Monday 20 January 2020

Martin Breheny: Bin the black but punish the sin

'Sin bin' offers better solution for cynicism than flawed 'black card'

Galway’s Adrian Varley reacts after he is shown a black card by referee Conor Lane during Sunday’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Galway’s Adrian Varley reacts after he is shown a black card by referee Conor Lane during Sunday’s All-Ireland SFC quarter-final at Croke Park. Photo: Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

If Mickey Harte had his way a large bin would be wheeled into Croke Park, accompanied by referees holding their black cards.

One by one, they would toss the cards into the bin, which would be locked and taken away for destruction under strict supervision in case somebody decided to store them away for future use.

Mickey has been consistent on his attitude to the black card. He didn't like the idea when first mooted, he was unhappy when Congress backed it early 2013, he stood by his opinion when it came into operation in January 2014 and has repeated his objections on several occasions since then, including last Monday.

He believes there's no need for the black card, claiming that yellow can be just as effective. That's not accurate, of course, since one yellow card has no direct impact on a player and won't have unless he re-offends, whereas black brings immediate departure.

Harte concedes that the black card has helped in certain areas, notably in curbing deliberate body-checking but argues that "a yellow card would have dealt with that as well."

How? It would still have left the perpetrator on the field so Harte appears to imply that body-checking, plus the four other cynical fouls covered by the black card, should be punished by a free and a 'last chance' warning.

Apart from body-checking a player who has played the ball away, the other offences covered by the black card are deliberately pulling down or tripping, threatening or abusing an opponent and remonstrating aggressively with a match official. Very few are being sanctioned for the latter two so it's essentially all about deliberate pulling down, tripping and body-checking.

And that's where frustration comes in. The line between deliberate, accidental and just plain clumsy can be very difficult to detect, adding to the pressure on referees.

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That applies to all other areas of officiating too but the black card is among the most contentious. Harte is not the only high-profile figure unhappy with it and certainly didn't have his mood helped by the dismissals of Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane in the first half of the Ulster final.

He said that decisions like that "could be very hurtful for players and they could lose something very special over it."

Perfectly true but isn't the reverse also the case? If a cynical foul decides the outcome of a game, surely the aggrieved manager can claim with even greater justification that it was "very hurtful for players and they could lose something very special over it."

It's important to recall the black card was introduced as an antidote to cynical play, which had become increasingly prevalent a few years ago. And since nobody can possibly condone cynicism, the challenge was how best to deal with it.

The Football Review Committee (FRC), chaired by Eugene McGee of this parish, decided that removing the culprit and allowing him to be replaced was the best option.

Now coming towards the end of its third season, the black card has been long enough in use to make a measured judgement on its efficiency. I side with Harte that it's unfit for purpose but very definitely not in his assertion that the yellow card is enough to deal with cynical play.

One of the problems with the black card is that in certain circumstances it facilitates the very offence it's meant to eradicate. By allowing in a replacement, it does nothing to stop deliberate foul play in the final quarter of games where players are prepared "to take one for the team" by offending with as much cynicism as they like.


Indeed, it seems to have become a heroic badge of honour for players to selflessly sacrifice themselves in the cause by indulging in whatever negative act is required to stop the opposition scoring.

They will then be greeted warmly on the sideline for "taking one for the team", surely one of the more weasel-worded phrases of our time.

Having seen the black card in operation for nearly three seasons, I believe a strong case can be made for replacing it with a 'sin-bin', where cynical play is punished by ten minutes on the bench, with no replacement allowed.

There are many who felt the 'sin-bin' was always a better option than the black card and, by way of comparison, its value to rugby is there for all to see.

It's neat and efficient, placing a team under a handicap for 10 minutes, unlike the 'black card, which may have no impact at all on the offending side.

"Taking one for the team" wouldn't be as fashionable under the 'sin-bin' sanction since it would make a numerical difference rather than merely switching personnel, which happens anyway as managers deploy their six subs.

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