Thursday 27 October 2016

Scrap the black or else alter the rules

Roscommon’s Seán Mullooly receives a black card from referee Ciarán Branagan during the Connacht SFC Final replay last Sunday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Roscommon’s Seán Mullooly receives a black card from referee Ciarán Branagan during the Connacht SFC Final replay last Sunday. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

It just would not be the same if a summer passed without the hot topic of the black card in the headlines. To be honest, I think everybody is fed up talking about it but the reality is because the punishment in receiving a black card is so big, it will continue to be a talking point each year.

Consistency and interpretation will be the two big words that will always be associated with the black card rule and regrettably that will continue to be the case.

Two years ago, all the analysts and commentators were brought into Croke Park for a rules briefing ahead of the championship. It was no doubt an exercise to educate us on the rules before the championship started and ensure there was logic to any analysis that would arise with regard to the black card rule.

In fairness to the GAA it was every worthwhile exercise.

However, there were obvious red herrings in play by how the back card rule has been constituted right from the beginning.

With approximately 30 people in the room, we were shown a series of fouls and given a touch pad to identify if they were yellow, black or red card offences.

So here were all the commentators from across all the media channels making a neutral judgement on the rules of the game. Was there a consistency in the interpretation of our views? Not at chance there was.

In between the hurling fraternity taking the piss out of the football rules, there were a number of healthy debates over the interpretation of different types of fouls and a huge cross section of opinion when it came to determining the level of the foul.

So for me it was obvious that this debate was going to rumble as we were never going to get a consistent approach.


There was one particular foul that was shown and straight away it showed up a significant flaw in the ruling and to date this flaw has never been addressed.

A clip was shown of a player straight through on goal when the defender came from behind with a deliberate pull of the jersey to break his momentum. Most people in the room went for the black button as they viewed as a deliberate intentional foul, or if you want to call it, a 'professional' foul.

We were all wrong. Nope, that was a yellow card we were told.

But why, we all pondered, surely it was why the back card was introduced?

No, we were wrong because the rule says that you must deliberately pull DOWN an opponent and in this case the player was not pulled down to the ground.

When challenged from the floor, there was an acceptance from the GAA hierarchy that the wording of the ruling passed at Congress could have been better worded.

So in effect you can still deliberately stop on opponent or break up the play once you do not pull him to the ground.

The question I would ask is, if there was recognition of this flaw at that time why has it not been rectified? We have just gone and introduced one of the most fundamental rules changes in Gaelic football and we have the context of the rule incorrect.

I agree with the merits and intentions of the black card against real cynical play. However, I feel the complexity and criteria of the actual ruling introduced has caused havoc with referees, players, managers and supporters.

The body check for example is very difficult to determine in terms of whether it is a deliberate act. Many times a player who has just off-loaded possession can control the outcome of the body check by running directly at an opponent who has committed himself to making a genuine tackle. Mattie Donnelly's black card last weekend was a perfect example of this type of foul and one of many black cards in recent seasons for body checks.

The incident involving Diarmuid Connolly and James Dolan 'off the ball' was technically a black card for Connolly within the context of the current rule.

However, I do not believe it was the intention of the black card ruling when introduced that it would be used to deal with 'off the ball' physical incidents.

In my opinion the time has come to either scrap the rule and refine the wording to assist referees to interpret the rule better. We need to stand back and ask why the rule was first introduced and what was the objective at that time?

Is it working in its present format?I believe we should refine the rule and it should be kept as simplistic as possible to allow referees implement it consistently.

Firstly, change the context of the main ruling to read: "Deliberate acts of foul play to deny an opponent an advantageous position".

Secondly, downgrade the body check to a yellow card offence.

This will take the heat out of marginal difficult calls (still allowing referees to use the above ruling if required) and the player will still be punished to a lesser degree with a yellow card.

These changes should reduce the level of black cards in our game and it should bring more consistency to referee decisions.

It will still allow referees to deal with the original intention of the ruling which was to stamp out deliberate cynicism to gain an advantage.

It will also take 'off the ball' incidents out of the equation for black cards and they will be dealt with under the existing yellow and red card rules which already cater for such incidents.

There is no silver bullet or perfect solution here but one thing is certain, this debate will rumble on and on every year and it will become a blight on our game.

There has been enough experience with the implementation of the new rule to be able to stand back and say 'let's see if we can do it better'.

It is the least the players deserve.

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