Victory day for football but hurling left out of the party
LIAM O'Neill described it as a "momentous occasion"; Paraic Duffy defined it as a "terrific day for the Association"; and Eugene McGee said that "great progress has been made". But behind the sense of satisfaction that the forces of negativity are to be confronted in Gaelic football there exists an uncomfortable reality.
For 2014 – at least – the rules will demand that footballers be treated more harshly than hurlers for two specific offences. While there's a solid case for treating the sports as different entities, there will be unease that precisely the same offences carry different sanctions.
This arises from the successful proposals put forward to Congress in Derry on Saturday by the McGee-chaired Football Review Committee (FRC), which will apply to football from January 1, 2014.
It means that if a footballer commits a deliberately destructive/cynical foul, he will be sent off and replaced, whereas a hurler will incur a yellow card, as is the case under the current rules. Also, when a footballer is fouled, the referee will have five seconds to decide if an advantage has accrued by allowing him to play on, whereas in hurling an instant decision must be made.
For example, Galway's Cyril Donnellan scored a goal after being fouled in last year's All-Ireland hurling final replay but since the referee had blown his whistle for a free in, it didn't stand. Joe Canning pointed the free but the overall impact was a two-point loss to Galway, who were left feeling aggrieved.
The same rule will continue to apply to hurling, but from next January a footballer can look forward to having five seconds of grace after being fouled, during which the referee can decide if he has gained any advantage. If he has, no free will arise, but if he hasn't the referee will whistle back play and award him a free.
"We made it clear all along that these proposals (McGee's committee) were for football only. If people want to incorporate them into hurling in the future, that's fine," said Duffy.
The earliest they could be considered for hurling is 2015, the next Congress at which rule changes will be on the agenda. However, the introduction of the time-keeping clock for 2014 may apply to both sports since it doesn't require a formal rule change.
While the GAA leadership was delighted with the success of some key FRC proposals, the big talking point after Congress was the poor performance put up by counties who were opposed to the black card, which was by far the most contentious issue.
Several counties had mandated their delegates to vote against it and presumably to persuade others to do likewise. In the event, the 'no' side were surprisingly weak and unconvincing with only two speakers (Christy Ring of Cork and Ciaran McLaughlin of Tyrone) opposing the black card.
In contrast, the 'yes' side lined up in impressive succession, led by FRC members Paul Earley and Tim Healy, who with aid of stark video footage of cynicism at its most corrosive, set the agenda. Thirteen speakers spoke in support of the proposal: Andy Kettle (Dublin), Tony O'Keeffe (CCCC chairman), Martin McEvoy (Kildare), Tony Bass (European delegate), Pat Teehan (Offaly), Pat McEnaney (Referees' chairman), Peter O'Reilly (Longford), Joe McDonagh and Noel Treacy (Galway), Sean Walsh (former Munster chairman), George Cartwright (Cavan), Paul Curran (Monaghan) and Tony Scullion (FRC member).
The argument that referees would find it difficult to cope with the use of a third card had been put forward by opponents of the FRC proposal in recent weeks but was shot down with a powerful hook by McEnaney, chairman of the Referees' Committee.
"Systematic fouling is going on. I firmly believe that if we get your votes (to introduce the black card) we can eliminate that," he said.
For some reason – possibly the realisation that in the face of compelling evidence it really was difficult to make a solid case against cleaning up the game – many counties who had indicated their opposition over previous weeks didn't even offer a speaker.
The percentage vote (carried out electronically) went 71-29 in favour of the black card and was followed by success for the FRC's proposals on allowing points with the open hand and the introduction of the time-clock.
However, the introduction of the 'mark' was beaten very narrowly, while there was defeat too for proposals to allow footballers to pick the ball directly off the ground and a plan to bring the ball forward 30 metres when the offender tries to delay play after conceding a free.
Losing the 'mark' vote (it won a 65-35 majority but needed 66pc to win) was a disappointment and might well have been avoided if FRC had shown video clips to support its case, given that method of persuasion proved convincing for the black card proposal.
McGee, who had taken the entire process very seriously and who was clearly emotional afterwards, said that while the black card represented big progress, it now had to be put into practice.
"Referees have to go full-square behind it; we'll probably go and meet the referees now that this has been done. We went out on a limb to help them, to make their job easier and now the payback will be that they will have to referee more consistently," he said.
O'Neill said it was an occasion when Congress felt there were issues to be addressed and had done so in a determined manner. However, within seconds of the result, some opposition forces vented their displeasure.
Perhaps unaware of how utterly weak the 'no' camp had been in the Congress hall, Louth manager and former Armagh star Aidan O'Rourke tweeted that the outcome was a "victory for the meddlers and the little to be ats who never coach" before concluding that the game "has been sanitised into a parody of itself".
He clearly overlooked the fact that the FRC was chaired by a former All-Ireland-winning manager and included several former inter-county players, while many of the speakers also had vast experience as players, coaches and referees.
In addition, the FRC consulted widely before crafting their proposals.
"This (black card) sanitises nothing. You can still hit a man with a fair shoulder as hard as you like. What we were trying to get rid off was the cynical stuff," said McGee.
Duffy said that only those who engage in cynical play had anything to fear from the black card.