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'We won't be bullied this time'

GAA top brass are determined to persist with this year's new system of match bans, writes Damian Lawlor

BEFORE the start of the 2005 national leagues, the GAA sought to implement a drastic change of its disciplinary procedures by introducing a sin-bin, but the system was doomed before it was even up and running after managers and players kicked up such a stink that officials panicked and abandoned it.

Without doubt they should have persisted with the sin-bin idea for a little longer. Close inspection shows that it actually worked in a number of ways during its brief tenure -- the number of fouls halved, scores doubled and playing time was increased by 25 per cent.

But some of the stakeholders didn't fully understand the fundamentals of the new 'bold box', match officials struggled to keep track of the 10-minute isolation period for offenders and with inter-county managers going apoplectic, the GAA decided they had seen enough.

Three years later, another disciplinary model was rolled out, this time a yellow card offender sat out the rest of the game but could be replaced. It didn't last long either.

These constant failures and a serious apathy to any new disciplinary proposal led to huge frustration in Croke Park. They looked on as the quality of Gaelic football, especially, diminished. The physicality was slowly being drained from the game and cynical, persistent fouling was creeping in. Former director-general Liam Mulvihill once maintained that the acceptance of indiscipline in the GAA was a "cancer within our Association''. A decade later, Liam O'Neill openly admitted that the Association had shirked its responsibilities by not following through with the sin-bin.

"We've allowed our games to become cynical and we've allowed our players to get away with fouling," he said. "We've allowed our managers to essentially train our players to foul because it pays to foul in the present system. We're saying, enough of that. It is time to change and we hope our presentation will be seen at this point in time as an effort to clean up our games."

Last week, the Croke Park hierarchy introduced the latest initiative to offset their disciplinary woes and balance their punitive system. After four years of research and development, director of games administration and player welfare Feargal McGill unveiled the new match-ban structure which ties in with the commencement of next month's national leagues.

Managers and officials have sought this arrangement for many years, so what's the likelihood of this system lasting any longer than the ill-fated bin?

"It's a trial; there's no pressure whatsoever because it's got the full season," says McGill. "It's taken four years of time and work and we haven't rushed into it. We've deliberately looked for a year's trial so it's not just in for the national leagues. We're not going to be reversing any changes on this. It's not a short-term measure, it's in for the full season and essentially we're not too worried what managers think in the interim.

"We only want a fair system and such was the challenge. The old time-based method was way too imbalanced but with this model, if you commit the same crime, you do the same time."

The statistics back up the Croke Park methodology. Based on the 2009 championship, under the previous system, 68 suspensions of four weeks or more were issued, but 30 per cent of those players didn't miss one single game; 27 players missed only one game but at the other end of the spectrum two players missed three games.

Everything depended on what time of year suspensions were issued. It demonstrated how inequitable the old way was. Anyone who picked up a red card or ban during the early stages of the championship could miss up to four games within a month, while a player picking up the same punishment in August might not even miss one match.

Again, during the 2009 championship, 16 players were slapped with eight-week suspensions but 25 per cent of those missed no games at all. One of them, though, missed five games.

"It was so lopsided," McGill admits. "We had to try something new."

Despite the constant lobbying for the new method, there has been criticism of this latest project, with the accusation that the system is too soft on players who step out of line. In some instances, players suspended for seven games in 2011 under a specific category could now escape with a two-match ban for a similar misdemeanour.

"That's hypothetical and sure, missing one match because of some category two offences is not a huge deterrent, that's fair enough, but we'll see over the course of an entire year. When we look at it again we have the option of increased suspensions."

McGill feels the GAA has avoided one potential pitfall by not implementing the programme in January to coincide with the start of the pre-season competitions. Traditionally, experimentation of rules and structures at this juncture has met with a short existence.

"We were happy enough not to go with this from January; in fact we were keen to avoid it. It's too easy to have a simplistic, knee-jerk reaction at this stage of the season."

There are further challenges, however. Implementing the package across the general landscape and club scene will be troublesome with plenty of loopholes already obvious. Will a player sent off in a higher education fixture, for example, be allowed play the next game with his club?

"Ideally, this would extend to the club scene," McGill continues, "but the biggest difficulty will be stitching it across the fabric of the entire association. The eligibility of players for various teams will come into question. It won't just concern a player's availability for club, colleges and county fixtures. What happens if they are eligible for their junior and senior club ranks and play with a divisional side too?

"So, putting it into the club scene will be a far bigger challenge, we know that, but for now it's one step at a time. If we can show that this match-ban system works at national level it will be promising for the club landscape."

If the match-ban system is successful there will also be calls to punish serial yellow card offenders and rail them into a category that marks their indiscretions with bans. A player receiving three yellow cards over the course of three games could automatically receive a match ban in the future.

"That's all ahead. For now it's just the first step," said McGill. "We are changing something enormously significant in our game and it deserves a slow induction. We failed in the past to effect change because we over-reached and stretched too far in one go.

"There will be the occasional hitch," he accepts, "but we have done a huge amount of homework on this and we're confident it will go well."

The new system received 92 per cent approval at annual Congress and grassroot members are confident it will take into account the fixtures structure, which doesn't have a uniform spread of games. If the new formation proves successful, it will be implemented at all levels of football and hurling from 2013 onwards.

"Basically, we just had farcical situations where some players got a two or three-month ban and didn't miss a single game. Another fellow could pick up a red card in a qualifier game, get four weeks and miss three matches.

"We had to do something. We thought long and hard about it, we're giving it a shot for a year. There will be no reversal of this during the 12 months and we won't be bullied by managers or anyone else. This will work if it gets a chance."

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