Jimmy White still one of the best and still going strong

Jimmy White still one of the best and still going strong
Tom Comack sport @donegaldemocrat.com @dgldemocrat

Donegal club players, officials, coaches and managers are gearing up for the new club football season that throws-in this weekend.

It is supposed to be the time of year when young men’s minds turn to romance and all things nice but for most young men and not so young in Donegal, it’s all about the football season ahead.

The winter gym sessions have been completed, the lung busting long runs are in the bank and it is now time for action.

Well known and popular referee, Jimmy White, who turns 57 this month, has seen the start of the new football season from a number of sides.

He has seen it as a player, coach, player manager and a referee.

It is almost four decades on from when he first tasted the cut and thrust of Donegal league football as an 18-year-old.

His first senior playing season was for Killybegs in Division Two of the All-County Football League.

That was in the Spring of 1978. And 39 years on Jimmy, who already has a number of games under his belt in 2017 - in the Comórtas Peil Na Gaeltachta - is still looking forward to the new season with boyish enthusiasm.

“Yeah, I’m looking forward to the new season and even though I’m 57 this year,” said Jimmy, who boasts of five Donegal Senior Championship winners’ medals and three Division One League medals and one Division Two from his playing days.

“I still get the goose bumps when I’m in the middle of 30 players and I feel I’m refereeing as good as ever. And as long I feel that way I will continue to referee,” added the Killybegs man, who is looking forward to his 21st season since first going down the refereeing road.

Jimmy is still one of the top referees in Donegal and has been for the best part of his two decades of blowing the whistle.

He was, until he was forced to retire under GAA rules seven years ago, also one of the leading referees in the the country.

Referees at intercounty level under rule have to retire at 50, regardless of level of fitness.

This is something that Jimmy feels is far too early in some instances and the broad brush of 50 is way over the top.

“I refereed the Connacht final between Roscommon and Sligo in 2010 when I was 50 and they told me that was it.

“Even though I was good enough when I was 50 to referee a provincial final the rule book told me I wasn’t good enough the following year. I feel I could have refereed for another five years at the top level until I was 55.”

Jimmy’s record of one Ulster and one Connacht Senior Championship finals, Ulster minor and Under 21 finals and two Ulster Senior Club finals are a testament to how good and highly he was rated at national level.

At local level here in Donegal, he has taken charge of five senior finals, plus finals at older grades from underage up.

And he still feels he is up to the task, if called upon in the future.

Jimmy took up the whistle after a very successful career as a player, coach player manager with a star studded Killybegs.

The Fishermen were the top club team in Donegal in the latter part of the 1980s and for most of the 1990s.

Between 1988 and 1996, a Killybegs team that included household names at the time of Manus Boyle, Barry McGowan, Barry and John Cunningham and John Bán Gallagher, played in seven of the nine championship finals.

They won five (1988, ‘91, ‘92, ‘95 and ‘96) and lost two (1990 and ‘93).

Jimmy White mostly at wing back, played in six of the seven finals. He did not make the team for the 1996 decider having played in all the games up to county final day.

He was player manager for three of those championship winning seasons, 1991, 1992 and 1995.

In that period, too, he guided Killybegs to three Division One League titles in-a-row, 1991, 1992 and 1993.

John Joe O’Shea was the manager in 1988 and former St Joseph’s, Donegal and Ulster player Pauric McShea was the manager in 1996.

Jimmy’s success as a coach and manager was not just confined to club level and Killybegs.

He also managed Donegal to an Ulster Minor League and Championship double in 1985. And he was also a member of P J McGowan’s All-Ireland Under 21 Championship winning management team of 1987. Donegal defeated Kerry, after a replay, to win a second Under 21 All-Ireland title.

Despite his impressive CV as coach and manager, Jimmy took up the whistle when he hung up his playing boots at the end of 1996.

“I had a number of approaches and offers from other clubs but I wanted to take up refereeing. I was 37 and I felt I could fast track a refereeing career.

“I had done some refereeing in the 1980s and in fact I had refereed my first game in 1978.

“It was a league game between Kilcar and Gaoth Dobhair and it was played in Fintra. I’m not sure why it was in Fintra.

“I was only 18 at the the time and I had only gone up to Fintra to watch the game.

“But when the appointed referee did not turn up I was asked to referee it.

“It was a big enough game and Kilcar and Gaoth Dobhair were two of the top teams at the time.

“I got through it and I was happy with the way it went and the feedback was good enough too.

“You could say that game sowed the seeds. But my late father (Tommy) was a referee and I remember as a young lad going to games with him and he was my real inspiration to take up refereeing.”

Jimmy’s refereeing career took off and two years after taking up the whistle, he was appointed to referee the first of his five senior championship finals.

“It’s an easy one to remember, the 1999 final and the day that Brendan Devenney scored 14 points for St Eunan’s against Aodh Ruadh.

“It is great to get county finals and provincial finals and big games. It is a recognition that you are doing a good job.

“But for me it is about being out there in the thick of the action and being there in the middle of thirty players.

“For me it is the next best thing to playing. I have been fortunate to referee some of the top players in the country here in Donegal.

“For years I’ve had the honour of being in the middle of the stars of the 1992 All-Ireland winning team and more recently the members of the 2012 All-Ireland winning team.

“Some of the best players the game has even seen and I have been fortunate enough to referee them. I have to confess it gives me a great buzz and that is why I hope to referee as long as I can and they want me.”

Jimmy references the Ulster Club championship as one of his most enjoyable experiences in all his years on the whistle.

“I really enjoyed refereeing in the Ulster club and I was lucky enough to referee two senior finals.

“I refereed the Crossmaglen Rangers versus St Gall’s and St Gall’s and the Loup, Johnny McBride’s team.

“They were great teams and great games and I enjoyed every minute of them.

“They were really tense games but very enjoyable to be in the middle of.

“The Ulster club is a great competition with great players and the best club players in the competing counties taking part.”

In all the games at all levels over the last 20 seasons he had taken charge when asked the most memorable he nominated last November’s Donegal U-21 A final meeting of Gaoth Dobhair and Aodh Ruadh.

“That was a wow game,” said Jimmy.

“It had everything, great skill levels, brilliant scores, all out attacking play and very high levels of fitness. It was a brilliant game of football and was very easy refereed.

“It was such a free flowing game with two sets of players just wanting to play football, I could have refereed it from the dugout.”

Hopefully, Jimmy will have a few more games like last year’s Donegal U-21 before he hangs up his whistle.

There are still a few more good years in Jimmy White and hopefully there are no more crazy rules to say he must put the whistle away a day sooner than he feels himself.