Red alert as Danske Bank Premiership is hit by a shortage of referees
Excitement is mounting ahead of the start of the Danske Bank Premiership this weekend but a shortage of senior referees could damage the long-term health of Irish League football.
Respected former official David Malcolm, the chief appointments officer responsible for senior referees, has admitted that not enough quality talent is coming through the ranks.
There are now only 10 referees on the senior panel compared to 16 in 2008 and Malcolm, who has more than 30 years experience in the refereeing business, says the Irish FA and Northern Ireland Football League are concerned at the limited numbers.
Referees came in for stinging criticism last season and for the second successive year there were controversial calls in the Irish Cup final.
Ref Ross Dunlop and his assistant in that showpiece fixture at The Oval - Raymond Crangle - have been stood down from Premiership duty for the first two weeks of the season.
Malcolm admitted the shortage of senior referees was a major challenge and concern to the Irish FA.
"It's a huge challenge for us," he said. "We have only 10 senior refs and that isn't enough. We need to have three or four more but if the quality is not there we cannot hit our target.
"Colin Burns retired and left us with another position to fill. We have lost a senior referee with eight years experience. I'll need to turn to a rookie (Evan Boyce) as I'm not like a manager that can go out and buy experience.
"We have trialled around 14 refs from the Championship over the last few years but it's a big step up to Premiership level and we have not made the progress we hoped to."
Fifa official Crangle shares Malcolm's concerns.
"It's fair to say there is a lack of recognised talent coming through," said Crangle.
"When I joined the senior referees' panel in 2008 we had a 16-strong team and now we are down to 10.
"We have lost experienced guys like Davy (Malcolm), Trevor Moutray, Adrian McCourt, Stephen Weatherall, Brian Turkington, Alan Black, Davy Best and now Colin Burns. Evan Boyce has been promoted from the Championship and there are now more younger guys on the panel.
"There's no point in having a certain number of referees if they cannot do the job properly. Referees will tell you the step up from the Championship to the Premiership is a monumental one in terms of the pace of the game and the expectations of managers, players, our superiors, fans and the media."
Malcolm insists measures are being taken to allay fears the game will suffer.
"A dedicated coach will now work with the refs in the Championship and hopefully more can come through and work at senior level," he added. "We are also focusing on the Youth League where we want to establish a pathway for officials to progress, like a nursery system where talent can be spotted and nurtured.
"I can only work with what I have and that's why we are transforming the recruitment process from youth level up.
"The Track Champ equipment has helped us analyse referees' performances in a wide range of areas and our top refs have also been getting experience across Europe and they have learned a lot from that."
Clubs pay the officials' fees which are £170 per game for a referee and £85 for his assistants and the fourth official. The officials also receive mileage expenses of 30 pence per mile though many will car share to reduce costs.
Crangle added: "Referees are not in the game for any financial rewards."