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Referees must act if it's black and white

TWENTY-THREE and a half minutes. That’s how long it took for the televised start of Championship 2014 to throw up its first big black card controversy.

David Coldrick is one of the most competent whistlers in the business. He doesn’t get too many major calls wrong. That’s why he even played a central role in the GAA’s educational black card debrief late last year.

But in Omagh last Sunday, while Coldrick was well positioned to award a stonewall Tyrone penalty for Conor Maginn’s blatant pull-down on Mark Donnelly, the Meath referee conspired to get two decisions badly wrong in the process.

Within a second of Donnelly being fouled, he had managed to boot the ball into Down’s net. Why was Coldrick so quick to shrill when the new advantage rule - introduced in tandem with the black card - afforded five seconds’ leeway to see if any advantage accrued?

In two words, human error.

Bugbear number two: why didn’t Maginn receive a black card? Unlike some offences that could be open to interpretation, this foul was (every colour pun intended) black and white. “To deliberately pull down an opponent” is the rule book yardstick and this met all the criteria. It was deliberate; the player was pulled down ... case proven.

Instead, the Down player was still on the pitch and free to hammer home Down’s third goal - which could, so easily, have been the decisive score.

Thanks to Sean Cavanagh’s last-gasp leveller, the match finished all-square and the looming reality of a Newry replay removed some oxygen from a potential powder-keg situation.

Thus, instead of furious hell and brimstone from Tyrone, we had some pointed post-match words from Mickey Harte.

“We had a penalty in the first half there today where we neither got the advantage nor did the person who took the man down suffer any penalty,” he complained.

Harte wasn’t blaming referees but rather “inconsistencies” of interpretation. “Someone needs to tell us here what’s going on because the rules that were applied today did not remotely resemble the rules we played to in the National League and McKenna Cup,” he maintained.

That brings us to the nub of this black card conundrum, the same issue at the heart of nearly every refereeing controversy in the GAA - human error. Inconsistency in how the black card is applied - not the rule itself - is the biggest potential problem for this otherwise welcome attempt to clean up Gaelic football.

Bad referees (and Coldrick, we stress, is not one of them) have an infuriating penchant for perverse decisions. Therein lies the biggest danger for the black card.

At this early championship remove, we’re already convinced some of the biggest black card controversies over the coming months will stem from referees being too slow to flash black instead of too quick. Either because the relevant foul must be deemed deliberate, or because they’re simply uncertain, they will err on the side of caution and dish out a yellow instead.

Referees don’t have the benefit of mature reflection bolstered by countless slow-motion TV replays, so they deserve some slack ... but we don’t buy the argument that they are now encumbered with too many decisions. Moreover, they need to get the obvious ones right to ensure the black card isn’t brought into disrepute. This is summer; championship matters.

Tyrone’s ire was compounded by the punishment dished out to their goalkeeper, Niall Morgan. The thing is, Morgan could have no complaints - it was a blatant black card kick/trip, bordering on red. But when he walks and Maginn doesn’t for similar penalty concessions, you end up reverting to that oh-so-familiar managerial refrain.

Where’s the consistency?