Case for second GAA referee more compelling than ever

The TV camera angle behind the goal in Edendork on Sunday perfectly captured the moment when David Clifford was wrestled to the ground, and how referee Fergal Kelly was otherwise occupied and engaged at that exact time; Kelly was scribbling in his notebook as he was about to show yellow cards to two other players.

David Clifford of Kerry reacts as referee Fergal Kelly shows him a second yellow card. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
David Clifford of Kerry reacts as referee Fergal Kelly shows him a second yellow card. Photo by David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Acting on the advice of his umpires, Kelly showed Clifford a second yellow card. “Everyone is giving out about Fergal Kelly, but you can’t blame him,” says Rory Hickey, a respected inter-county referee who retired last year.

“He went on what his umpire told him but it’s hard to blame the umpire too because he’s not a qualified referee.

“If you had a second referee in that situation, his attention would have been turned to that incident and Clifford would have stayed on the field.

It’s not a case of the GAA saying they haven’t got enough referees; they have them, they just need to think outside the box in how they use them.

When he stepped down as Kerry manager in 2018, Eamonn Fitzmaurice said that the most pressing need in the GAA was for a second referee. That requirement is far greater now since the introduction of the new rules, particularly the advanced mark and the level of detail around its implementation.

“One referee has just too much to do now,” says Hickey. “It’s extremely hard to concentrate for 80 minutes.

“Why not reconfigure the refereeing set-up? Put a referee and the standby ref in each half, scrap the linesmen, use one of the linesmen as the fourth official, and use the other linesman to give the referees a hand if there is stuff going on off the ball. Give them all equal powers.”

Rory Hickey, who retired from inter-county refereeing last year.
Rory Hickey, who retired from inter-county refereeing last year.

Many referees are in favour of a second ref to unload the huge burden and share the workload but others aren’t, purely out of ego, and the desire to be the only referee on show. Hickey though, saw the benefit first hand of a second referee through his involvement in two International Rules Series.

“Even when the action was up the other end, the second ref could scoot around to players and tell them to cut out the messing,” says Hickey. “If you had a second referee in GAA, you’d have far less fellas getting nailed off the ball.”

One of the chief concerns with a second referee, though, is interpretation. Will the two referees always be on the same page? “My argument is if you have two referees refereeing games together, they will develop a level of commonality and consistency in their decision making,” says Paul Earley, former International Rules manager.

“In big games, they will get double the experience they’re getting at the moment. If you bring in a young referee to work alongside a more experienced referee, those guys will learn a lot quicker. Plus, you will have a bigger group of refs officiating the bigger games.”

Players deserve to have the referee within 20-25 metres of the play. That’s why Australian Rules have added more on-field officials in recent years. AFL stats show how the number of officiating errors has been reduced.

A second referee would lead to a similar error reduction in GAA, but it would also take the heat off any one particular individual referee, especially when some of those calls were impossible for the referee to see in the first place.

Rugby and soccer only have one referee, but those pitches are smaller. In basketball, there are three referees to officiate on a court that measures 94ft by 50ft. At the elite levels in rugby and soccer there are a TMO, goal-line technology and VAR, while Hawk-Eye is the only technology used at the elite level in GAA.

Decisions are harder again to make considering hurling and football’s increased pace. It is harder for referees to keep up, or to reduce the fatigue that many naturally suffer in such a fast-paced environment. “With ten minutes left in a championship match, when you’re 80 yards from the play, you’re hoping to God there isn’t an obvious foul you’ll miss,” says Hickey. “You’re not going to get there because you’re wrecked.”

Research carried out by Aidan Brady from DCU in collaboration with the GAA and the Irish Research Council shows just how demanding the fitness standard now is for referees. The average total distance covered during a game in both codes in the 2019 championship was 9.5km, with an average speed of 8km/h. The high intensity running average for football was 738 metres, with 678 metres for hurling referees.

Those high-intensity running numbers were down from 2018 but referees have been getting fitter because they have to. In order to referee in the National League a minimum level of 16.8 must be reached in the Bangsbo intermittent recovery test while a score of at least 17.4 is required for any referee of a championship match. The average level recorded for an adult club player ranges between 17.1 and 19.1.

Hurling, in particular, has lost some good referees because they can’t reach those fitness levels. “Some referees were training over Christmas to make sure they passed the fitness test in January,” says Hickey.

“Their Christmas was gone out the window but some guys are under huge pressure. To make it more encouraging for people to get into refereeing, swapping around officials and roles would make it more attractive. A lot of guys just aren’t able to sprint around the field for 80 minutes.”

And that task is all the harder again when one referee is trying to officiate and keep order in an increasingly negative football culture.

“The skill level has increased but I’ve felt for a while now that Gaelic football is going in a really bad direction,” says Earley. “It’s a win-at-all-costs mentality. There is very little sportsmanship anymore. There’s a complete lack of respect for opponents. We’ve moved towards a game that encourages cynicism.”

And the new football rules, and the difficulties referees have in trying to implement them, have made the need for a second referee an even more compelling argument.

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