Saturday 3 December 2016

Eugene McGee: I’m astonished at the 'experts' who want to return to days of pulling, dragging and broken jaws

Published 10/10/2016 | 02:30

Lee Keegan fouls Diarmuid Connolly in the All-Ireland SFC final replay, resulting in a controversial black card for the Mayo defender. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Lee Keegan fouls Diarmuid Connolly in the All-Ireland SFC final replay, resulting in a controversial black card for the Mayo defender. Photo by Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

We are now at height of the black card season, August to September plus, and just a few weeks to the start of the pheasant-shooting season, a huge pastime in rural Ireland.

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By happy coincidence for GAA pheasant-shooters - of which there are many all over the 32 counties - the season starts on November 1 and ends on January 31, just in time for the start of the GAA season. There are many similarities between the two pastimes. Especially since the advent of the black card in 2014.

Jonny Cooper of Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile
Jonny Cooper of Dublin. Photo by Ray McManus/Sportsfile

Since then there has been a hard core of small but vocal black card shooters caused by the high-profile football games shown on television. Like the pheasant-shooters, the GAA lads tend to miss far more shots than they hit but in the same way that does not stop them blasting off pellets willy-nilly when they know they cannot win. Hit and miss is in their DNA.

The Football Review Committee (FRC) ended its term of office the moment the motions were passed by the FRC in Derry city in 2013. The black card rules did not kick in until 2014 to allow all sides, legislators, team managements, players and, most importantly, the GAA public to learn what was involved. One of the most intensive GAA PR campaigns was put in place to explain the changes.

Critics

Unfortunately, many GAA people, including the critics of the black card, have still never studied the GAA rules.

One of many remits handed to the FRC by then GAA president Liam O'Neill was to recommend changes that would reduce the negative, cynical play in football that had become out of hand over the previous few seasons. When the FRC, on expert advice, created the first internet method of consulting GAA people from all over the world, the response was huge. Around 3,500 people filled in this extensive online questionnaire and another 500-plus wrote in.

This was the biggest survey ever in the GAA and virtually all respondents included their own name and contact details. No Twitter rubbish involved! When asked what the biggest problem facing football was in 2013 over 80 per cent said it was cynical fouling and its many by-products.

The yellow card system seemed to have solved the problem a few years before but did not. Statistical evidence showed that while refs were happy to issue the first yellow they were reluctant to show a second, sending-off one, so clearly the yellow card was not sufficient.

After long and constructive debate and discussions held with four provincial councils, the 32 counties, third- and second-level institutions and meetings with all the main components of football such as referees, managers, the GPA and foreign GAA clubs among others, the black card emerged as the fairest and least draconian compared to a second yellow for achieving at least a major reduction in cynical play in football.

The ultimate voice of GAA democracy is the Annual Congress and in Derry 2013 over 320 delegates voted by 73 per cent to pass the FRC motions that included the black card.

This background to the black card is important because many still do not seem to know the rules, including many of the 'BC' antagonists. The successful implementation depends not on the FRC or the GAA overall but on consistent refereeing.

Even the leading referees accept that and that is good because they are determined to improve consistency and I am confident they will achieve that. The rules of Gaelic football are a minefield of uncertainty, not just the BC rules. How often do we see controversies about the red and yellow cards, penalty decisions - ask Mayo against Kerry in that famous Limerick replay - the pick-up from the ground, even the square ball and of course the so-called four-steps rule which is constantly ignored? Inconsistency is endemic in football. Inconsistency is the cause there too, so it's not just the black card.

But that does not stop some leading ex-players going after the rule ad nauseam. So what do they want to do? Kill it off and return to pulling and dragging, more broken jaws after obscene third-man tackles? We are still waiting to find out who hit Mayo's John Finn in the drawn 1985 semi-final against Dublin for God's sake!

Even accepting some bias on my behalf, few ordinary GAA followers who pay their way to games or watch on television can deny the following improvements since the black card was introduced: far more open play, more high-scoring games at all levels of the game, fewer frees and therefore more continuity and nearly no third-man-tackles.

Now if we could scrap packed defences and lessen handpassing it would be great. But it all takes time to move in the GAA.

The use of the sin bin is constantly touted as a replacement for the black card. This is complete nonsense and is based on the ever-increasing notion that only county football matters and to hell with the nuisance that is club competition.

Think about this scenario: We have around 500 Junior League Sunday games, often in the morning as in Dublin, all over the country in the middle of February on heavy pitches in rain or snow.

The only neutral person on the field is the referee and we are being charitable there. He sends a lad to the sin bin after 10 minutes. Everybody on the sideline is a biased participant. There is no public. A few minutes later another player is binned and maybe more before the break.

Who monitors the ins and outs and timings? Will the bin period be 10 minutes or actual playing time? So many variables - the sin bin at lower levels is a dead duck and remember all football GAA games are covered by the same rules. The FRC debated the sin bin in depth before ruling it out.

Irrelevant

The most annoying criticisms from the 'experts' are the sobbing-based ones such as: 'It's a shame to see a lad gone from a big game in Croke Park after 20 minutes.' If it is a football crime then when it happens is irrelevant.

Jonny Cooper (pictured below), who would be my Player of the Year, was gone after 19 minutes in the replay but he wrote this week he had no complaints about the black card. Indeed I have been noting that hardly any BC victim has come out whingeing about the decision, which is significant.

Then we get sob stories about how shocking it is when a player who has spent his whole year making sacrifices, slaving away at training, giving up his social life etc, is banished in a big game. If his training had been used better, mentally and physically, then he should have avoided a black card offence. That simple!

Most of the critics are players and/or managers who were successful, although many were also dismal failures, under the old pulling and dragging regime. They did not want change and they are still trying to thwart the black card and go back to the 'old days' - they are jealous.

Many of the television critics would have been prime candidates for black cards in their own playing days too. Anyway, the BC rule cannot be changed before 2020 so suck it up lads and shut up is my advice.

Instead, get players to stop earning black cards by using proper coaching and personal discipline - as several people like Jim Gavin have managed to do - and football and followers will be all the better for it.

And lads, keep aiming at the pheasants from November on - you are bound to hit something!

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