Sunday 17 December 2017

Eamonn Sweeney: The black card isn't the black plague - it should stay in place next season

The black card should stay. Because if it goes, you can be sure that within a few months a player in a big game will be rugby-tackled as he goes through at a vital stage’
The black card should stay. Because if it goes, you can be sure that within a few months a player in a big game will be rugby-tackled as he goes through at a vital stage’

Eamonn Sweeney

What a great week for Gaelic football. After much debate and exploration pundits have, like the scientists emerging from the CERN laboratories with proof that the fabled Higgs Boson particle exists, finally discovered the cause of all its ills. It's been the black card all along.

The irony of it, eh? In trying to solve the problem of negativity the well-meaning gents who devised the black card ended up ruining the game altogether. Like that other scientist, Dr Victor Frankenstein, they have created a monster they can't control.

OK, this is an absolutely nonsensical argument. But it's one being widely made after the All-Ireland football final replay, most notably by Jim McGuinness who declared that "the black card is ruining the game. You simply cannot have two of the best players in the sport leaving the All-Ireland final - the biggest game of their lives for what were, at best, fouls that merited free kicks."

McGuinness also had a cut at Eugene McGee, chairman of the Football Review Committee which recommended the introduction of the black card, who hit back by commenting "the vast majority of people I know are happy with the black card," and threw a dig of his own by saying that McGuinness "thinks because he won one All-Ireland he is the high priest of football . . . if he is that good why didn't he win a second or a third All-Ireland?" This in turn provoked the response from leading Mayo intellectual Conor Mortimer: "Your living in the stone age pal. I actually don't no anybody happy with BC." RTé should put Conor hosting No You're Sport.

As I haven't won any All-Ireland at all and, unlike Conor Mortimer who won a Sigerson Cup medal with DCU, don't have a university education, I'll merely observe that this is a classic moral panic where a couple of high-profile incidents provide an opportunity for axe-grinding, bandwagon-jumping and the settling of old scores.

Even if the black card is a bad idea it seems a bit much to suggest it's "ruining the game." So why is Jim McGuinness so keen to stick the boot in? Personally, I don't think Gaelic football is 'ruined'. This championship season, like most of them, turned out to be better than predicted by the doomsayers. There was plenty of excitement, not least in the two games between Dublin and Mayo which, whatever their flaws, kept you on the edge of your seat throughout.

But there are people who think Gaelic football has gone to hell. Their public enemy number one happens to be Jim McGuinness who they see as having paved the way for an era of rigidity, negativity and cynicism. This isn't entirely fair, Donegal were never quite as grim as they were painted. Yet it's often not just McGuinness's detractors but his supporters as well who insist that his achievement was an essentially negative one. Before Jim Gavin's Dublin showed there was a different way of playing, these supporters insisted that Gaelic football was heading irrevocably towards a zero point of tactical caution and swarm defence. This idea of McGuinness as Gaelic football's Samuel Beckett, an austere purveyor of harsh, unpalatable and undeniable truths, means the black card rule can be seen as a rebuke to his philosophy of football.

It was above all a gesture of hope, a defiance of those who said that cynicism couldn't be legislated out of existence, a noble attempt to do something about a real problem.

That's why opportunistic calls for its abolition should be resisted. It's worth remembering what the game was like before the introduction of the black card. I recall the closing stages of the 2012 Connacht final when Sligo trailed Mayo by two points and Mayo committed a series of cynical fouls to prevent Sligo from getting into a position where they could try for a goal. There wasn't even an attempt to play the ball. It was sickening and Mayo went on to do something similar, though not to the same extent, against Dublin in that year's All-Ireland semi. That wasn't a particularly cynical Mayo side, but like all teams, they did what they could get away with.

If it has done nothing else, the black card has eliminated that kind of serial late-game fouling from football. Witness the closing stages last Saturday. With a couple of minutes left in injury-time, Mayo were deep in their own half, needing a point to equalise. In the pre-black card days there's little doubt that Dublin would have hauled down players in the Mayo half, eating up the clock and reducing the game to farce. Instead Mayo were able to work the ball forward and win the free which would have earned them a draw had Cillian O'Connor pointed it. That's an advance.

The problem with the black card is that it leaves too much to the referee's individual interpretation. Eugene McGee admitted as much last week but made the good point that the same could be said about a lot of football's rules and we don't call for them to be scrapped. Yet when it comes to football rules I prefer mandatory sentencing to judicial discretion and believe a black card for three fouls might be a better option. But it would be a huge step backwards to scrap the black card altogether, thus weakening the referee's ability to deal with cynical fouling, without having something to replace it.

Maurice Deegan and Conor Lane have been criticised for showing black cards early in the game. But surely this was better than the attitude of Cormac Reilly who, two years ago in Mayo's semi-final against Kerry, shirked showing Shane Enright a first-half black card which, as Enright was already on yellow, would have reduced the Kingdom to 14 men and probably ensured a Mayo victory.

Referees are easy targets. So we have the ironic situation of people going easy on Stephen Rochford and Rob Hennelly, who made terrible mistakes which cost Mayo the game, while feeling free to attack Maurice Deegan who didn't do much wrong at all. Nobody's interested in writing or reading lachrymose articles about the online abuse directed at referees.

This sentimental attitude towards players has also contributed to the past week's uproar. You'd swear that the final was played between two teams of innocent under 12s who took the field without any intention of doing wrong. But the truth is that anyone playing at the top level tends to be tough, ruthless and crafty when it comes to knowing how far the rules can be bent and the referee can be codded. The logical conclusion to the argument that it's terrible to see these lads being sent off in the biggest game of their lives is that no-one should ever be sent off in an All-Ireland final. Does that make sense?

Managers and players, and ex-managers and ex-players, like to complain about rule changes. No argument is too flimsy to be deployed in these circumstances. Suggest that the number of handpasses should be limited and you'll be told that referees are busy enough without having to suffer the extra mental strain of counting to two. Suggest clamping down on off-the-ball fouling and you'll be told it would take two or three referees, even though all it really needs is decent communication with the linesmen and a bit of moral courage from the officials.

One change the game really needs is the adoption of a policy of sending off the first extra man to enter a fight between two players, which would prevent the kind of nonsensical brawl which disfigures too many games and which we had at the end of the first half last week. But should it be mooted, I've no doubt we'd have managers telling us players would be in danger of being severely injured by a punch if their team-mates couldn't jump in to back them up. There's always something.

Part of it is that people just don't like any kind of change. Hawk-Eye has turned out to be a wonderful innovation, but remember all the complaints at the time of its introduction that it wasn't fair because there was no Hawk-Eye at club games? It's not just a GAA thing. In soccer, I can remember a lot of carping during the first days of the no back pass rule, 'It's not fair to goalies, they weren't trained to kick the ball off the ground,' and the professional foul, 'He's ruined the game by sending the boy off so early.'

Players and managers like playing the game in the same way that they always have. But the game isn't all about them. Like it or not, it's also about the spectators. The black card rule was brought in on their behalf and if it hasn't been perfect it is a lot better than the alternative which was doing nothing.

The black card should stay. Because if it goes, you can be sure that within a few months a player in a big game will be rugby-tackled as he goes through at a vital stage. Then we'll have another moral panic on our hands, everyone will agree that something has to be done and we'll be back at square one.

As Winston Churchill said about democracy, the black card is the worst idea except for everything else that's been tried.

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