Black marks prove cynicism is thriving in gaelic football
Published 08/04/2015 | 02:30
With one foot in the Division 1 semi-finals in the closing stages of Sunday's fiercely contested final round league match in MacHale Park in Castlebar, Mayo sought to nail down the victory by whatever means available.
They couldn't escape the clutches of a Donegal team desperate to mine an away point or even two in the top flight for the first time since 2009.
At one stage the lead was two for the home side in the second half but it never got to three.
As Donegal pressed, Mayo adopted a strategy of 'stop at all costs.'
First Donie Vaughan, already on a yellow card, yanked down Odhran MacNiallais far enough from his own goals not to matter much, earning a black and consequently a red card. He'd take it if the result was right.
Then Diarmuid O'Connor hauled Paddy McGrath to the ground to halt further progress just around the half-way line to pick up his team's second black card in minutes.
It brought to six the number of black cards for Mayo in the campaign, three times as many as 2014.
Those two fouls were a reminder of how players are still willing to 'take one for the team' when the need is urgent.
In this instance the sacrifice was in vain but it's no surprise to establish that in the divisional stages of the Allianz League over the last two months, one in three black cards will be picked up in the last 10 minutes of the game.
From the 104 black cards, based on newspaper accounts of matches, issued in the 112 matches since the beginning of February, some 34 have come once the clock has passed the 60-minute mark. Last year that figure was 27 from 90.
That 'one in three' statistic mirrors last year in the period of a game when fatigue has set in but, more importantly, when desperation stalks any team that is watching the clock count down.
The number of black cards in total has risen by more than 15 per cent on 2014 figures, up from 90 to 104 according to our figures.
The feelgood factor that saw yellow cards almost halved in last year's league and scores rise by an average of almost four points per game has slowly eroded.
Players and coaches are getting a feel for the levels of 'give and take' with referees again. Referees are a lot more comfortable with what is deliberate and what isn't and that's another consequence of the rise.
Should the rule-makers be championing the fact that more are being punished or bemoaning the fact that the figure has surged?
Should there be concern at the rise or relief that referees look like they have adapted better? In tandem with a fall back to pre-2014 league scoring levels, the impact has been brief and goals have been reduced, 209 from 112 games working out at 1.86 per game, lower than the 2.34 per game in last year's championship.
There are some like former Monaghan and Meath manager Seamus McEnaney who see the introduction of the black card as a catalyst for the latest injection of defensive play, the necessity of security in numbers supplanting the risk of one-to-one tackling leading to dismissal.
On six, Mayo are level with All-Ireland champions Kerry and just one behind Down who topped last year's black card table too. Kerry's statistics will add sustenance to the argument that they are equally and maybe even more cynical than any of their main opponents. They doubled their tally to six from last year.
In last year's league three counties didn't register a black card at all - this year everyone has at least one.
It was a matter of pride and considered to be a reflection of their football 'ethos' that Dublin weren't punished for a cynical act of this nature in either league or championship.
But this time round they have had two, Philly McMahon against Kerry and Emmet ó Conghaile against Monaghan last weekend.
Denis Bastick was also black-carded by referee Eddie Kinsella for a tangle with Kieran Donaghy at a throw-in against Kerry but had that subsequently rescinded at a Central Hearings Committee meeting.
Monaghan also kept a clean slate but have recorded the biggest jump in 2015, shooting up to five with Dessie Mone picking up two, while Westmeath collected three as they followed Kildare into Division 3.
Like last year the number of black cards shown increases with every 10-minute block except the second last, between the 50th and 60th minutes, when there is a dip before it takes off again.
The biggest spike is in Division 1 which yielded just 17 black cards in 2014 but is up to 29 now, the highest of the four divisions and a complete reversal of last year's position.
In contrast Division 4 teams have chalked up 24 black cards, down from 28 in 2014, the only division to deliver fewer than 12 months ago.
Division 2 has also had a marked increase, 23 up from 18 with Division 3 edging up to 28 from 26.
Twelve months ago, the vast difference between black cards shown to Division 1 and 4 players was attributed to quality of tackling, better fitness and referees at a higher level not as conscious of erring on the side of caution.
But a complete flip of the figures points to a Division 1 where players are much more comfortable with the idea of dragging an opponent down again.
A number of players are on two black cards and are facing a one-match ban if they receive one more or pick up a double yellow.
Kerry's Paul Murphy was dismissed in back-to-back games against Dublin and Cork, one of only two Division 1 players (with Dessie Mone) on that mark.
Michael Murphy is also technically on that mark too but with his double yellow against Cork that has contributed to a one-match suspension, the first player to be hit with that for cumulative offences.
Down have two players on two black cards, Conor Garvey and Kevin McKernan, while the rest are from the lower divisions, Sligo's Neil Ewing, Wicklow's John McGrath, Clare pair Martin McMahon and Ciaran Russell, Wexford's Paddy Byrne, Longford's Peter Foy and Limerick's Darragh Treacy.