No more fudging ... let's flash the black
IN the 39th minute of that rollicking semi-final replay at the Gaelic Grounds, Kerry captain Fionn Fitzgerald was beaten to a low ball played into Mayo's Andy Moran, who was in the process of turning away from his marker when hand-tripped to the ground. Be it an "instinctive" or "cynical" foul, it was certainly deliberate: the very definition of a black card.
So you can imagine our incredulity when Cormac Reilly brandished black.
Fitzgerald - judging from his reaction, staring up at the colour of the card - was almost as amazed.
In one obvious respect - our old reliable, "the letter of the law" - he couldn't harbour one scintilla of grievance. Yet in another, the wavering application of said law, he could feel hard done by.
The black card was a great idea in theory and it would also be a sound principle in practice ... if only it were.
That didn't happen in Limerick last Saturday night, and failure to do so had potentially major ramifications not just for the result but for some of the on-field anarchy that ensued during extra-time.
It has been well rehashed but is worth repeating: Shane Enright's deliberate pull-down on Cillian O'Connor for Mayo's penalty was a stonewall black card, no less than Fitzgerald's trip on Moran. In fact, it should have been an easier 'spot'. Did Reilly fail to apply the rules because (a) he felt a penalty was sufficient punishment or (b) he realised the ramifications, given Enright was already on a yellow and could not have been replaced?
Here's another possibility: he simply got it wrong. Trouble is, he proceeded to err in many more decisions, a majority of which had a negative impact on Mayo. Result-altering? Given this was a game that went to extra-time, it's hard to argue otherwise.
Amid the disputed penalties and frees, one of his almost forgotten errors was the failure to black-card Donnchadh Walsh for a blatant pull-down on Jason Doherty after 27 minutes. Free but no card: cue boos from the Mayo faithful. "I don't think it really matters - Mayo in total control at this stage," surmised Tom Carr in the RTÉ commentary booth.
That control had long evaporated come the second half; imagine, though, if Enright had walked and Kerry were reduced to 14 men for three-quarters of normal time?
It's not the intention to inflict further misery on Reilly after his much-publicised 'maor', because he's not the only referee who has been slack with black this summer.
Sometimes, depending on the contest, it doesn't matter. Other times, like last Saturday, it does ... and not just because one side suffers but because both teams take their lead from lax application.
Thus, the rules of engagement have altered and a game that was already physically abrasive - as replays often are - threatens to descend into something more anarchic, with scuffles that result in one player (Walsh) being manhandled over the fence into the Mackey Stand crowd; a mass melee deep in extra-time and a one-man pitch invasion by our Supermac's 'hero'.
The following day, Joe McQuillan showed exactly how to enforce the black card rule by dispatching Donegal duo Neil McGee and Paddy McGrath. No complaints, because there could be none.
Too often, however, these decisions have been fudged with yellow (or no card at all) the preferred weapon of punishment/appeasement. The four All-Ireland quarter-finals yielded a solitary black card for Cork's Tomás Clancy. Was there only one such offence committed in 280 minutes?
Meanwhile, the off-field disciplinary arms of the GAA no longer carry the aura of zero tolerance. You'll gladly take your chances with the Central Hearings Committee, as Mayo did last week by successfully exonerating Lee Keegan on the grounds of a technicality - video evidence demonstrated that his kick didn't connect whereas he had been reported for kicking instead of attempting to kick. Yet both offences are carried under the same section of the rules.
The race for Sam has come alive over the last two weekends but Croke Park shouldn't be blinded by all the dizzy coverage. A forensic end-of-season review of the black card, and general disciplinary enforcement, is called for.