Tuesday 21 November 2017

Joe Brolly: Professional fouling is now systematic in the game

The debate over Diarmuid Connolly’s black card in the League final was instructive. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile
The debate over Diarmuid Connolly’s black card in the League final was instructive. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile

Joe Brolly

Two dives last weekend. Two more Premier League penalties.

Even the lads on Match of the Day were moved to talk about it. "It's wrong, isn't it?" said Ian Wright. Danny Murphy said that something would have to be done. For a game where scores and excitement are so rare, there is no good reason why they shouldn't have a TMO. For both instances, the referee would have paused, asked the TMO to review it and would have received the answer. "It is not a penalty. The attacking player has feigned. You may award a yellow card." Justice would have been done and players and supporters wouldn't have been left outraged.

The MOTD boys' mild rebukes sparked a fresh debate about cynicism in our own sport. When I went after Seán Cavanagh in 2013, it seemed that it might open the way for a return to manliness and sportsmanship. The country was alive with the debate. The transplant surgeon Dave Hickey told me he'd watched it from a packed bar in Kerry and when I finished there was a spontaneous ovation.

That excitement soon died a death. The black card was so watered down that it was universally ignored. As Seán Cavanagh put it in an interview with Seán Moran shortly after it had been introduced: "If you're getting a red card and it's deemed a professional foul and you're going to miss the next game as well, you definitely would think twice about it. But as it is, you'll probably just take one for the team and players will use it to their advantage." Which is precisely what has happened.

Professional fouling is now systematic in the game. It is simply a skill like any other, to be used when required. After the league final between Kerry and Dublin, I could have made an identical speech like the one I made that day in the RTé studio in Croke Park. But four years on, there would have been no standing ovation in the bars of Kerry. Their lads, like everyone else, have learned to take one for the team.

If they hadn't, Dublin would almost certainly have won the game by the 25th minute. By that stage they were leading 0-7 to 0-5. Paul Flynn gave a perfect long ball to Bernard Brogan who laid it off to Diarmuid Connolly, who broke the line and headed for goal, before being expertly rugby-tackled just outside the penalty area. A goal then would have made it 1-7 to 0-5 and there would have been no way back. The offender went off satisfied with a job well done, knowing he had saved his team from almost certain defeat. His manager patted him on the back.

I have long advocated that where "a clear goal-scoring opportunity is denied", there should be a penalty and the offender should be sent off without any replacement. As it is, the widespread practice now is to drag the potential goalscorer down before he gets inside the box. The black card is not a punishment. Rather, it is a certificate of merit for good teamwork. Which is why it has fallen into disrepute.

Wind forward to the last play of the league final, when Dublin looked set to complete a thrilling comeback. 60,000 people in Croke Park enthralled. 645,000 TV viewers enthralled. Anthony Maher saw immediately that his job was to drag Mick Fitzsimons down before he got into scoring range. He took one for the team and shrugged his shoulders. For some reason, he looked vaguely embarrassed about it, but these quaint qualms are something Kerry's sports psychologist will tackle with him. Maher took his certificate of merit, and Dean Rock was left with a mammoth free from outside the '45.

Where this sort of black-card offence occurs, denying a possible point-scoring opportunity, the penalty ought to be a 30-metre free in front of the goals. Again, it is a professional foul and should be met with a sending-off. Anthony Maher wouldn't have done a rugby tackle if there was a real punishment. Instead, he dragged Fitzsimons down without a thought, and got his pat on the back from his manager for a skill well executed. The point of any punishment, whether in criminal law, or in normal everyday life, is that it must make the offence not worth it.

The debate over Connolly's black card in the same game was instructive. Ciarán Whelan was making the same point as all the journalists: that it was a stupid black card. A pointless one. You don't mind taking a black card when you have to, but not for that. It wasn't that Connolly shouldn't be dragging an opponent down, rather than attempt to pursue him and tackle within the laws of the game. It was that he was a fool for doing it in this situation. If, however, he had dragged down a Kerry forward as he bore down on goal, then he would have been taking the only course open to him on behalf of the team.

Four times in that game, Kerry players went down holding their faces, then lay on the ground. Four times. I have never seen anyone get hit on the face, even in a fight, then immediately hold their face. Wladimir Klitschko nearly got his head knocked off with an uppercut on Saturday night and he didn't hold it. Even when he was knocked down. Nor did Anthony Joshua. But the Kerry boys grabbed their faces even as they were going to ground, hoping the referee would send their opponent off. They'll have been cheering that in the bars of Kerry!

The problem with all of this is that it has corroded the ethos of the game. It is no longer a shared journey. I saw this at first hand after Tyrone had systematically dragged down Meath in the last quarter of their last 16 game in 2013. Afterwards I went into the tunnel in Croke Park and the Meath team and management were standing in a group, seething with rage. They were not going into the players' lounge to share a drink with the Tyrone men. Not then. Not ever. They were sickened.

Oisín McConville has written about Philip Jordan getting Diarmuid Marsden sent off in the 2003 All-Ireland final, holding his face and throwing himself to the ground at a vital stage of the game, and how that has lived inside that Armagh group to this day. Marsden said a few years ago he was ashamed of being sent off in an All-Ireland final and didn't know what he would tell his son when he was older. These teams have never met or socialised. Nor will they ever. Instead, there is a lasting hatred.

It was different when I played. I regularly socialise with old adversaries. Recently, I was one of the invited guests at a brilliant night in Drumaness to celebrate the career of Peter Withnell, who played on a Down team that broke Derry hearts more than once. What a night of shared stories and fun and drink! The great Kerry and Dublin teams from the 1970s and '80s go on holiday together, meet up two or three times a year for charity events and golf classics. When the Derry team I played on won the All-Ireland, we were met by cheering crowds the whole way home. We stopped and got out in Dundalk where we were thronged. We even stopped and got out in the Moy (Seán Cavanagh's club) where the streets were lined to greet us. Those Tyrone teams that used to beat lumps out of us and us them? Not a bit of rancour. When we meet, we have a chat and a pint and enjoy the stories. Fay Devlin, Fergal Logan, the Lawn twins (known affectionately as the back lawn and front lawn; one was corner-forward, the other corner-back), Plunkett Donaghy and co went to war against us, but there is mutual respect.

On Wednesday, I was on Seán O'Rourke's programme on RTé radio with Professor Aidan Moran from UCD's school of psychology. He identified (rightly in my view) the win-at-all-costs philosophy in modern GAA as being at the heart of the problem. Once winning is the only thing that matters, then nothing else does. Cheating is fine. It may taint your legacy and destroy the spirit of the games. It may destroy the shared journey and create lifelong resentment. But if you win, who cares?

The professor gave a fascinating analysis of Maria Sharapova, the drugs cheat who (as Gary O'Toole so eloquently described it on Off the Ball recently) was allowed to play tennis again because she puts bums on seats. He said that her grunting was a "tactical weapon" used to put opponents off. He said its volume had been measured and it was "only nine decibels lower than a lion's roar." He went on to make the fascinating point that increasingly loud grunting is being used as a tactic by players to break their opponent's concentration. Soon, spectators at Wimbledon will have to wear earplugs to drown out the cacophony.

So, there it is. A new skill will soon be added to the skills of Gaelic football. In the chapter headed 'Modern skills', after diving, feigning, dragging down, asking the referee to show a card to an opponent and lying on the ground holding your face, add 'grunting loudly at an opponent in possession'. It must be done. There is, after all, no 'I' in team.

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