Thursday 26 April 2018

Falling foul of the yellow peril

The FRC's work is almost done but it's a pity their deterrents have been diluted, writes John O'BrienIt's probably fair to suggest that when Eugene McGee was initially approached to join the Football Review Committee, a part of him baulked in hesitation. More than a decade had passed since McGee chaired another high-powered committee that had deliberated at length before producing a set of proposals that would have radically altered the shape of the All-Ireland football championship as we knew it. They never even reached first base.

Back then, McGee and his colleagues had worked on the assumption they could be daring and imaginative and that there would be a certain level of hierarchical support behind them when their recommendations were put to the wider GAA community. Instead they met an instant chorus of condemnation, conducted by the provincial councils, and the appetite for a long, divisive battle quickly waned. For those involved, McGee included, it was a bruising and profoundly unsatisfying experience.

This time around things would be different, though. The FRC wouldn't be constructed as a body of high-profile individuals whose brief would be to lock themselves away in committee rooms and hammer out proposals to be lobbed into the GAA community like grenades. Its approach would be wide-embracing and consultative, a delicate high-wire act between old-fashioned and unwieldy GAA democracy and the desire to actually get something done.

So far they have proceeded skilfully, heading off much of the anticipated dissent at the pass. They figured the sharpest disapproval would come from inter-county managers, ever determined to maintain the status quo, so it was vital to keep stressing the notion that the proposals were, for the most part, addressing the core concerns of the ordinary rank-and-file GAA members and, just as importantly, that none of them were set in stone.

You can be certain that McGee, informed by hard experience, is determined not to be one of the fall guys this time around. It'll suit him too that the FRC's present work is approaching its end point now. As soon as the proposals are framed into motions and black-typed into the clár for Congress in April, they effectively become Croke Park's baby and that's how it should be.

The refinement process continues, though, and last week brought the first significant amendment with the most contentious proposal, the automatic substitution of a player committing a yellow-card offence, being dropped in favour of a new black card to be issued for five clearly-defined fouls ranging from deliberately hauling down an opponent to remonstrating in an aggressive fashion with a match official. A black-card offence will also result in an automatic substitution.

On the surface, it's difficult to detect, beyond the colour of the card, even any subtle differences between the two versions. When they initially unveiled the proposals last month, McGee was careful to explain that there would be a subsequent delineation between fouls that merited a player having to leave the field and ones that didn't. The last thing they intended was a rash of 'yellow' fever bringing chaos to the game.

In this they took their only faulty step thus far. Why the committee wasn't more explicit when it released its findings last month isn't clear, but it shows the power managers like Mickey Harte and Jim McGuinness continue to wield that once they made their displeasure known, the yellow card proposal was effectively dead in the water. The black card replacement, narrowly defined and unambiguous, is a clever ruse by the FRC to shift the debate back on their terms.

Yet one nagging doubt remains. If the failure to offer clarity in its initial report last month was a deliberate ploy by the committee to test the temperature of the waters out there, then it's tempting to view the amended proposal as a watered-down version of what they originally intended, just as the All-Ireland qualifying series that emerged in 2001 was a heavily-scaled down version of what the FDC proposed.

Still, you can't blame them. It isn't so much the committee's task to banish the ills of Gaelic football as to try and push the boundaries out as much as they can while ensuring some kind of a safe passage through the thicket of Congress. The black card proposal deals with a number of blatantly callous fouls that can blight a football game and grapples manfully with the increasing scourge of sledging and abusive behaviour, but it fails to address the kind of 'dark arts' which houses the cynical heart of the game.

The kind of thing Pat McEnaney was talking about when he offered his assessment last month. "Players and teams are being sent out to systematically foul their way through a game," he said. "Opposing managers don't mind if their team picks up three or four yellow cards as long as it's a different player each time. As long as they don't commit a second offence, they can get away with it. That thinking must stop."

Will the FRC proposals put an end to it? All the opposing manager must do now is tweak his tactics so that players can still foul away as long as they avoid deliberately tripping, pulling down or body-checking an opponent. There's no other listed physical offence that will invoke a black card.

To all intents and purposes, the black card rule was effectively debated at Congress back in 2009 when a vote to implement it in both hurling and football fell short of the required two-thirds majority by a mere eight votes.

When it reaches Congress in April, you imagine things have moved along sufficiently for the motion to sneak through this time but that's five years that have been lost in the development of a cleaner, more attractive game.

It's also disappointing that the fear of opposition from managers appears to have diluted the committee's fortitude when it came to the area of suspensions. So where the accumulation of three yellow cards would have entailed an automatic two-match suspension, that now changes to three black cards earning a mere one-game ban. McGuinness declared himself happy with this outcome.

McGuinness also welcomed the amnesty that will prevail for players who earn their third black card in an All-Ireland semi-final. "I don't think anyone deserves to miss out on a date like that," the Donegal manager said. "Tensions are very high in a semi-final and a rush of blood to the head, when you are trying to do your best . . . it's just sometimes people are blinded and to lose out in that situation would be terrible."

While it would be a hard medicine to take – ask Tipperary's Brian O'Meara – what McGuinness is saying here is simply nonsense. If tensions are high in a semi-final, then that is merely how it should be, the ability of players to retain their composure under the greatest strain a major factor in the outcome. Think of Roy Keane upending Zinedine Zidane in the 1999 Champions League semi-final, ultimately sacrificing his place in the final to ensure his team got there. Nobody argued for an amnesty for Keane that time, nor should it have any place in the All-Ireland championship.

The one-game suspension is equally unsatisfactory. When players study the nuances of these proposals, they will realise that once they reach a provincial final or last qualifying stage in the clear, three black cards won't threaten their place in an All-Ireland final. That is simply farcical. It's also possible to conceive of scenarios where players might be tempted to trigger a one-match ban rather than carry cards into the later stages of the championship.

Ultimately, it all boils down to deterrents. A one-match suspension offers too little, two games at least gives players something to think about. None of this is to admonish McGee or his hard-working committee. They have simply gone as far as they believe they will be allowed to go. It is still not far enough.

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