Wednesday 17 January 2018

Players holding all the aces

Acceptance of change by footballers crucial for future of game

Dermot Crowe

THERE was, said Eugene McGee with a characteristically deadpan delivery, nothing especially "Einstein" about proposals unveiled by the Football Review Committee (FRC) on Monday last.

The committee he chaired, which consulted widely, has come up with 18 recommendations, some earmarked for next year, some the year after. The most radical seek to lower the tolerance levels for cynical fouling by introducing effective deterrents. A yellow card will result in dismissal, with the offending player being replaced. If a fourth player sees yellow, no replacement is allowed. Three yellows in a season will lead to a two-match ban though this could be reduced to one match before Congress.

The backdrop to this element of the proposals is what we see with our own eyes: cynical fouling has been allowed to flourish without meaningful censure and players are effectively playing the system. These proposals are the system's response but they are also the product of widespread opinion from all strands of GAA society. If introduced, some will better equip referees to punish players for cynical fouling. But there are more than players at fault. Weak or incompetent officiating is also complicit and improving refereeing standards is proposed in the FRC report.

Because the offences which fall into this revised yellow-card category have yet to be publicised, there is an information gap which is not helping the report group's interests. There have been some strong reservations but the reaction for the most part has been reasonably muted and some have come out in support of the proposals. No trial period is planned and the next months will see the proposals better explained and scrutinised.

McGee has said he hopes to see the number of yellow cards per game decrease from a current average of 6.6 to three, maybe even as low as two, and the number of fouls to drop by 10 per cent. He felt concrete evidence of improvements could be seen by 2014. Almost 4,000 people contributed to his group's report and a study was conducted of 61 games at all levels to observe salient trends.

Ten of the 18 suggestions contained in the report require Congress approval in Derry in March. Four of the more significant playing rule alterations – the mark, the pick-up, the yellow card changes and the addition of 10 extra minutes on club games – would not apply until 2014, if sanctioned.

Among those being tailored for next season are an advantage rule, where a free can be awarded if no advantage materialises, the introduction of a time clock, and the 13m penalty where the ball is brought forward being extended to 30m. All of these make practical sense and the latter is an idea that is currying favour across the board as a means of stopping the deliberate delaying of play when players hold up the ball.

The yellow card issue is the one which has attracted most attention though and the most emotive. "If you bring it down to one card and you're dismissed, it could be a disaster," Jim McGuinness stated. "Sometimes the player is lost in the whole process. They are training for six or nine months or however long, then what happens if you get into a situation where someone grabs your arm as they are going down and fires you across his body and sells a dummy to the referee? You are the guy who gets sent off because you have one yellow card."

There is a tendency among critics to look at the worst possible scenario. The goal of the disciplinary reforms is to punish the people who commit the crimes. There will, as ever, be unfortunate situations where players are punished unfairly. Referees, for all their faults, have not gotten us into this predicament; cynical and cheating players have. Are we happy to allow it run unchecked? The FDC evidently thinks not but Congress ultimately will have the final say on that.

A similar set of proposals was narrowly defeated at Congress 2009, hurling interests influencing a late swing against. This time hurling is not a factor – the proposals are for football only – though hurling could certainly benefit from many of them. Yellow card sanctions under the proposed changes would cover such blights as blatant tackling around the neck, tripping, foul-mouthed abuse of the referee or an opponent, and wrestling on the ground. A clear distinction is to be made between deliberate and accidental fouling.

Allowing a replacement should ease the reluctance among referees to send players off, though, strictly, none such exists. A few years ago a referee's refusal to send off a player led, inadvertently, to a seriously regressive reform of the laws – offences already dealt with by referees cannot be reviewed. The limitations this imposes are obvious and perhaps if the yellow card proposal were successful then this rule would be reviewed. The original arrangement was meant to actually help referees, not undermine them, but ultimately the fixation with not taking the hard decision saw it all unravel.

The GAA in general tends to show a weak stomach for this kind of thing and instead the default position is to look at ways of appeasing players. Players also tend to row in against reform. In 2009, a GPA survey emerged before the disciplinary reform package visited Congress stating that the majority, 75 per cent, were against the proposals. The game is influenced most of all by those who play it. They set the trends and push out the boundaries, for better or worse.

In last year's Connacht football final between Mayo and Roscommon, referee Michael Collins penalised Cillian O'Connor for time-wasting while taking a free. Mayo won and O'Connor had an exceptional kicking day, but James Horan set himself a small task, out of curiosity, to see how the player's time crime matched up.

He timed other free takers and found that others had been allowed to take longer without incurring a penalty. He tells the story to convey how referees are inconsistent in applying the rules.

For that reason, he has misgivings about the yellow card proposal being advanced. "There is such inconsistency. That is because it

is a difficult game to officiate. I think the referees are expected to do an awful lot. You have 30 players running round the field in an-all-action game, and we want them to do subs, timing, cards, everything else. It is a very difficult role. Anything that would make their job easier is to be welcomed."

Horan favours paying a small pool of referees if it raised standards and ensured a more even application of the rules. "I know there is a lot of tackling. But there is more publicity too and more televised games now. There is a myth that there is this tactical fouling system that takes place as if teams have it all planned. Well not in my case anyway. I think that is something that is flavour of the month. If refs are strong enough and ref consistently there shouldn't be any issues."

He sees merit in the 30m proposal, as a means of dissuading delaying tactics, particularly around the middle of the field. This could be in place when his county begins the defence of its Connacht title next summer and it has the scope to stamp out that behaviour very quickly.

It's beauty is its simplicity. Nothing Einstein about it at all.

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