Friday 20 April 2018

Tomás Ó Sé explains his anger at the difference between how club and county games are officiated

Has it really needed three years of this system to convince people that it doesn't work? That's been three years too long

Ref Maurice Deegan shows Lee Keegan a controversial black card last Saturday with Mayo team-mate Colm Boyle (L) looking on. Picture: Sportsfile
Ref Maurice Deegan shows Lee Keegan a controversial black card last Saturday with Mayo team-mate Colm Boyle (L) looking on. Picture: Sportsfile

Tomás Ó Sé

There's an old American saying, from baseball I think, that players like rules because, without them, they wouldn't have anything to break.

And I got to thinking about that coming away from Páirc Uí Rinn last Sunday, gutted by a one-point Championship semi-final defeat to Ballincollig. A good buddy of mine, knowledgeable fella, sidled over to me and said something that should have sounded odd, but didn't. Just five simple words.

"Well, we can't blame the ref!"

He was right, we couldn't. Conor Lane did a decent job, leaving the game flow, allowing proper physicality. It felt a decent, hard game of football, no complaining.

Coming away, I couldn't get the likes of James McCarthy, Jonny Cooper and Lee Keegan out of my head. I've been playing club football with Nemo Rangers for the last two years while this black card has been in operation and you know something? I've only seen a single black card handed out at club level in that time. One black in two years!

Lord God, I keep feeling the anger rise inside of me when I talk about this. You see, club football exists in a different universe to county. It seems to me that there's a pressure on county referees to impose certain rules that don't exist for the club referee.

I know that the term 'common sense' isn't in any rule book, but it's being applied at club level in a way that the county game could really benefit from.


From the outset I said the black card was a bad idea. To me, it always represented an over-reaction to certain high-profile incidents. The idea behind it - taking some of the cynicism out of football - was perfectly fine. But has it succeeded?

Not a chance. If you ask me, even the third-man tackle has been creeping back. Go through the video of the last five/six games of this year's championship and you'll see third-man tackles in every one.

Brian O'Driscoll tweeted something the other day that registered with me, big time. He said, 'You want the best players playing the big games, Dublin bias aside.' I agree with that totally.

Look at Lee Keegan's offence last Saturday. Did it really merit a decision that took, arguably, the best player on the field out of an All-Ireland final? Did he intentionally pull Diarmuid Connolly to the ground? I don't think so.

Go back to the draw. Was James McCarthy really guilty of cynically trying to take a Mayo player out of the game? I don't think so.

Those of us who made that case on 'The Sunday Game' came in for a few bullets on certain websites from lads who see pundits as the fundamental problem here.

Well, everyone's entitled to their opinion but, reading some of the stuff, I can only surmise that those writing it have never been involved in anything more physical in their lives than a pillow fight.

Listen, I'm sick and tired of talking about the black card. But virtually every night I pitch up in the television studio, there it is in front of me on the list as something that - yet again - needs to be brought up for discussion.

Why? Because it's simply not working. This, incidentally, isn't a criticism of referees. The problem is that we're effectively asking them to play God here. Suggesting they can read the player's mind. We're asking them to make a decision in real time that, quite often, those of us in the studio need five/six reruns before coming to a conclusion.

There is so much ferocity to the game now that there is simply no comparison between it and the game of the 1970s or '80s. The amount of work that players are doing off the ball wouldn't have been countenanced 20 years ago. Personally, I think it's become a game that makes clear-cut implementation of something like the black card virtually impossible.

And I'd love to know what is the honest view of referees about this because I have my suspicions.

Fair play to Eugene McGee, one of those behind the idea, for coming out and suggesting that it is time for a review. Because if you bring this down to the letter of the law - by that I mean implementing the black card literally by the book - you'll have small multiples of starting players ending up on the line.

Which brings me back to that term 'common sense'. I believe the 'sin bin' would probably be a better option but I accept that, if the implementation of any rule is flawed, just changing the punishment isn't going to solve the problem.

I just think it would help if referees in the biggest matches didn't feel under so much pressure to tick so many technical boxes for those within Croke Park reviewing their performances.

I remember watching that TV series 'Men in Black' last year and the programme featuring David Coldrick particularly highlighted the degree to which GAA referees' performances are now monitored.

The number of voices in his ear absolutely staggered me. In my opinion, Coldrick is one of those referees who tends to apply common sense but, in this, he's probably getting things wrong technically that won't gain him any kudos during those reviews.

To me, there's a difference between ticking all the right boxes technically and actually performing well as a referee.

One question: How on earth can a ref decide on intent?

On TV, we keep pointing out the inconsistencies of application, not as criticism of the referees involved, but to highlight how unworkable the black card is for an already overworked official.

One point on which I do agree with Eugene McGee is that there should be a greater effort to remove 'sledging' from our game. That, incidentally, is listed as a black-card offence. But tell me when have you seen a player removed from the pitch for mouthing at an opponent?

There was an obvious problem with Tyrone in the past but, trust me, other teams do every bit as much of it, just maybe not as overtly.

And I think there are few uglier things to see than lads literally bellowing into opponents' faces. What message does that send to a kid watching? Sledging isn't manly and it looks horrendous. If I started out with one positive hope for the black card, it was that it would be used as part of a serious crackdown on sledging.

Sadly, that didn't prove the case.

Bottom line, the black card has complicated the referee's job to such an extent now that it isn't funny. In an ideal world, he might have the help of some kind of TV umpire but that's not really feasible as something you could roll out for the club game. That said, as I've already noted, it seems to me that we're already reffing club and county to different rules, so would it really be that radical to make the arrangement formal?

One thing I would ask: has it really taken three years for us to realise the black card doesn't work?

And if so, maybe explain exactly why to Lee Keegan. The guy was on fire last Saturday and, in a one-point game, who is to say he wouldn't have been the difference had he stayed on the field?

Then again, if I'm honest, I ask myself who in their right minds would want to be a referee today? I wouldn't and I certainly don't want to be giving any of them grief now.

Take the black cards out of last Saturday's game and, in my view, Maurice Deegan had a fine game.

But that's exactly what referees have been getting in the ear all season. Problems with their implementation of black cards. For God's sake, we're not trying to split the atom here. When something patently doesn't work, you get rid of it.

The black card has been in use three years too long anyway as things stand. So let's take them out of the game but, even more importantly, put the focus on making the referee's job less complicated, not more.

In my life as a player, the best refs have always been the ones who use their discretion and make calls on what they feel in their gut rather than the inevitably black-and-white dictates of a rule-book.

Don't get me wrong, they still apply the rules. But they aren't slaves to them.

Irish Independent

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