Counties learning to use 'black ops' to manipulate rules
Published 14/07/2015 | 02:30
For the first 70 minutes of action on Sunday at the Athletic Grounds, Galway and Armagh went at each other hard and fair.
In that time there was one yellow card and it was even nervy at times as both sides faced the prospect of seeing their season come to a shuddering halt in their first season under new management.
But it was never cynical.
Then three minutes injury time were announced and proceedings took a new twist. Armagh had pulled back to within a goal and had kept Galway scoreless for more than 20 minutes as the visitors yearned for the final whistle.
With their summer on the line, Armagh went in search of a goal.
Kevin Walsh's side did what any team would do and killed the clock and any Armagh momentum at every available opportunity.
First Gary Sice took a black card for dragging down Jamie Clarke. There was still plenty to do for the Crossmaglen man to have even a good point chance but Sice was taking no chances. But the move was cut down before it had really started.
At this stage, tired minds and nerves meant mistake followed blunder but Galway weren't going to be caught. Within roughly a minute of Sice's indiscretion, the Tribesmen picked up a second black card.
Again there was no obvious danger to the Galway goal with play well out the field but it didn't matter as Cathal Sweeney dragged down an opponent.
And as was the case with Sice's black card, precious seconds were eaten up as referee David Gough carried out the necessary paperwork.
Eventually, the Meath official brought things to a close and they saw out the game.
It's likely the Tribesmen would have gotten over the line anyway as they didn't look like conceding a goal for most of the game.
But the closing minutes served to show that teams are using the black card sanction in ways it was never intended.
Instead of punishing a team engaging in cynical play, the black card rule actually helped Galway as they nervously stepped into the next round.
The Tribesmen had been on the receiving end of something similar in their Connacht Championship clash with Mayo when Lee Keegan simply refused to give up possession and killed the clock as they looked to chase the game. They had learned.
Armagh manager Kieran McGeeney didn't have much issue with the way the Connacht side closed out the game afterwards but clearly feels the rule book needs work if it is to be effective.
"We have a game of half rules. You can't change (that)," he said afterwards.
The use of the black card rule in that way is at odds with what it appeared to be achieving when first introduced.
After being brought in for the start of the 2014 competitions, scoring rates in last year's league increased by an average of four points as players refused to run the risk of having precious game-time cut short.
But as the stakes rise with the end of a game in sight, players have been shown to be more willing to take one 'for the team'.
Figures show that roughly one in three black cards are shown after the clock has passed the 60-minute mark.
The 18 knock-out games in this year's Championship have borne 11 black cards. Four of those have come in the last 20 minutes but those figures are skewed as 11 of those matches were won by margins of seven points or more.
In those scenarios there's no need to commit a black card offence as the matches were all but settled coming into the home straight.
And as the rule has taken time to bed in, teams have become more familiar with what they can get away with. In last year's league, three teams picked up no blacks at all. In 2015, every county picked up at least one.
And as the summer wears on and the stakes get higher, players are likely to become more willing to accept a black card in order to keep their summer alive.