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Sunday 4 December 2016

Discipline in the dock and GAA must act

Diarmuid Connolly celebrates after Dublin's All-Ireland final success last Sunday
Diarmuid Connolly celebrates after Dublin's All-Ireland final success last Sunday

As the Dubs come up for oxygen, after several well-deserved evenings of reverie extending beyond the midnight hour, we feel almost guilty to introduce a sobering epilogue to their all-conquering season.

Before standing accused of being contrary for the sake of it, let's press on ... Dublin have been the greatest of a pretty average lot this year, but of even graver concern is that it hasn't been a great year for GAA discipline and the administration of same.

Not a great year? More like a disaster.

Even before Diarmuid Connolly was cleared, beyond the 11th hour, to play in the Dublin/Mayo replay, it was obvious to this observer that the GAA had a problem. Not just with the discipline of its players (myriad issues remain, even if the naked violence of yesteryear has largely dissipated) but with the ability to make disciplinary punishments, where deserved, stick.

A huge part of the crux is that the multi-layered disciplinary system operating over the past decade is exactly that - too multi-layered. It's anything but simple and straight-forward.

It allows too many avenues of appeal for counties who feel either (a) their man was blatantly wronged by the referee; or (b) he wasn't the only player to throw a dig, so why aren't five others joining him in the dock?

Then again, your motivations may be all down to pragmatism, namely (c) there is no way we can contemplate playing our next match without the Croke Park One or the Thurles Two or even the Omagh Eight.

Lottery

And finally we have (d) unlike the lottery, where most of us mug punters are destined to lose, you've a better-than-evens chance of hitting the jackpot either at the CHC or CAC or DRA, and you only have to be successful once, so why not spin the wheel?

We should stress, this is not an anti-Connolly column ... he is one of the most naturally gifted, nay poetic footballers of the past 20 years. And someone who is willing to graft for his craft too.

We're not even inclined to throw stones at his on-field discipline because this has improved over the past few seasons, notwithstanding his reaction to Lee Keegan's provocation in that tension-filled All-Ireland semi-final climax.

No, this story is much bigger than Connolly - even bigger than Dublin.

It's about the surreal coincidence of Keegan's successful trip to the Central Hearings Committee 13 months ago, allowing him to play in another All-Ireland semi-final replay.

It's about his Mayo colleague, Kevin Keane, having his red card strangely rescinded by the CHC last month.

It's about a dysfunctional system that can see Tyrone's Tiernan McCann theatrically feign injury to get a rival sent off ... and end up almost as the 'victim' when hit with the clumsy proposal of an eight-week ban that was never going to stick.

Spot a theme? It's about the shrinking chances of suspension as you move closer to September. Even if you see red and the video doesn't prove your innocence.

Curve Ball cannot claim ownership of any King's Inns initials after its name; ergo, we're not legally qualified to say whether the majority of the DRA Tribunal that cleared Connolly (former Supreme Court judge Hugh O'Flaherty and solicitor David Nohilly) were wrong or that the minority (solicitor Brian Rennick) was right.

But having trawled through the judgement, all 43 pages, let's just say we found the arguments contained within Rennick's dissenting decision far more compelling. If you're a rule book pedant happy to be buried in the finely-nuanced detail, check out http://www.sportsdra.ie/dradecisions.htm.

However, one point (albeit not necessarily central to the final decision) leaped from the pages. O'Flaherty and Nohilly note that the consequences for Connolly was suspension for an All-Ireland semi-final replay, adding: "This has to be construed as a serious sanction and therefore a higher standard is required of the disciplinary bodies in circumstances such as this."

Whereas Rennick rejects what he perceives as the drawing of a "clear distinction" between club and elite county players, saying the former deserve "no less a standard".

Punishment

This talk of higher standards cuts to the chase: the bigger the match, the less likely that you will accept your punishment. And the less likely, too, that those punishments will stick.

For too long, GAA units have questioned almost every decision of authority because of self-interest; because of an ingrained mindset; because it usually works.

It's high time we tackled this through a streamlined (and more transparent) disciplinary system, one that is consistent, less flaky and more supportive of referees.

Back to the drawing board.

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