Time to explore the TV age
Technology experiments must be given a chance, writes Colm Keys
On Saturday evening last, Martin Sludden took his first steps to redemption in Dungannon when he stepped out on to the field, together with the same four umpires he had with him in Croke Park seven weeks earlier, to take charge of a Tyrone quarter-final between Errigal Ciaran and Coalisland.
The match passed off without controversy, as most matches for the majority of referees and their officials do, allowing Sludden to breath a little easier again and maybe consider climbing the ladder back to where he was earlier this year.
How ironic then that he should make his return on the same weekend as the second biggest refereeing controversy of the summer was whipping up back at headquarters.
Make no mistake about it, this has been a wonderful football championship, as good as there has been since 2005, maybe even better than that.
The quality of the long-range scores has been of the highest standard in recent memory and last Sunday served to embellish that. But the controversy over key decisions made by the match officials have also illuminated it.
For drama and the unruly scenes that erupted afterwards, the Leinster football final will always stand out. It decided the game there and then with no recourse from Louth to come back.
There was recourse for Kildare last Sunday after Benny Coulter had lodged in the square and got his hand to Martin Clarke's perfectly weighted cross-field pass. But Down being Down, they quickly moved to establish and keep control for long enough to secure a place in the All-Ireland final.
There isn't a county that draws oxygen from a goal like Down. Especially in Croke Park. Those who recall the 1991 and 1994 All-Ireland finals will appreciate that. Give them an inch and they'll take the proverbial mile.
It may have come after only 13 minutes but its influence is too significant too ignore. The Alan Smith 'point' at the other end after only six minutes is less clear-cut. A camera angle from behind the goal left a strong impression that the ball was well inside the near post to Smith. Another angle, from behind where he kicked it on the Cusack Stand side, leans slightly towards being wide.
Critically, Joe McQuillan, the vastly experienced Cavan referee who regularly acts as an umpire, is apparently adamant that the point could not be awarded because it travelled over the top of the post, in his estimation.
Of course the GAA had the chance to kill these square-ball controversies when they convened for Congress in Down, ironically, last April when a host of playing-rule changes were on the agenda.
Among them was the abolition of a square ball, an experiment that seemed to work well during the league and had a sound opportunity of succeeding.
But Congress was a tedious affair and the rush to get through the huge body of motions, a rush criticised by the former Armagh captain and Central Council delegate Jarlath Burns, meant that it was given little or no consideration.
Maybe counties had predetermined what way they would vote on the square-ball motion but without sufficient debate it hadn't a chance anyway. So the status quo remained.
The use of technology was also on the clar in Down, proposed by Tipperary, who had the penalty award to Kilkenny by Diarmuid Kirwan in last year's All-Ireland hurling final on their mind when they framed it. But in Down it was withdrawn with an acknowledgment that CCCC would look into its feasibility.
Naturally, there is a reluctance among GAA officials to take the step towards technology. First there's the creation of an easy imbalance between club and inter-county, championship and league. But that imbalance already exists.
Then there's the concern about where to draw the line? Penalties? Too many steps, errant handpasses further out the field that lead to a score?
But these should be matters entirely at the discretion of the referee. The legitimacy of scores and the accuracy of square-ball infringements are more clear-cut because they result in an automatic and instant break in play, allowing time to 'go upstairs'.
Sufficient numbers of cameras at every championship venue is a technical issue, but what you have you use when it's available. The host broadcaster, in most cases RTE, could have anything up to nine cameras in operation around Croke Park on Sunday.
Around the country, any live game could have a minimum of five to six with highlighted games also having as many. Naturally, there would be some lower-end hurling games and first and second-round football qualifiers that wouldn't have the same level of coverage. But again, you use what you have at your disposal.
The hardest place to make a judgment on a square ball is as close to the action as an umpire can be. Try it sometime. Try and track the movement of the ball from such a height and the movement of the relevant player in the same sequence. It's difficult.
Pat McEnaney's umpires are among the most experienced in the game. Three of the four on duty have serious refereeing experience, one at the highest level. But they are, like the rest of us, prone to human error.
McEnaney himself could conceivably have caught a glance of the replay on the big screen and realised within seconds of turning away from his umpires that it was a mistake he couldn't then correct.
For us in the stand, from a more elevated position, it is easier. In his commentary, Marty Morrissey was able to determine in real time that Coulter had been in the square. His co-commentator Kevin McStay waited for the action replay to come to the same conclusion. That conclusion was drawn 10 seconds later.
Could it be that referees could have the benefit of a 'fifth' official's view in much the same are as the commentary team, ready to review incidents on separate screens? Or even in the outside broadcast boxes beneath the Hogan Stand where the action is relayed.
The establishment of audio contact between referee and fifth official would of course be the critical link but the system already exists in rugby. The easy choice would be to allow the status quo to remain and allow these controversies to keep blowing up time and time again.
The hard choice would be to explore it, experiment with it and see can these decisions be pushed beyond reasonable doubt.