IN early January, Chelsea and Nottingham Forest played out an entertaining FA Cup third round match at Stamford Bridge.
Chelsea won 2-0 but Forest were entitled to feel aggrieved afterwards.
On a Forest attack in the 24th minute, the ball was slipped through to Alex Mighten, who was pulled down by Fikayo Tomori in the Chelsea penalty box. The referee pointed to the spot but the matter was referred to VAR.
After viewing the footage, the panel noticed that Mighten was marginally offside when the ball was played to him. The penalty decision was over-turned and an indirect free-kick was awarded to Chelsea.
Forest were short-changed in a number of ways. If the referee had spotted the marginal offside, his duty would have been to punish the more serious infringement — the foul on Mighten.
Even if the supposed offside stood, Tomori may have either been booked or sent off for his foul.
If Forest had scored the penalty, and were then facing a 10-man Chelsea, a big shock might have been on the cards.
However, the most obvious reason for Forest’s frustration was that if the game had been played at their ground, the penalty would have stood — because VAR was available only to Premier League clubs playing at home.
That seems unfair but that’s the law.
Yet in a similar way, it’s the same in the GAA. Hawk-Eye has been a huge addition but the critical and ongoing issue around the topic is how Hawk-Eye can distort the playing field.
A team can go out of the championship after a controversial score in, say Portlaoise or Clones.
Yet if that same match was played in Thurles or Croke Park, that aggrieved team could have had their season saved by Hawk-Eye.
The cost is an obvious factor but, despite the advanced technology out there now, there has long been a suspicion and an indifference towards technology in the GAA.
At GAA Congress on Saturday, Motion 2, which would have allowed for team managers or team captains to clarify a referee decision “limited to two failed requests per team per game” was referred back to Central Council.
Limerick’s motion was inspired by the late 65 not awarded in their one-point defeat to Kilkenny in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final.
The motion apparently conflated Hawk Eye with other refereeing decisions not covered by the technology, but a referral to Central Council is often the GAA’s way of burying something they don’t want, or else want delayed.
If passed, the motion would amend Rule 1.1, to allow the referee to consult the Hawk-Eye score detection system and/or match official to clarify if any of the team officials erred in making a decision in relation to the validity of a score, or the awarding of a free, sideline ball, wide, 45 or 65, or a square infringement.
Some view the potential move as a step towards some form of VAR.
“I think it would just ruin the game,” said Tipperary’s John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer last week.
Would the Limerick players say so after the hurt of last July? With so many big and marginal calls in hurling now, limiting those calls to just four sounded like a fair deal.
It may have caused some disruption, but it wouldn’t have led to unlimited stoppages like VAR can in soccer.
Supporters would also find it much easier to endure the delay if a wrong call was overturned.
The wider issue again though, is that it would only apply to Thurles and Croke Park.
For example, umpires have been told not to make a decision in Thurles or Croke Park on a Brian Hogan-type play (the Tipperary goalkeeper pulled balls down from over the crossbar in last year’s All-Ireland semi-final and final), and to let Hawk-Eye make the call.
So, what do umpires do everywhere else? They won’t make that call when the margins are in inches.
So does that distort the playing field outside of Croke Park and Thurles?
The Hawk-Eye nine camera-system in Croke Park is a lot more expensive but it’s easier for the GAA to justify given the volume and magnitude of the games played there.
The system in Thurles costs around €8,000 per game. With Hawk-Eye not having been used in Thurles since June 16 last year, it looks like the GAA are reluctant to leave the infrastructure lying idle for that long.
Yet making Hawk-Eye more available in venues beyond Croke Park and Semple Stadium has to be a priority.
Is there a way around the current high costs? The TV camera systems are so high-spec now that the GAA need to start asking if they can roll out their own version of Hawk-Eye.
Could the GAA commission a company to devise a system, buy the product, and then patent it as their own? It would certainly be worth the investment.
In the short term, a mobile solution should be the way to go.
When the All-Ireland hurling quarter-finals were staged in Páirc Uí Chaoimh in 2017, the Hawk-Eye system was operated from a van, which was connected to the temporarily installed cameras around the ground.
The cameras used that day were a different mobile camera system. Another company which provides CCTV systems in some GAA grounds has shown how they can get the same level of magnification on their cameras as the Hawk-Eye cameras achieve.
Mobile solutions are usually rented. However, if the GAA could patent their own mobile system, it would be a lot easier to roll out on any given summer Sunday around the country.
Technology is constantly improving and evolving. The new sliotar developed by Greenfields Digital Sports Technologies has a chip which can cater for goal-line technology. It’s unknown if the GAA would ever go that far but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t when the technology is there to cater for those controversial decisions.
There is still an obvious reluctance to embrace technology, but the inter-county game has gone so professional now that human error — which is always inevitable — is becoming far more difficult to accept.