independent

Friday 18 April 2014

The curse of quiet cynicism

Black card's arrival will finally put the onus on coaches to develop the skill of tackling

Sean Cavanagh - seen here in action against Ryan Bradley during their Ulster SFC first round game - has garnered plenty of attention after his fouling against Monaghan last weekend

I don't know when exactly the term 'cynical play' arrived into the GAA lexicon but it certainly was not in vogue any more than 10 years ago. However, the activity itself has been there in numerous guises since the GAA was founded.

For most football people it was covered under the general title of 'dirty play' and for a long period up to about 30 years ago it was often called 'third man tackle', which was essentially a licence to kill in football terms.

Cynical is just a fancy word for destructive tackling but with the development of sophisticated coaching methods – much of which are borrowed from other sports – cynical fouling has become a central part of coaching to many teams.

What sets it apart from most other fouls in football is that it is deliberately aimed at stopping the flow of play, thereby preventing a team from making use of hard-earned possession, won by skilful methods. The example of Sean Cavanagh against Monaghan was a flagship of this kind of fouling, but it is not the norm. Instead, cynical fouling takes place in less 'glamorous' situations altogether.

Inadequate

When a midfielder makes a brilliant high catch he is hauled down by a lesser opponent, thereby countering the skilful player and putting him equal for the moment with the inadequate fouler.

Or, when a defender in his own half has beaten his forward opponent and is about to initiate an attack, he is pulled down by the failed attacker. Again the idea is to stop the play so that the forward's team can regroup and the advantage earned to the defender's team is neutralised.

Cynical fouls often lead to frustration or worse, especially towards star players who are fouled by lesser opponents time and time again. Cavanagh himself has often been a victim of this. This fouling strikes at the very heart of sporting play because it is so destructive to skilful play – it is a cancer in football.

The black card emerged into the limelight with a bang after Joe Brolly's television outburst because it has suddenly dawned on people that this rule change is actually in place and will be enforced from January 1. For the first time, fans, players and managers are starting to study the rule and its consequences. There seems to be a vague idea that it will be tested out next spring. It won't, the rule was passed by 71.5pc of delegates at Congress and will not be changed.

It is there to stay and those managers and players who are vocal in their opposition are wasting their time. What they need to do from now on is prepare for the arrival of the black card and I have no doubt practically all of them will do so in good time – they have no option. Proper coaching of the skill of tackling the player in possession is the key to eliminating cynical fouling and the onus is on coaches and managers to achieve that.

There has been some confusion on technical aspects of the new rule but these are easily cleared up.

There are only a handful of fouls that will lead to black cards: tripping an opponent by hand or foot; pulling down an opponent; body-colliding with an opponent after he has played the ball away or for the purpose of taking him out of the movement of play; remonstrating in an aggressive manner with a match official; abusive or provocative language or gestures to players. Most importantly, the word 'deliberate' is attached to each of those fouls and referees are under instructions to decide what is or is not deliberate and what is accidental.

Any player or manager/coach should have no trouble understanding these few rules – if they have a desire to do so. The penalty for such fouls is a sending-off and the culprit being replaced. If three players are already black-carded there will be no more replacements.

As is normal in the GAA, the first thing that many people will look for is a way to get around these rules. Will players deliberately dive in the hope of getting an opponent sent off, for example? No doubt referees will have tuition in advance on these and similar possibilities.

The members of the Football Review Committee (FRC) have worked closely with referees on these rule changes and they stress that the black card is only the first step in reducing cynical play. If in the future stronger penalties are required, I have no doubt the GAA will deal with that.

But if these modest proposals are accepted in the proper spirit by all groups involved in football, then that should be adequate and we can all look forward to better-quality games.

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