Dermot Crowe: Landmark day in battle to root out cynical play
Eleventh-hour pitch tips balance as delegates pass black card proposal
TO the Football Review Committee (FRC), the final days to Congress must have seemed long and draining. Each turn brought body-checks and bruised morale. Cork, a strategic and much-sought ally, declared its intention to vote no to all their proposals, not just those relating to the black card. Four years ago, Cork supported similar reforms. Down, seen as liberal and of purist ideology, was to turn its back too. Four years earlier, they saw this as the way to go.
Nearing the weekend most of Munster had indicated it would be voting against the FRC-sponsored motions to discourage cynical fouling in Gaelic football, stains such as deliberate tripping and rugby tackling opponents to the ground. Third-man tackling and abusive or provocative language and gestures were also listed as black card offences. The reform was in the sanction: removal from the pitch for the offending player with a replacement allowed.
The black card proposal aroused the greatest debate and interest although the FRC's remit was much wider and there were other motions with the potential to impact profoundly on Gaelic football. Moving the ball forward 30 metres to rid the game of deliberate delaying tactics was one of those. Another sought to introduce the mark to reward high fielding. There was one on the advantage rule to allow a free if no advantage accrued. The committee consulted widely and covered every vested interest but was chiefly motivated by a desire to improve the quality of the game.
Before a word was uttered at Congress, almost all of Ulster had set up their sandbags in opposition. That included All-Ireland champions Donegal, who were on the receiving end when a cynical rugby tackle on Michael Murphy denied them a match-saving goal in Cork the previous weekend. Donegal held an executive meeting after consulting with the senior football management and decided to reject all the motions. They claimed they also sought the views of clubs. Reasons for objecting included a possible negative impact on clubs with low numbers, doubts about how the system would be policed, and concern that it would make the lives of referees more difficult.
By Friday night, the outcome of the FRC proposals appeared to be teetering with defeat looking the likelier result. The target of a two-thirds majority left the committee requiring strong backing from those who had not yet outlined their intentions, believed to be up to 100 of the 330 voting delegates. The FRC held a workshop at Congress on Friday to
promote its cause. Friday night was a time for informal lobbying and offered another chance to spread the word and maybe change some minds. That left the debate on voting day, at The Venue in Derry yesterday, for one final sales pitch.
"We're not dead in the water yet," FRC chairman Eugene McGee promised on Friday. "The debate is crucial. We are confident that we can present a very strong case." He promised a fight "to the death".
He could not possibly have foreseen how strong their final pitch would be and when the voting took place there was a tense wait to see the results show up on screen. Just under 71 per cent of delegates voted for the black card proposals in what GAA president Liam O'Neill described as a "momentous" decision. McGee, visibly emotional, heaved a huge sigh of relief.
Four years ago, disciplinary proposals to tackle cynical play in hurling and Gaelic football, brought to Congress by Liam O'Neill, were defeated by just eight votes. Statistics taken from the experimental phase that spring where the rules were tried in competition showed that they were achieving what they had hoped to achieve: scoring had been on the increase; yellow cards were falling – as low as two per game near the end of the experimental period. The ball was in play for longer spells.
Though there was disappointment that it narrowly missed out – one more county in favour would have won the day – a large body of opinion clearly favoured reforms and providing effective deterrents. Four years prior to that, another series of experiments including the sin bin met with a volcanic reaction from county managers and that effectively killed their prospects. O'Neill's committee made sure it consulted widely with county managers before producing reform proposals. Yet while managers were less vociferous at the outset they were quick to disapprove as the experimental rules kicked in.
The FRC has had to contend with more criticism from county managers – Dublin's Jim Gavin being a notable exception – but they might have hoped for more support from hurling counties as they were not directly affected by the proposed reforms. Though faced with football proposals many of those counties were concerned that the changes would eventually be introduced in hurling as well. In 2009, there was strong hurling opposition to the reforms and it proved telling.
On this occasion there was similar opposition but also support in some areas, with Galway altering their position to one of support, and Offaly and Wexford also rallying behind the proposals. Dublin backed the black card proposals but had issues with some of the other proposals including the 30-metre rule. Kildare, Laois and Roscommon were favourable, as were Congress hosts Derry. Longford, Meath and Monaghan were also in the 'yes' camp.
What drove Cork to oppose these proposals this time despite backing measures to encompass both codes in 2009? What drove Down, usually reform-friendly, to reject them, having also backed similar proposals four years ago? Cork county chairman Bob Ryan said they had a full meeting of all club delegates and a "substantial" majority were against. He said that there was a view that the proposals "over-complicated" the situation by having one set of rules for football and another for hurling. He stressed that the meeting was "open and democratic" and when asked said he held similar views to those outlined. He also said that once the black cards were rejected other motions like the 30-metre rule and the mark seemed to quickly lose favour.
Down said all clubs were served with details of the motions in advance and given a chance to respond. A concern highlighted was that the proposals might encourage more cynicism with teams trying to manipulate the black card system and get players sent off.
But the opposition was noticeably quiet at Congress yesterday. Cork's Christy Ring made a brief speech and later Tyrone chairman Ciarán McLaughlin said his county opposed on democratic grounds and were not swayed by their county manager as he felt was being inferred.
Those protests were lost in a sea of persuasive voices urging delegates to vote for the black card proposals. FRC member Tim Healy, a former player and coach, explained that the black card proposals were "designed to protect and enhance our great game of Gaelic football."
He stressed that every motion had been discussed in detail with referees and they were assured that their introduction would actually make refereeing less taxing. "These will encourage parents sending their child to the GAA club instead of elsewhere. There is something for the skilful county player who deserves better than cynical treatment. They're not earth-shattering or very radical; we believe they are a practical and logical response. We urge you to stand up for the future of Gaelic football to make our great game even better."
That set the tone and it never wavered. Thirteen other speakers followed making impassioned speeches in favour of the motions and rubbishing fears that they would have implications for hurling or be hard on referees to administer. Paul Earley used video clips to highlight to kind of cynical fouls they were trying to eliminate – they spoke volumes as players were dragged to the ground, challenged round the neck or obstructed with no attempt to play the ball.
"Managers say the yellow card system is fine – does the current system which allows 30 different players pick up a yellow card and stay on the pitch, does that help to reduce, or encourage and support, cynical play? The current sanctions are proving to be no deterrent. We will make it unprofitable and see these fouls greatly reduced and eventually eliminated."
European delegate Tony Bass gave an emotive address, saying "The black card will punish the thugs, the cheats, the hypocritical managers who stand on the sideline and say 'take him out'".
Pat Teehan of Offaly reminded delegates of how extensive the FRC had consulted. The majority of GAA people, he argued, were in favour of meaningful reform.
Chairman of the referees' association Pat McEnaney dismissed fears that referees might be confused having to carry three separate cards. "We need to put the onus back on the player. Systematic fouling is going on in our game. This simplifies the ref's job. I firmly believe that if we have a yes vote we will eliminate all of the rugby tackles you see in these clips. All I am asking are the tools to deal with it."
Tony Scullion, an FRC member and former Derry player, was clearly emotional when he stood up to speak. He said his heart was "burning" as he pleaded with delegates to search their souls and rid Gaelic football of cynical play. Joe McDonagh came last, as planned, and gave a characteristically rousing endorsement.
"We had some video clips," said McDonagh, who had been down the reformation road before. "This wasn't a clip from the Oscars, this wasn't a Steven Spielberg creation; this is what we are looking at Sunday after Sunday."
After that some of the other proposals were won and some were lost. But the black card was the FRC's big sell. GAA director-general Páraic Duffy looked relieved and overjoyed. "I don't see how anybody could oppose any of those things. To me, it just doesn't make any sense," he had said in advance of Congress. "This is a serious attempt to make Gaelic football a better game."
Duffy met all of the country's county chairmen recently and pleaded to them to support the proposals. Like O'Neill, he has staked his reputation on the outcome to some extent. This was a proud day for both of them and a good day for Gaelic football.