Martin Breheny: It's time to use two referees
Earley makes strong case why modern game requires more than one man in the middle
I met Paul Earley in Punchestown last week where, despite the equine excellence around us, our chat was more about football than favourites as we explored a theory he has held for a long time.
He wants two referees in football and believes the case in favour has become increasingly convincing. He is happy to leave the hurling fraternity to reflect on whether it would benefit their game, although many of his arguments for double-handed refereeing apply in small-ball country too.
Earley, who has always had a big interest in the structural side of football ever since he spent a stint playing Australian Rules in Melbourne in the 1980s, believes it's impractical to expect one referee to apply the rules correctly and consistently on such a large pitch for games where stoppage time has increased the average duration to 75 minutes.
He contends that the speed and movement in the modern game, complete with intricate passing, angles of running and covering, renders it impossible for a referee to be close enough to play to make sound calls all the time and especially in the closing stages when exhaustion can affect concentration.
There are also the many split-second decisions required to differentiate between a straightforward free, black or yellow card, plus a myriad of other responsibilities.
"Patterns and trends are altering all the time. For instance, the average time between the ball going dead and a kick-out used to be around 20 seconds, but it's less now. That puts the ball in play much quicker, and while that's to be welcomed, it can potentially lead to more fouling and put more responsibility on the referee," said Earley, whose lifetime of involvement in football featured a lengthy career with Roscommon, various coaching roles, including managing the Irish International Rules team in 2013-'14.
He was also a member of the Football Review Committee that proposed - and steered through - the introduction of the black card.
"The dynamic of the modern game makes it impossible for one referee to get it right all the time. Soccer and rugby are fine with one referee but they are played on much smaller pitches than football and also have an offside rule. And, by its nature, rugby allows the referee to be alongside the play much of the time," said Earley.
He offers a thought-provoking argument for the two-referee approach. A GAA pitch extends to over three acres, a very large area for one man to patrol. Yes, there are linesmen and umpires to help the referee but they can't make calls on routine playing issues that arrive thick and fast.
Earley disputes the view that two referees could result in different rule interpretations in either half of the pitch, leading to a new source of frustration for players.
On the contrary, he believes that it would promote greater overall uniformity as working together at various games would help referees to build up relationships and get a better understanding of each other.
With Earley's assessments of the extent of the challenge facing one official in mind, I decided to concentrate as much on the referee as the contest for last Saturday's Dublin-Galway All-Ireland U-21 final in Tullamore.
Since I wasn't covering the game, I watched from the terraces, moving up and down and also spending some time behind the goals in order to get different perspectives.
Referee Ciarán Branagan (Down) did a good job overall, although like so many of his counterparts in football and hurling, he was lenient on dodgy handpasses. For some inexplicable reason, that appears to be acceptable in both codes and most especially in hurling where many of the transfers are blatant throws.
Having two referees would not, of itself, solve that problem while the culture of 'letting it flow' continues, although it could be corrected very quickly if referees penalised more illegal passes.
Still, it's very difficult for one referee who is quite often behind the play - sometimes by a long way - to adjudicate on handpasses delivered at speed well ahead of him. The same applies to the many other borderline calls he has to make. Branagan was as close to play as could reasonably be expected of one man on a pitch with 30 fleet-footed U-21s.
Still, there were several occasions when he was remote from the action as he chased after a quick move. It's the same with all referees, irrespective of how fit they are.
A second referee would ensure much closer proximity to the point of action, where most of the important calls are made.
"Two referees work well in the International Rules game and I think it's something we have to think about bringing into our own game. It has changed a lot and this is an area where that needs to be reflected. Even if we trialled two referees for a period, we would know pretty quickly what impact it had," said Earley.
He makes a good point.