Monday 22 January 2018

Four wrongs don't make a right

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

LIAM and Sam, the pesky pair who decorate these pages every Friday, don't do match predictions, preferring instead to stick to matters where their vast experience has taught them that they can't go wrong.

At the start of this year's football championship, they made a confident prediction that any attacker who believed he would get the benefit of the doubt on 'square ball' calls was deluding himself. Their gospel read that because Benny Coulter's goal in last year's Down-Kildare All-Ireland semi-final was awarded in error, there would be a dramatic swing to the case for the defence this season.

In other words, attackers who were attempting to correctly time their run under a dropping ball into the opposition goalmouth would be deemed guilty unless the evidence on their side was overwhelming. All 50-50 calls, plus the majority of the 60-40 splits, would definitely go the defence's way. Just to be sure.

Liam and Sam argued that they had seen this sort of thing happen before with the handpass and other controversial aspects. The refereeing authorities always insist that decisions are made purely on their merits, but history shows that various trends develop over different seasons. This year, the crackdown is on 'square ball' goals.


Coulter's goal, which possibly decided the outcome of Down-Kildare last year, was shown to have been illegal, so referees, whether operating on instruction or instinct, are making damn sure it doesn't happen again. Unfortunately, though, they are disallowing perfectly good goals such as Graham Geraghty's and Enda Muldoon's against Kildare (although the latter was a tight call) and Tomas O'Connor's for the Lilies on Saturday night. This is influencing games just as much as Coulter's illegal one did.

The trouble is, of course, that referees are in an impossible situation because the human eye can't adjudicate with certainty on the exact positioning of a player on the ground and a ball high in the air at a precise moment. All the more so when, as is usually the case, the referee is some way behind the ball.

Nor can umpires get it right either, since they are watching the ball and the player coming towards them at the same time.

The first test of any rule is whether it can be implemented accurately on a consistent basis. If it fails that basic criterion, then it's pointless. Worse than that, it's corruptive because of the inevitable mistakes which will follow.

Then, there's the question of whether a rule is required in the first place. It was the considered opinion of the rules revision group, which brought proposed amendments to Congress 2010, that the 'square ball' edict was unnecessary, except in the case of the delivery coming from a free, '45', '65' or lineball.

The restriction was sensible as it stopped the attacking team packing the goal line for set-plays. The amended rule, which allowed players enter the small rectangle before the ball during open play, worked well as part of an experimental package in the 2010 leagues, but, like several other of the proposals which had the backing of Central Council, it was thrown out by Congress on a large majority.

The main argument for retaining the old rule seemed to be based on a belief that if it had stood the test of time up to 2010, there was no compelling reason for its abolition. Except there was.

The rules revision group, which included players and referees, made a strong case for change in all their presentations, arguing that an unnecessary rule was damaging football in particular.

The counter-argument was that controversy over the 'square ball' was relatively new and that since the rule had always applied, the answer was to ensure better application.

That ignored the reality that it was always problematical, but had become increasingly so because of the better camera angles which showed up wrong calls. Congress opted for the status quo, thereby losing a great opportunity to delete a bad rule.

It was yet another example of how unfit for purpose Congress is. Certainly, bad decision-making in Newcastle 2010 is now proving very costly, not least for Kildare, whose championship ambitions over two seasons were damaged -- if not actually ended -- by controversial 'square ball' decisions.

Apart from being unfair on players, it's also leaving referees in an impossible position as they know that TV will show up whether they got the 'square ball' right or wrong. Barry Kelly acknowledged that it's all but impossible to judge the 'square ball' with the naked eye, yet referees are still being asked to do it.

It was refreshing to hear Kelly, who is one of the top hurling referees, speak openly on Kildare's KFM radio about the difficulties facing officials. Far too many referees, perhaps encouraged by the authorities, opt to remain silent when an explanation of particular decisions would be of benefit.

They can't be expected to re-run every incident over the airwaves, but there are times when an explanation is helpful. Alas, the same can't be said for the 'square ball' rule.

Maybe those who voted for its retention might now like to explain to aggrieved players why it's still such a prized piece of GAA legislation.

Irish Independent

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