LIAM MACKEY: As Dundalk pay the penalty, it's time to give refs a second look

There were no, what you might call, GLT-edged chances at the Aviva Stadium AKA the Dublin Arena AKA Lansdowne Road on Wednesday night.

That is to say, there was no occasion for Goal Line Technology to be activated for the first time in an Irish stadium as the Dundalk-Legia Warsaw qualifier passed off without that kind of incident.

But not, of course, without much uproar occasioned by the controversy which, with the fabled ball-over-the-line talking point now consigned to history by the appliance of science, has probably taken over as the single most divisive issue arising from interpretation of the rules of the game: What, precisely, constitutes a handball offence meriting the punishment of a penalty?

German referee Deniz Aytekin appeared to be in no doubt about the matter on Wednesday, wasting no time in pointing to the spot after Andy Boyle got himself and, more specifically, his arm, in the way of a shot by Steeven Langil. Up stepped Nemanja Nikolic to calmly convert the penalty and, after being very much in the game for the guts of an hour, Dundalk suddenly found themselves trailing in their Champions League play-off to a wounding away goal.

And, of course, it only got worse for the Irish champions with the last act of the night as, sickeningly for the Stephen Kenny’s side, they conceded a second sucker-punch in time added on, which means they must now score at least twice — and keep a clean sheet — if they are to have any hope of a miracle outcome in the second leg in Warsaw.

But it was unquestionably the penalty decision which had the biggest influence on the course of the match, deflating Dundalk, leading to a period of dominance by the newly energised Poles and leaving the Lilywhites more open to exposure at the back as, late in the game, they pushed forward again in search of an equaliser.

Afterwards, Dundalk boss Kenny was almost incandescent with rage, calling the penalty “a really appalling decision that swung the game. (Boyle’s) hand is not in an unnatural position. We’ve scrutinised what is a handball and what isn’t. Tell me where in the rules it says that it’s a penalty kick”.

It doesn’t — Kenny has the law on his side on this one.

Despite the raft of rule changes introduced for Euro 2016, the handball offence was left untouched. And, on the face of it, the wording could hardly be clearer: “Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm. The following must be considered: The movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)… the distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)… the position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an infringement.”

On all those counts, Andy Boyle should have been in the clear: His back was almost completely turned towards the shot and his arm was close by his side, not remotely in the “unnatural position” of which we hear so much these days.

And yet the referee still gave the pen, which only goes to show that while them’s the rules, he remains the one with the final say on how they should be interpreted. And to be fair to Aytekin — who is regarded as one of Germany’s top refs — he found high-profile support for his decision from Michael O’Neill on RTÉ, the Northern Ireland manager, while accepting it was “very harsh” to conclude that Boyle’s arm was in an unnatural position, going on to make the argument that had the same incident happened on the goal-line, “you’d expect a penalty.” His fellow panellists Kenny Cunningham and Richie Sadlier disagreed as, I would imagine, did the vast majority of those who, like them, had the luxury of studying slow-motion replays, something not available to Aytekin on the night.

Ah yes, my long suffering readers can see where this one is going now.

As did Kenny Cunningham out in Montrose — and he has having none of it.

“People say ‘get the video replays in’ and we’ll clear these things up in two or three seconds,” he scoffed. “But I can guarantee you: You ask 10 officials to give a judgement call on that and they’re probably be split 50-50.”

Really? More like 9-1, I would have thought (And probably only if Michael O’Neill took up refereeing). Indeed, I’d be very surprised if Aytekin himself didn’t feel very differently about the decision when he had a chance to review it after the game.

My argument is that the referee — never mind Dundalk — would have benefited hugely from access to a second opinion on the night. True, Aytekin could have consulted one of his assistants — which he didn’t appear to do — but, even if he had, he would still have been receiving an interpretation based, like his own, on split-second, heat of the moment, now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t evidence.

Whereas a video ref, with access to the same filmed evidence the lads in the studio and the people at home have long since come to take for granted, would have been in a position — and, yes, in only matter of seconds — to, at the very least, raise a legitimate seed of doubt in the referee’s mind.

And in the grey area which is intent or otherwise to handle the ball in the box, any doubt at all should dissuade a referee from turning a marginal call into a definitive one.

Especially one with, as was the case at the Aviva, such massive consequences, in very different ways, for two teams battling for a place in the group stages of the Champions League. Stephen Kenny was hardly indulging in special pleading when, from the perspective not only of Dundalk but the League of Ireland in general, he spoke afterwards about the game’s “historical context for Irish football” before concluding, “you can’t give decisions like that in a game with huge ramifications”.

But referees, even the elite ones, can and do. Not because they’re not good at their jobs but simply because they don’t have the gift of, literally, second sight. And too many in football still find too many bad reasons to continue denying it to them.

Afterwards, Dundalk boss Kenny was almost incandescent with rage


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