A few minutes into the start of the second half of the Ulster final in 2011, the game was in the balance.
The scoreboard read 0-5 to 0-5. It was a war of attrition with few clues as to who would win it. Then, a long ball was kicked in towards Michael Murphy on the edge of the square. He and the Derry keeper Danny Devlin dived through the air to get a hand to it. They knocked against each other in the process and neither won it. Maurice Deegan who was out round the middle, instantly raised his arms for a penalty and ran towards the square. The Derry keeper and defenders were enraged, as only boys who are in the right can be enraged. Television replays showed immediately that it wasn’t a penalty but hey, when it comes to making wrong decisions with style, Maurice is in a league of his own. The condescending smile, the sympathetic tap on the shoulder, followed by Murphy’s penalty hitting the net. Game over.
Just a few months ago in Croke Park, Darren Hughes was sent off for striking Tiernan McCann. Only, he hadn’t struck him at all. Again, the TV replays showed . . . Well, we know what they showed.
The sending off was the final nail in the Monaghan coffin. Hughes – along with most of the country - was left seething. His only recourse was a tweet the next morning of him stroking his dog’s head and wondering why little Fido wasn’t collapsing.
The thing is, Gaelic football is impossible to referee. A few years ago, two Dundalk men were convicted by Judge Bridget Reilly of assaulting Tyrone referee, Martin Sludden, as he left the field after the Leinster final in 2010. Unless you were unborn then and a very advanced reader, you won’t need reminding what happened that day. Joe Sheridan threw the ball into the net with the last play of the game to deprive Louth of a Leinster title. Martin didn’t see it and gave the goal. The country went mental. Statements were made in the Dail. The national broadcaster made a documentary on it in their “Scandals” series. Worse still, a crazed Louth man launched himself at Sean Boylan in a corporate box. Sean, the closest thing we have to a national treasure, said afterwards, “People lose the head at football matches all the time.” Little else was talked about for days.
I was listening to Seamus McEneaney on Radio 1 a few weeks ago and laughed aloud in the car when he described what happened the day that Benny Coulter’s infamous square ball goal beat Kildare in the All-Ireland semi-final in 2010. His brother Pat was refereeing and Seamus said, “I knew the umpire at the left post so I rang him on the mobile straight away to tell him it was a square ball but he never answered. I met him the next day and he said, ‘I had a missed call from you, Seamus.”
Paudie Hughes’ penalty decision against Cork in the drawn Munster final this year saved Kerry, ultimately put Cork out of the championship and a good manager out of his job. It was obvious it wasn’t a penalty. Paudie just didn’t have the tools to make the decision. There are countless examples of such errors, leaving us all seething with frustration and anger. Which brings me to rugby.
I have been watching the refereeing in the World Cup with a mixture of awe and jealousy. There are three constituents to their approach. Firstly, they want to get it right. Secondly, they want to command public confidence. Thirdly, and this is linked to the second point, they want the process of decision making to be transparent. So, the referee is miked up. His words are broadcast. Secondly, the big screens in the stadium show replays of disputed incidents. But the key to all of the above is the TMO, sitting in front of the TV monitors in the broadcaster’s truck or studio.
The basic principle is that all of the officials, including the TMO, can initiate the TMO process, but the referee remains the final decision maker. For one of Argentina’s tries against Ireland, it looked to the naked eye as though the try scorer was ahead of the kicker. So, the TMO went to work. The referee asked if there was any reason he couldn’t award a try. Two things: Was the try scorer ahead of the kicker? Did he ground the ball? It was shown on the big screen from the available angles. The pictures quickly showed that the runner wasn’t ahead of the kicker and the ball was properly grounded. The try was awarded and justice was not only done, but seen to be done.
The fact that it is transparent is crucial, since even if the onlooker disagrees with the ultimate decision, he can see precisely how it was reached. So, in that same game, the TMO and referee examined whether the big Argentinian had committed a second yellow card offence by launching himself into the ruck shoulder first. The pictures showed his left arm and hand outstretched but not his right. The TMO protocol states that if the officials are not certain of the infringement then they will give the benefit of the doubt. The referee agonised over it for a moment. He asked for a better angle. It wasn’t available. Everyone in the stand and at home heard his final decision. “I am not sure. No yellow card. Penalty only.”
Meanwhile, in Gaelic games, we are entirely excluded from the decision making process. When an incident occurs, the big screens automatically switch from the action to ads for Supervalu or McDonald’s. Being treated like kids only increases our anger and frustration. We feel as enraged and impotent as Seamus McEneaney ringing the umpire to say “For f**k sake Mickey it’s a blatant square ball.”
‘McCanngate’ would have been knocked on the head straightaway. What made it such a huge deal was that Hughes was sent off, the referee didn’t clock the feigning and since the job wasn’t done there and then, it was left to the mob to do it. Think of it:
TMO: Joe, it isn’t a strike. The Monaghan player clearly rubs his hair nothing more. Just showing you the replays now.
Joe: I see that now.
TMO: I’m recommending a yellow card for the Tyrone player for feigning. No other action.
Joe: I agree with that.
Justice done. We all move on. Tiernan would have been spared the death by 1,000 humiliating strokes, Monaghan would have had no grievance and Tyrone would have won anyway.
This brings me to another crucial thing about the TMO. If it were to be used by the officials as a tool in relation to sendings off/black card (as it is in Rugby), then it will have a huge impact on feigning (especially as it looks highly likely that feigning is soon to be upgraded to a red card offence). If players know that the referee is no longer going it alone and the incident will be looked at close up from every camera angle, then he won’t do it. In those circumstances, it will be entirely self defeating and only incur the wrath of his own team, management and supporters. What better way to rid ourselves of this scourge?
The TMO protocol in rugby is pure common sense. The referee doesn’t have to call for it. If the TMO sees either foul play, an infringement in the lead up to a try or a problem with the scoring of a try itself, he can alert the referee. So, the critical moment in the Australia/England match was a heavy, late tackle on an Australian by Owen Farrell, the English goal kicker. The referee didn’t spot it. As the Aussie lay poleaxed on the ground, the TMO directed the referee’s attention to what he saw as a clear foul. The ref stopped play and watched the big screen. All of the communications between the TMO and himself were relayed to the crowd and the TV audience. Farrell was yellow carded. Justice done and seen to be done.
Only one decision in the RWC has caused controversy and that was Craig Joubert’s incorrect decision to award Australia the game winning penalty. The TMO system does not apply to penalties, although consideration is now going to be given to extending it to cover penalties that are scoreable. Sensible lot those rugby types.
I spoke with the RTE boys about this last week. They tell me the TMO would be “cheap as chips” for Croke Park and the other main provincial stadiums. Basically, wherever there is a full outside broadcast crew. The TMO simply gets miked up and sits in the broadcast lorry with the broadcaster’s TV replay controller. Hawkeye only applies in Croke Park. The TMO would be automatically available for all live football championship and qualifier games and more than 50% of all other games. Basically, the only games where arrangements for say three extra cameras would be required, would be the non-live smaller round 1 and 2 qualifiers.
The TMO’s remit would have to be agreed upon. Obviously it would apply to penalty shouts and disputed goals. These are by far the biggest problem area. There is always a lengthy stoppage when these occur anyway so the time spent by the TMO would be negligible. The GAA would also need to consider whether to include red card/black card incidents which could result in a player being sent off. The TMO is a spectator sport in itself. Who doesn’t love hawkeye?
Let us day dream for a moment: July 11th, 2010, Croke Park. 72 minutes on the clock. The ball is in the Louth net. The Louth keeper and defenders are going berserk.
TMO: Martin. There is a problem with the goal. The Meath player has thrown it into the net. Just showing it to you now on the big screen.
Martin: Just so I can be clear. You are saying the ball was thrown into the net by the Meath player?
Martin: I can see that now. Ok thanks. DECISION: Goal disallowed. Free out Louth.
It is, as the retired referees’ chief Pat McEnaney said to me during the week, “a No Brainer”. Quite apart from the fact that it would substantially cut down on his brother Seamus’ mobile phone bills.