Tackling a cynical malaise
Footballers will keep on flouting the rules unless change comes from the very top, writes Dermot Crowe
NEWRY hosted the moderately parochial meeting of Down and Tyrone in the National League last weekend, a Saturday night reservation under lights, with Setanta's live broadcast enabling wider audience appreciation. It didn't make a pretty sight. Match statistics formed a damning catalogue of indiscipline and disorder: 15 yellow cards, two dismissals, 50 frees.
There was a sideline contretemps which saw Mickey Harte become embroiled and decidedly animated; he is seen delivering unequivocal words to the match referee Barry Cassidy. Afterwards, Harte expressed his disapproval of the young Derry match official's handling of the game, citing inconsistency, a buzz word for bad refereeing. He said he wasn't claiming that Tyrone were worse off. His concern was for the game itself, in general.
Though he was being interviewed soon after the final whistle, with the adrenaline still pumping, he challenged anyone to look at the video and tell him that the rules were consistently applied. Having watched the match twice over, there is no resounding basis for Harte's reservations, allowing – as he does – that a referee will not get every decision right. Instead what repeat viewing establishes is that Cassidy was asked to referee not a match but a feud. The feud became his responsibility but it was never his creation.
Players from both sides tarnished the match with widespread fouling. Neither party seemed unduly influenced by the rules or fearful of the consequences of breaching them. If they did understand the rules governing the tackle, and it is hard to believe they did not, then they chose to ignore those rules and create their own virtual reality. In essence, they challenged authority, looked it straight in the eye. Authority responded with 15 yellow cards, two dismissals and 50 frees.
The tackle, despite all the pat nonsense to the contrary, is not complicated or difficult to master, to coach or to nurture. You play the ball and not the man. You are allowed, within certain limitations, to use your body to stall an opponent. The shoulder-to-shoulder charge is still a clear and present danger. Instead what we got in Newry was a succession of lazy and cynical challenges which destroyed the game's will to be anything more than a desultory settling of scores. It was by any measure a horrible match to have to referee.
Fifty frees is a lot in 70 minutes but it is not extreme. It is very rare now that a game will see fewer than 30 and many games in the championship have 40-plus. The plethora of cards as witnessed in Newry, with no meaningful punishment as all players bar two stayed on the field, is a stain on Gaelic football that is proving beyond referees' control. A player can deliberately foul by blatant pulling and the only option a referee has is to tick the offender. That allows the offender to commit the same offence again and stay on the field, a licence many players in Newry availed of.
Some players fouled repeatedly and got away with it because it became near impossible for one referee to keep tabs on the widespread abuse of the rules and have a game with any fluidity. Had Barry Cassidy applied even stricter enforcement, and he could have, then there would have been more yellows, more reds, and maybe over 60 frees. Had he done so, he would almost certainly have been pilloried as a tyrant.
In some cases he tried to allow an advantage but none accrued. A well-meaning but mostly futile exercise, this only succeeds in raising tension and player frustration. The sooner the advantage rule is changed, as proposed via the Football Review Committee at Congress this year, the better. Like other reforms down for Congress, it is long overdue. If a free can be called after the referee decides no advantage applies then there will be fewer fouls because the incentive is removed. No referee in the country could have done much better than Cassidy in Newry last weekend.
In the first half he awarded 23 frees of which, at most, four were questionable. Fourteen of those were awarded to Tyrone. In the second half, he awarded 27 frees, 16 to Tyrone. One of those could be questioned and one was incorrect, by my estimation. Those statistics reflect poorly on both teams' discipline, but they show Cassidy in a favourable light.
Harte was not alone in his criticism of Cassidy; James McCartan also weighed in. But the Tyrone manager had raised his concerns about refereeing inconsistency before the match and Cassidy had been in charge of the McKenna Cup final the previous weekend in which Tyrone were involved. In Newry, Harte appeared particularly angered over the first yellow card given to Joe McMahon for an off-the-ball incident in the 42nd minute. It is not picked up by the cameras but it would appear he reacted to being body-checked. The referee appeared to be satisfied he had seen the altercation.
"Joe McMahon's sending-off was not very fair," stated Harte. "When you pass the ball and go on for a return pass and someone stands in your road, if you push them out of your road then who is at fault? The yellow card is supposed to be for obstructing or blocking a player. That was what he got his first yellow card for (trying to brush off his opponent) which ultimately led to him being sent off. It's not right."
That is a fair point. Cassidy may have erred while trying to keep one eye on play and the other on what was happening off it, or he may have called it right. McMahon was carrying that yellow when he picked up another needlessly later in the match for getting involved with Conor Laverty. The Down player was also sent off near the final whistle when he was body-checked by Martin Penrose and retaliated, his second yellow card leading to dismissal. A Congress motion seeking to make body-checking a black card offence resulting in dismissal is equally overdue but the malaise will continue, as seen in Newry, in its absence.
Harte claimed that refereeing inconsistency helped flame the heated touchline exchanges, with some barging among team officials. "That is to be expected. There was a lot at stake and I suppose from both perspectives looking in we got annoyed. There is a lot of talk about refereeing and consistency. I haven't seen it yet and I didn't see it tonight. I'd challenge anybody to look at a video of that game and say that the decisions were delivered consistently."
To the contrary, Cassidy was an heroic figure trying to maintain some semblance of order between two petty factions not at all concerned about the game they were playing and its welfare. If players foul with such impunity – frequently going for man, not ball – then there is very little a referee can do to maintain complete order. Last week the chairman of the Munster Council Seán Walsh said that it is time to consider introducing an entirely new tackle, citing that used in Australian rules. But reform does not need to be that drastic.
The tackle is as clear as the players' reluctance to adhere to it. A player is not allowed, though you might be led believe otherwise, swing both arms at another who is in possession. He is not allowed hold his opponent's shoulder. He may not grab his shirt. He may not push him. He may not drag him. Many of the players in Newry last weekend, and these are no different to many other counties, didn't seem to pay a blind bit of heed. The overdue need for rule reform, through motions at Congress, was borne out yet again by Newry. They won't solve all of Gaelic football's problems but the package of proposals can resolve a great deal in winning the fight against cynical play.
In the 22nd minute of the game, Kalum King body-checked Joe McMahon, a senseless bit of bravado, while on a yellow card. The referee should have sent him off. He erred but that was probably his biggest oversight of the night. In a maelstrom of fouling, with neck-high challenges particularly fashionable, he could be forgiven for an odd lapse of judgement. With unintentional irony the Setanta commentator was heard to hail the arrival of sub Martin Penrose in the second half with the news that he was "Tyrone's best tackler". It was Penrose who body-checked Laverty leading to Laverty's sending-off. Whether this challenge enhances or detracts from his reputation as Tyrone's best tackler is unclear.
Mickey Harte is perfectly entitled to be critical of refereeing standards and expect that they be subject to exacting levels of scrutiny and assessment. But the glaring drop in standards in Newry was a lot less to do with refereeing than two teams behaving like petulant junior C outfits who had stayed too long in the pub the night before.