By John Harrington
It’s 40 minutes to throw-in between Mayo and Kerry in the 2017 All-Ireland SFC semi-final replay, and I’m walking with Dickie Murphy down the Croke Park side-line past the Cusack Stand on our right-hand side.
Our destination is the Control Room located under the big screen on the Nally Terrace where Dickie is stationed for Croke Park matches in his role as one of the GAA’s three Hawkeye Review Officials (Tipperary’s Willie Barrett and Dublin’s Noel O’Donoghue are the other two).
We’ve just come from the Referee’s dressing-room under the Cusack Stand where Dickie has gone through the Hawkeye protocols with referee David Gough and his umpires like he does before every game.
The gist of his instructions to them is that it’s better for you to call Hawkeye than have Hawkeye call you.
So, unless the umpire is 100 per cent sure the ball has gone between the posts, then it’s time to call for assistance from Murphy and the Hawkeye operators in the Control Room.
“The thing about it is that if you make the decision and it’s wrong, then it puts pressure on the umpire for the rest of the game and it also puts pressure on the referee as well,” says Murphy.
“We’re all human and sometimes umpires can make mistakes and signal a point or a wide and they’re convinced, but we have to contact them to tell them they got it wrong.
“In fairness, it doesn’t happen too often. We’d be saying to referees that even if you’re 95% sure you might as well use it when it’s there. It’s an extra tool in your box.”
As a former top-class inter-county hurling referee who took charge of four All-Ireland Finals (1992, 1995, 1997, & 1998), Murphy can appreciate just how helpful the Hawkeye technology would have been to him were it available back then.
“People would say it was a pity it wasn’t in a few matches I refereed!” says Murphy. “Probably the All-Ireland Final of 1997 (Clare beat Tipperary by a point), Declan Ryan’s shot that was waved wide, that would have been the big one.
“That would have been perfect for Hawkeye. You could see the crowd jumping up on the Hill so they thought it was a point.
“The problem I suppose that if the umpire hesitates at all, whether he’s right or wrong, it gives the impression that he’s not quite sure.
“Look, you live and die by those decisions, but that was definitely one that if Hawkeye had existed back then I’d be going straight to it.
“It’s a great resource. It makes it easier for umpires because they don’t have to make a huge call and then live with the fear that they got it wrong. The decision is always going to be right now.”
Up in the control room I’m introduced to Hawkeye operator Graham Currigan and his assistant Liam MacNamee.
Currigan also operates the Hawkeye technology at Premiership football grounds in England, and explains it’s a seamless process to adapt the technology to any ball-sport.
“It’s a very different system, but it’s not any more challenging as such, just a different system,” he says.
“The operation just follows check-lists so we can go to any sport, follow those check-lists, and everything should be fine.
“We have eight cameras in total in Croke Park and they then feed into our control PCs which will triangulate the ball’s position and that produces files that can be dropped into a virtual world to show a visual representation of what’s just happened.”
Half an hour before throw-in Dickie Murphy runs through his checklist to make sure everything is as it should be.
He confirms that Hawkeye is in football rather than hurling mode, and does communication checks with referee David Gough, his umpires, and the fourth official.
Not long after the ball is thrown in between Kerry and Mayo and the All-Ireland semi-final replay gets under way, it quickly becomes obvious just how effective the Hawkeye technology is.
A second after Cillian O’Connor opens the scoring for Mayo, Graham Currigan confirms that it is indeed a point even before the umpire has the white flag raised.
If an umpire waves a ball wide that Murphy and his colleagues in the Control Room know to be a point, they can immediately contact the referee over the radio to let him know to signal for a Hawkeye ruling.
Hawkeye wasn’t called upon as Mayo powered to victory over Kerry, which is often the case in a football match where the big ball makes life easier for umpires.
“Yeah, in hurling it happens a lot more,” says Murphy. “And in Thurles it happens more again because you don’t have as much room at the back of the goals in Semple Stadium as you would in Croke Park.”
The technology has played a decisive role in some of the biggest hurling matches of the last couple of years, most notably the 2014 All-Ireland SHC Final when it showed that John O’Dwyer’s last gasp free for Tipperary had gone just wide against Kilkenny.
The Cats also had reason to be glad of the technology last year when it overturned a point awarded to Waterford late in the All-Ireland semi-final.
“Kevin Moran would have put Waterford four points up and they probably wouldn’t have been caught if it had stood,” says Murphy. “Then Kilkenny got the goal and it was level.
“In fairness to the umpire it was a big call to give the point, but the Hawkeye official told me the ball was wide, so then we contact the referee to let him know it has to be reviewed.
“When Hawkeye contacts the referee, you know what’s coming next.”
David Gough didn’t get a call over the radio from Murphy in the All-Ireland semi-final replay, but there was no shortage of communication with his umpires and linesmen.
On a number of occasions they were able to alert him to incidents occurring in other areas of the field out of his immediate field of vision, and listening in on the radio was a real eye as well as ear-opening experience on how matches are now officiated at the highest level.
Hawkeye ensures a score is never missed in Croke Park, and radio communication is helping to ensure most acts of foul play are being caught too.
The speed of inter-county football and hurling is increasing all the time, and technology is clearly helping match officials keep pace.