For years I was sceptical about the efficacy or need for video reviews in Gaelic games and soccer. It may have worked fine in cricket, rugby and tennis but these are stop-start sports, a series of set-pieces with obvious gaps in which to pause and review the action. There’s no such luxury in the more frenetic sports. Besides, would video really eliminate gross injustices? When Stephane Henchoz handled Thierry Henry’s goalbound effort early in the 2001 FA Cup final, it wasn’t until much later in the evening on Match of the Day that footage was produced to show he had definitely handled it. If a decision was marginal, video wasn’t going to show anything that enlightening and the ref has to make a binary decision which inherently will displease someone. And if an infringement is blatant, they’ll get it right the first time. Contrary to popular opinion, the referee usually has the best view of the lot, mere metres away from the action. A little more faith that they’ll make the right call would lead to lot less angst.
Then 2010 happened, and such highbrow objections melted way in the face of a litany of refereeing clangers. The first one was in the World Cup, when even watching from several metres away on a flat screen it was clear that Frank Lampard’s header against Germany had crossed the line. Yet the referee and the linesman, both of whom had the benefit of their two eyes to see it in three dimensions, somehow contrived to miss it. Worse still was Carlos Tevez’s goal for Argentina against Mexico, helping the ball into the net from a blatantly offside position. In both cases you were left wondering what on earth the officials had thought they had seen. What parallel universe did they inhabit in which the ball had not crossed the line / Tevez was onside? A classic case of justice not only being done, but being seen to be believed.
This is all a prelude to the fiascos we have witnessed in Gaelic games this year. The eleventh of July should have been a day for referees to be quietly smug, as Johnny Ryan awarded the free that led to Tony Browne’s sensational equalising goal. The world and her husband were convinced that some gross injustice had been performed, until multiple replays finally yielded the holding of John Mullane’s hurley. A definite free, and one in the eye for those who think referees would be grateful for just one eye. Alas for the guild of officials Martin Sludden and his umpires were flushing any credit Johnny Ryan may have earned for the brotherhood down the pan with their inexplicable interpretation of Joe Sheridan’s goal. Add in Benny Coulter’s square ball goal for Down against Kildare and the notion that we can rely on referees to get the easy calls right and video won’t tell us much on the hard calls lies in as many pieces as Louth-to-win-Leinster betting slips.
The reactions of the respective authorities to these calamities has been revealing. Sepp Blatter has accepted the need to look at the issue again, saying “it is obvious that after the experience so far in this World Cup it would be a nonsense to not reopen the file of technology at the business meeting of the International FA Board in July.” It’s not often that the words ‘Blatter’ and ‘principle’ could be used in the same sentence, but my reading of Blatter’s objections to technology was one of *cough* principle, i.e. that soccer should be treated the same at all levels whether it’s a Junior League match in Ozier Park or the World Cup final in Soccer City. It’s an admirable position to take, but when the facts changed he expressed a willingness to change his mind. The same can not be said of Christy Cooney.
(As an aside, this shouldn’t be personal and I hope I’ve kept the invective against him to a minimum, but I’m finding it hard to warm to Christy Cooney. On just about every red button issue this summer – pitch invasions, various refereeing debacles, the staging of the Under-21 final at Tipperary’s home venue – he’s managed to stand on the opposite side of the fence (pun unintended) as myself. When Seán Kelly took an activist position on the subject of opening Croke Park to soccer and rugby, many people objected that an Uachtaráin would take sides in the debate. This struck me as being wrong-headed on the basis that as the only nationally elected official in the association the President was exactly the man to take a position on a subject. Looking at Christy Cooney, it’s a case of ‘be careful what you wish for . . .’ )
Christy Cooney has decided technology is not the way to go. Why? There are myriad reasons such as the difficulty of deciding what should be subject to review or preserving the authority of referees, which are fair enough. But two comments really stick out. The first is that “our games are built on passion. Our games are about the continuous flow of the game. The last thing I want is a lot of stoppages. It doesn’t do anything to help us.” Putt ing aside the implication that a game like rugby lacks passion, why should this be a reason for not having video refs? When infuriated Louth fans spilled on to the pitch after the Leinster final they were certainly not lacking in passion, but this was clearly the bad type of passion which had to be eliminated at all costs. Then there is his observation that “in sport, you are lucky some days, unlucky on other days.” Imagine if Cork had experienced the same scenario as Louth did that day. The Cork man would ultimately shrug his shoulders. If it only happens to you once you’ll have 99 other chances soon enough. The same could not be said of the Louth man, who at the current rate will have to wait 5,940 years to get their 99 chances.
Video referees are inevitable at this stage – they’ve probably been inevitable for a lot longer than this, since the days when Hawkeye first showed a bale being nudged off the leg stump on live television, but it took England’s experience in the World Cup to make me see it. How long will it take the GAA top brass? When you’re lagging behind Sepp ‘tighter shorts’ Blatter in the innovation stakes, something is wrong.