Sunday 24 September 2017

Cynicism continues to reap dividends

Colm Keys

Colm Keys

Kevin Walsh was being vague but was getting his point across nonetheless. There were the usual qualifications that go with this territory. It was us that had asked him. And it wasn't the defeat that was influencing his take on events. How could it when it had been so comprehensive?

But at the end of what was probably the last of his four seasons with Sligo, Walsh was letting a little steam off. In a diplomatic way, of course. No names mentioned, no incidents really specified. Just a general observation from the trenches.

"There is certain stuff creeping into the game that has got to be dealt with by the eyes of the authorities that are out there, and it's not being fully dealt with," he warned.

"Cynical blocks, cynical pull-backs, complete pulling and tugging, in front of the linesman's eyes. Maybe someone might throw an arm back to release themselves.

"It's being let go left, right and centre by umpires and, to be fair maybe to some good forwards, unless this thing is stamped out, you're not going to see good forward play."

Perhaps Walsh had that incident in front of him just minutes from the end that led to Charlie Harrison's red card. John Doyle had tugged at the wing-back as he surged forward and Harrison drew back forcefully into Doyle's midriff. The Sligo man paid the price.

Has Walsh painted an accurate reflection of the game as it is? The intensity of the action over the last two weekends would suggest he has, damning and all as it is.

quality

Yes there are the great scores and the great moves and the high-octane energy brought by so many teams. The quality, when the game has been allowed to breathe, has been good.

If you are a connoisseur of great defence then you'll have appreciated Kildare's effort on Saturday night.

If it's flowing football you seek then Dublin's opening salvos against Meath or Kerry's response to Tyrone's goal in Killarney the previous week should have satisfied you.

But cynical fouling remains at the heart of every game played now. With so much at stake, the obligation to aesthetics goes out the window.

Referees are faced with a balancing act every time they now go for any of the games at the business end. No wonder, to use racing parlance, the most competent jockeys are now getting up on the most difficult horses.

The balance in allowing a game to flow and keeping spectator ire to a minimum in addition to retaining a decent connection with the playing rules as they exist is a delicate one.

David Coldrick was roundly criticised, chiefly by Mickey Harte, for the number of yellow cards he showed in Killarney and some were indeed contentious. But what about those he chose to overlook? He could have quickly made it a 13-a-side game on accumulation of fouls alone.

It's been that way for years but with rules experts and referees now commonplace in back-room teams, players now know how far they can push it and with whom.

The attitude towards cynicism and the benefits it brings was never better reflected than on the weekend before last. Limerick were 'naive' for not dragging down a host of Kildare players in the build-up to Emmet Bolton's equalising and ultimately liberating point. In contrast, Kerry were 'smart' with the areas of the field that they chose to haul down opponents. They had 'learned'.

There is little concrete evidence to suggest that teams are being coached to foul in rota order, that there is a system to how they kill a game's momentum.

In his co-commentary for RTE"s coverage of Saturday afternoon's fourth-round qualifier between Laois and Meath, Tony Davis mentioned a Laois player "taking one for the team".

It's a regular concept. Make the hit, take the card, slow the game and just be careful not to sail too close to the wind again.

In picking up second-half yellow cards, Cahir Healy, Pauric McMahon and Peter O'Leary all made sure that play was halted with the impact they made on opponents without any numerical damage.

The Laois recipients of yellow cards has been quite diverse this season with 17 different players picking them up in their five championship matches to date. Two, John O'Loughlin and Kevin Meaney have four each. Two more, Pauric Clancy and Brendan Quigley, have three each.

experimental

The appetite to restore the 'yellow card off' system that applied for the 2010 leagues on an experimental basis and came so close to success may not be there again, even though it was driven by the current GAA president Liam O'Neill.

But with more user-friendly software than the paper trail that currently exists with referees reports, the GAA are actively exploring a system where cumulative cards can lead to a suspension.

The anomaly of Cork playing just two championship matches for a Munster title and Donegal playing four to win an Ulster championship exists but then Donegal have had double the exposure to potential match bans under the current rules anyway. Once the competitions structure remains as it is, it shouldn't be an issue.

There will always be a body of opinion calling for less cards and much more tolerance of contact in the games. As long as they remain inter-county managers, Brian Cody and Harte will never recoil from that.

The action so far this season, despite a bright start, has done nothing to weaken the belief that it pays to be cynical. It's been intriguing, it's been fascinating and it will continue to be fascinating this weekend in Croke Park.

But cynicism continues to pay.

Irish Independent

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