James Owens reaches 50 senior championship matches milestone:
By John Harrington
Long-serving inter-county hurling referee, James Owens, passed an impressive milestone last Saturday when he officiated the All-Ireland SHC semi-final between Limerick and Galway.
It was the Wexford native’s 50th time to referee a senior hurling championship match, and he’s only the second man to hit that number.
He and his umpire team had been working towards this goal for a number of years, so it was a big day for the Askamore clubman.
“Because it was the 50th game I had nieces and nephews at the game which was special for them and my Mam and Dad were at it as well,” Owens told GAA.ie.
“The nieces and nephews wanted to see me referee in Croke Park so it was important for that and for it to be such an occasion was great. It was a great family day out because we got a bus up.
“We got all that set up on Monday or Tuesday so we could focus in then on the game.
“The umpires marked the occasion in the dressing-room after the match by making a presentation which was a nice surprise
“I suppose that’s what it meant to them as well. We’d set a milestone and it was achieved and they were delighted for me which is why they wanted to mark the occasion.
“I think leading into the game on Saturday the lads (umpires) were very anxious among themselves. They thought the 50th game, in Croke Park, is this going to be the end? They were worried because this was the target we had always set.
“I just had to remind them that there’s an All-Ireland Final to be refereed this year and our aim on Saturday evening was to put ourselves in the frame for it.
“To put in a performance so that when the lads are sitting down to pick the final referee on Wednesday that my name would be in the hat. That was the most important thing for Saturday.”
Owens, who has refereed three All-Ireland SHC Finals, officiated his first championship match back in 2007 when Offaly defeated Dublin in the All-Ireland SHC qualifiers.
Back then the prospect of refereeing another 49 would have seemed a dim and distant one, but he was always ambitious about being the best referee he could be.
“The main aim was always to get myself to a level where I was good enough to referee an All-Ireland Senior Hurling Final and see where that would take us,” says Owens.
“I 2009 I was lucky enough to get a taste of it when I was a linesman in the All-Ireland Final that year and was standby in 2010. Then 2011 was a lean year when I only refereed one championship match.
“My form had dipped and at that stage I didn’t know where I was. I was lucky to make the panel in 2012. It was a right kick up in the arse.
“I refereed the 2015 All-Ireland senior final and once you get one All-Ireland the aim is to get a second.
“Refereeing 50 championship matches only came on the radar when I was at a presentation night for referees when it was mentioned that Barry Kelly was the only referee to referee over 50 championship matches, it was after that I made it a goal of my own.”
With the pace of inter-county hurling consistently reaching higher levels year on year, achieving the 50-championship match milestone has required a significant personal investment from Owens.
“I put in a big effort personally to change the way I was doing things in terms of how I prepared for matches to ensure I was in a the best position possible to put in good performances,” he says.
“It’s well documented I suffered from a bit of long Covid. I’m self-employed, so now for two or three days before a match I tone down the work level and just do the bare essentials to make sure the body is in good shape going into the game.
“I’ve also changed my eating patterns and water intake. I was never previously really conscious of the amount of water I’d take in before a game but now once I get the phone call or text about a match that’s when I’d look at the water-intake and try to get three litres of water into the body every day.
“The lads, the umpires, were driving me on. In fairness to them, they saw it as a target and encouraged me a lot.
“You’d be getting phone-calls off them and they’d be telling to go on and give it a good push.
“We got three games last year so we only had four to go this year. Then when I got the Carlow-Dublin game I knew I had only one more to go and I was saying, jeez, it would be great to be involved in an All-Ireland semi-final. The way it turned out, an All-Ireland semi-final in Croke Park, the 50th game, it was nice.”
When Owens talks about his refereeing career it’s noticeable that he uses the word ‘we’ rather than ‘I’ most of the time.
That’s because he believes he’s part of a team along with his four umpires, his younger brother David, fellow Askamore clubman James Dunbar, Joe Kelly, and Ian Plunkett.
David and James have been with him throughout his senior inter-county career, so it’s not surprising to hear that the bond between Owens and his umpires is a very strong one.
“Referees in general are a tightly knit bunch who support each other quite well and when a lad is struggling there’s always somebody there to pick you up and bring you on,” says Owens.
“But, at the end of the day, it’s the umpires who support you the most. You’re going to matches with them and you have faith in them and they have faith in you.
“You’re chatting to them before the game on the journey down because for most championship matches you’re all in the same car together for two hours plus. So you’re having a good auld chat, you’re having good banter.
“Then after the game you’re doing your analysis together and during the week you’re talking to them. After every game they’d always ring if they thought we needed to talk about something to do with the game.
“I’m sure every referee would tell you the same, that the relationship with your umpires is hugely important. You’re part of a team together and they’re looking forward to the text message about a match as much as you are.”
Such is the nature of the role, Owens has had some challenging days at the office as a referee, but overall officiating at the highest level is something he’s really enjoyed for the past 17 years.
“Every day we go out we get a buzz out of it, but there are stand-out days you remember a lot more,” he says.
“I refereed the national league final in 2010 and that would be a stand-out fixture for me. I think I only blew seven frees that day and it was a surreal experience because even though Cork lost the game I had Cork as well as Galway supporters coming up to me afterwards shaking my hand which is unusual, and that’s why it stands out a lot.
“Another game that stands out, for different reasons, is the 2013 All-Ireland semi-final between Cork and Dublin. The first 60 minutes of that game was just fairytale stuff from a refereeing perspective. But then for the last seven minutes you were reminded that things can change in an instant in a game.”
His umpires feared that Owens would step away from inter-county refereeing now that he’s reached the targeted 50 championship matches, but he’s not done just yet.
He’d love nothing more than to referee his fourth All-Ireland Final on July 23, but even if he doesn’t have the honour he intends to go again in 2024 and hopes to stay going until he reaches the retirement age of 50.
Along the way he might well pass another significant milestone by bettering Barry Kelly’s record of refereeing 54 senior championship matches.
“I told the lads on Saturday that if we’re not involved in the All-Ireland Final then the goal now is to get ready for next year. We’ve three years of refereeing left and we’ll just see how long we’re able to keep going.
“The annual fitness tests are the important thing, just getting over the line for each of them.
“If I can do that for the next three years and put myself in the frame for more games, that’s all I can do. We’ll just try to enjoy it and see where it takes us.”