McGee: Black-card panic wide of the mark
Review chairman convinced rule change will work as new season gets under way
EUGENE McGee will slip along to Longford's Hastings Cup (U-21) game against Mayo today and also travel to Mullingar tomorrow to watch Dublin and Westmeath in the first round of the O'Byrne Cup.
As a regular match-goer, he'd be traipsing along anyway, but, having chaired the Football Review Committee (FRC), he has particular interest in how the new black-card rule -- designed to stamp out cynical fouling in football -- fares on the first day of the season.
McGee has always stressed the changes arose from a consensus and not from his own desire, and he now hopes to take a back seat and let the game's protagonists get on with it.
Some have already made up their minds and reckon he should retreat to a bunker this weekend and bring ear-muffs while he's at it.
"Let the mayhem begin," wrote one journalist, who believes the new rules were introduced on the back of "giddy idealism" at last year's Congress.
He wasn't ranting, but rationally arguing that black cards would not be necessary if referees applied the rules consistently. He likened the black card to using a sledgehammer to crack a nut and predicted serious fall-out when the inter-county season begins. He is not alone.
One GAA website is running a poll asking supporters to predict possible reactions, one of the options being that the black card will be met "with fury from managers."
McGee understands why managers won't like the changes, but believes the long build-up and education process means they will react less dramatically than when they forced the GAA to abandon the sin-bin experiment some years ago.
Tyrone were among the most outspoken opponents of this latest change and three-time All-Ireland winning manager Mickey Harte has continued to voice his opposition right up to the eve of its introduction.
The headline on his regular newspaper column this week was unequivocal: "Get ready for the black card's grey (and yellow) areas."
Harte argued that the lack of opportunity for a trial period "will almost certainly cause a degree of confusion as individual interpretations of this new departure, however well discussed and theorised in advance, will throw up some anomalies, particularly in the early days of implementation.
"How will a referee in a club game, with partisan linesmen and two umpires with the potential to be similarly inclined, keep on top of all the new variables in addition to his normal workload?" he asked.
Those in favour say the new rules are straightforward and simply ask referees to adjudicate on whether a foul is deliberate or accidental. But even they fear a rocky settling-in period.
Trevor Giles and Anthony Rainbow could never be regarded as reactionaries. The former Meath and Kildare stars believe the changes will ultimately improve the game, but are not betting on a completely smooth transition.
Carlow manager Rainbow has admitted his over-riding fear that "it could be very messy for the first two or three games until lads get used to it. There will be more pressure on referees and, depending on how they use the black cards, there will be a lot of confusion. Hopefully, it will settle after that."
Giles, a selector with Meath, saw three of his side's players black-carded last weekend in a challenge game and believes the next few weeks will see similar numbers racked up elsewhere.
But McGee disagrees.
"I genuinely can't see any team getting five or six black cards this weekend, I don't think it's going to happen that way," he says.
"First of all, the tempo of games in January is always slightly less than they will be in the national league and championship. There probably won't be the same desire to pull people down.
"And there has been a lengthy education process and a lot of time for players and managers to learn the new rules," he adds.
"This is nine months in gestation and the referees have done a massive job explaining it all around the country."
McGee also points out the the country's top referees (those on the inter-county panel) have been drafted in for these pre-season competitions.
And, if in doubt, he suggests that players remain guided by the core principle that two cards, of any colour, will always get you sent off, without the possibility of a replacement coming on.
Under the new rules, a team can only replace the first three players black-carded in a game, but the replacement rule does not apply if they have already picked up a yellow, as happened a Meath player last weekend.
"That rule is always there in principle -- that if you get two cards you're sent off -- whether it's one yellow and one black or two yellows," McGee stresses.
"The distinction between deliberate and accidental fouls has finally been written into the rules now and accidental fouls don't carry a major penalty," he adds.
"The challenge for referees is to differentiate what is deliberate -- but we have to give them the same credence in that aspect of their decision-making as we do in all other aspects of the game.
"They are better briefed than for any other single change that has taken place, so I don't envisage problems.
"There can't be a U-turn on this" McGee stresses. "It's set in stone. It'll take a two-thirds majority to change it and I can't see that happening because it got such support. This got 73pc of the vote at Congress.
"People, particularly players, may have thought that this was going to be experimental -- like the sin-bin -- but this is not experimental. It is in now and it's up to players and managers to know the rules and get on with them."
The one thing that has surprised McGee is that the other changes -- particularly the introduction of an advantage rule -- have got such little attention.
"It will be very interesting to see how that goes. The whole (GAA) world has been crying out for that for decades and now they've got it. We'll now see a rugby-style five-second advantage, which should benefit players and teams."
What happens to players who get a black card?
* The first three in a game can be replaced by substitutes (now increased to six per team), but any subsequent players black-carded cannot be replaced.
* If a player already has a yellow card, a black card automatically means they cannot be replaced.
* Any inter-county senior player who gets three black or yellow cards (or a combination of both) will be banned for one match.