Exclusive: Dermot Gallagher on Mandela, Repka and being a Premier League referee

For many, a 0-0 friendly draw between Germany and South Africa in 1995 would be quickly forgotten. For former Premier League referee Dermot Gallagher, however, the game has a very special meaning.

It was here, in charge of the goalless draw in Johannesburg, that he experienced the best moment of his career.

"Prior to the game, the great man himself, the icon of the 20th century came down and shook our hands himself and called me Dermot," the veteran official told 101 Great Goals in an exclusive interview. "Without doubt, if Nelson Mandela shakes your hand and says ‘Dermot, welcome to my country’, that’s never going to be bettered." 

It is not easy being a referee, and moments like that are rare amid the torrents of abuse that they receive from fans that don't agree with their decisions or watch them make a mistake.

"You only remember decisions that go against you, you don’t remember the ones that go for you," Gallagher warns. "I'm not saying it balances out because that’s not the way to referee, the way to referee is to try and get everything right, and certainly the big decisions."

Abuse is not confined to just those watching too, with players often having plenty to say over the course of 90 minutes. And, in his 15-year stint officiating in the Premier League, one moment stands out above all others.

"I refereed a guy called Tomas Repka when he first came to West Ham, and he openly said himself that when he came to West Ham he wasn’t in the best place, he was having a tough time," Gallagher revealed.

"And I think he’d been sent off in his first game, he comes back and I sent him off either his next game or the game after that. He really gave me a load of stick and abuse when I sent him off. I never had any fear refereeing players but I had a bit of trepidation next time we met."

However, such worries were, in the end, wide of the mark, with Repka quick to atone for his sins ahead of the clash.

"He came down the tunnel and said to me, ‘I am really, really sorry, I shouldn’t have spoken to you like that. I was in a bad place and it will never happen again," the Dublin-born official continued.  

"He was so sincere in telling me that, that I genuinely believed him, and he was as good as gold the next match. It just proves that anybody at the wrong time and the wrong place can react the wrong way."

Repka is one of many Premier League players that have a reputation on the pitch, in this case for being a hardman, something that gained him a cult following at Upton Park during his four-and-a-half year stint in London.

There is concern across fanbases up and down the country that such reputations could be seen as harmful to players when being officiated, such as a forward believed to be prone to diving, or a midfielder thought to be hot-headed, which could influence a referee's decision away from the objectivity of the incident.

And Gallagher recalls a meeting with fellow referees and a sports psychologist, in which this exact scenario was thrown at them.

"We were asked to describe as what we see as a tough player, hard to referee, and not so hard to referee," the Irishman revealed.  

"And the phsycologist asked 'well what do you do with this player [that is hard to referee],' and another referee said 'I work so hard to make sure that this guy stops on the field of play, I walk with him, I cajole him, I communicate with him.'

"I actually said 'why? why do you have to work so hard with that player, when the nicest player on the field can get himself a yellow card for his first tackle because he’s a nice guy.' You should have a blank canvas, and until a player does something wrong, he’s an angel."

101 also quizzed Dermot on the use of VAR, the idea of referees training with clubs and whether officials should be heard by viewers, all of which will be available in part two of the interview, later in the week.

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Ben Browning

Ben Browning

Football writer and analyst. Long-time writer of all things Arsenal and avid watcher of European football. Happy to discuss all things football over on Twitter.

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