to the action as one can and study how other inside forwards play the game.
The example he cites is from, arguably, the biggest game he’s ever officiated. The 2016 All-Ireland minor semi-final involving Kerry and Kildare and one David Clifford.
“The All-Ireland semi-final was Kerry and Kildare, I think David Clifford was playing that day and he scored nearly nine or ten points [the current Kerry captain finished with 0-8].
“You were watching him, he was kicking them from everywhere. His movement inside – you were standing so close it was hard not to notice him.
“Even watching other great forwards playing from different counties, you’d pick up bits here and there. It’s really good to watch them.”
Having umpired senior inter-county games as recently as this year when he was on the goalposts for Longford versus Louth in the Allianz Football League, it’s intriguing to know whether he sees himself taking off the white coat further down the line and replacing it with the referee’s whistle.
However, the affable Monaghan man jokes that the money would have to be right if he was to become the man in the middle.
“Ah maybe down the line I could see myself being in the middle.
“I’m not ready now to be a referee but maybe down the line. If the wages were good!”