You’ll have your own memory of this type of incident but let’s take a moment to call it up. A player is free in the final third due to a nicely weighted pass or piece of clever footwork, he shapes up to shoot what will almost certainly be a goal and then BAM! out of nowhere he’s hit. The referee gives the defender a yellow, you get a free and what was rightly three points is just one.

The Football Review Committee’s proposal to introduce a ‘black card’ system to deal with this type of cynical fouling and other unsporting aspects of football was passed last month as a necessary change in the sport. One that would help it take a step forward, but already it has been greeted with a huge outcry from players, ex-players, coaches and supporters, and that’s before a card has even by issued.

Oh, but what a wake it’ll be

Some are concerned that the ruling will take the noble physical element out of the sport leaving it, in the words of Armagh’s Aidan O’Rourke, “a sanitised parody of itself.” His inter-county teammate Ciaran McKeever sees even worse in his crystal ball, telling the Irish News that, “the GAA will be dead in five years.” Oh, but what a wake it’ll be Ciaran!

Before carving the tombstone for football as we know it, it’s worth looking at exactly what the ‘black card’ system means. ‘Black card’ offences were clarified at congress as being:

  1. Deliberatively pulling down an opponent
  2. Deliberately tripping an opponent with hand, arm or foot
  3. Deliberately colliding with an opponent after he has played the ball away or for the purpose of taking him out of the movement of play
  4. Using abusive or provocative language or gestures to players
  5. Remonstrating in an aggressive manner with a match official

FRC video - Tactical Fouling:

Players who are deemed to commit a ‘black card’ offence will have to be substituted but after a team’s third ‘black card’ any further such infringements will result in a straight dismissal. Essentially it means less giving the ref an earful and less cynical play without throwing red cards out like confetti, which seems a fair enough change to make in a sport that is progressing at the rate football is.

The game needs change if it is to grow from its current level

Gone are the days of Kevin Moran’s beef, spuds and trifle pre-match meal on All-Ireland final day, the sport has progressed to the point (actually it had some time ago) where the minutiae have to be dealt with properly. The rulings aren’t the result of jobsworths on the Review Committee tinkering for the sake of it, the game needs change if it is to grow from its current level.

And with 71% of the Congress members voting in favour, it seems that the view that the physicality integral to football will be diminished by the change is not widely shared. Instead it seems the desire to see cynical and unsporting behaviour properly punished and reflected in the rulebook has won out.

As with any new rules there will be teething problems as referees are inconsistent due to the tone of certain matches, a ‘black card’ offence in the latter stage of a National League game first half may not be ‘black card’ worthy five minutes from time in a close championship semi-final. Also as with all rules in the sport, there will be differing views on what sort of behaviour meets the outlined terms but this is not special to ‘black card’ offences or Gaelic football as all rules and sports are subject to the official’s view.

‘That should have been a black card’

Last year’s All-Ireland final referee Maurice Deegan told the Irish Examiner that he was prepared for the initial backlash: “The first couple of weeks is going to be a killer, the likes of the O’Byrne Cup, the McGrath Cups, all those competitions. Everybody is going to be watching these new rules and they’re going to be saying ‘that should have been a black card’ or what not. Then, the next day, you’re going to have managers giving out, berating the black cards. That’s exactly what’s going to happen.”

Deegan goes on to state his support for the ‘black card’, saying, “A fella is running through on goal and he is deliberately - and deliberately is the key word in all of this - being pulled down, and all you do is give him a yellow card. That was the sanction up to now but in future you’ll be penalising a player for doing that. He’s gone and someone else is coming in.”

The intention is clear, teams and players who engage in systematic cynical and unsporting behaviour will be punished accordingly. The problem lies at club level where, as our doomsayer McKeever rightly notes, “clubs are already struggling with emigration; some clubs only have 18 or 19 players”, what do they do against a club with a full bench?

So what does the GAA do

Some clubs who are struggling to put teams with two or three subs together will be unfairly victimised by the rulings as since they won’t impinge on an inter-county team they will be viewed as a success. The previous attempt to penalise persistent fouling in 2005 with the introduction of the sin-bin was ditched after just a month because, in essence, it affected the quality at inter-county level as 15 men faced 13 or 14 for periods of matches. This is much less likely to happen when an inter-county player can just be replaced, so what does the GAA do if the rule is a success at inter-county level but destroys lower-level club, schools or college competitions?

There is a real danger that these clubs will be ignored and players and supporters lose interest in watching a team down to 14 or 13 every match for what was previously seen as a inconsequential foul. It is then that the GAA will have to make a decision to implement rules at inter-county level that don’t work at grass-roots.

Maybe McKeever’s talk of the death of an era isn’t so far off after all.

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