Martin Breheny: Black card deserves chance to prove worth
Inconsistent referees should not deflect from new rule's vital purpose as stakes rise
The word 'consistency' needs to get an early night on Friday if it's to avoid total exhaustion by Sunday evening. That's due to a hectic schedule which could feature bookings at 16 different GAA grounds over a 21-hour period between Saturday night and Sunday afternoon.
What's certain is that by Sunday evening, 'consistency' will have been the most used word in the GAA firmament. In many cases, it will be prefixed by 'lack of' as players and managers assess the impact of the black card.
The low-key January lead-in period is over and now comes the black card's first big test in games that really matter.
However useful the pre-season tournaments may have been as fine-tuners for the start of the Allianz Leagues, nobody got too animated even when they believed they were the victims of a bad refereeing decision.
That left the back card in a misleading comfort zone, exerting an influence in its own quiet way without being subjected to the rigorous scrutiny it faces from next weekend on.
It bagged an average of one offender per game this month and while there were occasional murmurs about inconsistent application of the new rule, it was all done in the context of games that didn't matter very much.
It will be very different from now on. Precious league points, which will influence not just this season, but also 2015, depending on relegation/promotion, are at stake, so marginal calls will be important.
New rules have, over the years, taken some heavy beatings in the early part of the season. So much so, that if they were of the experimental variety, they survived the league, but never stood a chance of being written into permanent law.
Players generally regard amended rules as an irritating imposition while some managers tend to see them in a more personal (paranoid?) light, suspecting that meddling officialdom had their squad in mind when proposing the changes.
In truth, nobody can argue with the concept of punishing players who deliberately pull down, trip or body-check an opponent or use threatening, abusive or provocative language.
Those are the areas covered by the black card, so players know how to avoid sanction. Of course, the real potential for controversy derives from how offences are interpreted.
In theory, it should be quite easy to differentiate between deliberate, accidental and just plain clumsy, but in the demanding environment of an intense, fast-moving game, there will be grey areas.
However, as with all rules, there will be differences between how individual referees adjudicate on black-card offences.
That's where the problems begin and the consistency issue becomes the main reference point for aggrieved managers in post-match interviews.
The last thing football needs is a regular whine-fest after games, where managers and players complain about the black card.
There are many who believe that the black card sanction isn't remotely tough enough, since violations don't weaken a team numerically, but that's irrelevant now that the agreed punishment is the forced replacement of an offender.
It was noticeable in recent weeks that referees tended to give the benefit of the doubt to the players, which is as it should be. However, as the stakes get higher and more games are shown on TV, referees will be under much more scrutiny.
The new rule has one advantage over its experimental predecessors in that it was written into law by Congress last March and doesn't have to prove itself in order to be retained beyond the current league. Not that security of tenure will ensure immunity from persecution!
Stand by for a criticism blitz from managers over the coming weeks and since they exert enormous power on public opinion, their views will be afforded disproportionate significance.
Managers are perfectly entitled to express their views, but that doesn't mean that they should be major arbiters in deciding what's good and bad for the game.
The best service they could now offer is to be as consistent in their comments on the black card as they expect referees to be in implementing it. We'll believe that to be the case when managers make a strong case on a routine basis for why one of the opposition picked up unwarranted cards, rather than seeing decisions solely through their own prism.
The reality of the black card is that it was proposed after widespread consultation and voted in on 71-29pc majority by the GAA Congress.
It won't solve all the ills of Gaelic football – but it deserves a decent chance to wage war on cynical play.
There will be lots of attempts to undermine it, but right is very much on its side.
Inconsistent calls by referees – and yes, that will happen – can't be allowed to deflect from the main target which is to remove some of the more obviously negative elements in the game.