Eddie Keher’s ideas have kick-started a debate on the future of the game

From an administrative point of view, how great is the gulf between football and hurling?

Former Kilkenny player Eddie Keher congratulates Clara’s Lester Ryan after the 2013 Kilkenny senior hurling final. Photograph: Inpho

Former Kilkenny player Eddie Keher congratulates Clara’s Lester Ryan after the 2013 Kilkenny senior hurling final. Photograph: Inpho


Brian Cody’s now annual reflection on the threat to physicality in hurling and his endorsement of Eddie Keher’s manifesto on liberating the game’s inner manliness touch on an issue that’s becoming relevant to the eternal challenge of maintaining discipline in Gaelic games.

How big is the difference between football and hurling?

It’s something about which we hear a great deal. There are obvious parallels and obvious dissimilarities but from an administrative point of view, how great is the gulf?

Both games are administered by the same organisation and are frequently played together in the same clubs. They share a playing arena, a scoring system and on-field positions.

Yet the insistence appears to be that despite all that football and hurling have in common, there remains an intangible, almost spiritual distinction – as if by taking up the ash and putting on a helmet, a player assumes a nobler disposition, a more refined aesthetic.

As a result, the problems that trouble football are often said to be peculiar to that game – brawling and unsightly, as it is presented.

That perception was sufficient to sink the proposed disciplinary reforms of five years ago when just under two-thirds of congress voted to get tougher on cynical fouling and many delegates spoke of their concerns in that regard.

Major initiative
Current GAA president Liam O’Neill chaired the group that brought forward those proposals and the experience equipped him well for one of the major initiatives of his term of office.

When he set up the Football Review Committee to instigate a major consultative process on the state of the game, it was made clear that any issues and their proposed resolution would apply only to football.

That has led to the current situation, which for the first time sees a significant difference in the way in which the two games treat indiscipline. The black card – introduced for cynical fouls – is now well into its second month and so far the sky hasn’t fallen.

O’Neill has been frank enough to advocate importing the measure into hurling but sufficiently realistic to see that there isn’t at present the likely support within the game to support such a move.

A curious focus in Eddie Keher’s document – which Kilkenny manager Brian Cody praised as “making an awful lot of sense” – which he submitted to the GAA is on red and yellow cards, described in the submission as “totally at variance with the ethos, physicality and manliness of the game of hurling”.

“I should mention that I was never in favour of cards in the first place,” writes Keher, a multi-decorated hurler, “and I contend that the 2013 season in particular has confirmed that they are not compatible with Gaelic games.

“This has been confirmed at top level by virtue of the fact that many of the ‘sendings off’ from yellow/red cards were later rescinded by the committee in charge.”

This is a shift in gear from criticising the cards themselves, which after all are simply a means of communicating a refereeing decision in as clear a fashion as possible, to taking referees to task for substantive decisions.

The dismissals he is complaining about – issued to Cork’s Patrick Horgan and Kilkenny’s Henry Shefflin – arose because referees believed that they were enforcing the rules as laid down in the Official Guide. Those decisions were successfully challenged but presumably wouldn’t have been any different had pointing to the line rather than holding up a red card been the means of communication.

Deeper concerns
It becomes clear that Keher has deeper concerns about what constitutes foul play. “Hurling was never a cynical game,” he writes, “but it is now starting to become one due to the unjust penalties imposed for fouls by players full of honest endeavour. With the introduction of all these restrictions and penalties and now the proposed introduction of ‘black cards’ for hurlers the players are appearing to be treated and regarded as the ‘bad guys’ of our games.”

“What should a defender do when a forward is charging towards the goal with the ball? There have been several instances where the defender stood in front of him with his arms outstretched to be penalised when the forward ran into him and fell? Fair, manly tackles should always remain part of our game.”

Fair tackles – manly or otherwise – are part of the game and the disciplinary code seeks to penalise foul play. What Keher’s document advocates therefore is to re-draft the rule book on foul play:

“A player found to have committed an act of dangerous play, resulting in minor injury, would be warned, have his name taken as well as a free being called against him. A repeat offence and he would be sent off. A player who deliberately strikes an opponent with the intent to injure would be dismissed.” It’s unlikely that the apparent requirement that a player be injured before the equivalent of a yellow card is shown would have widespread support but Keher’s ideas have kick-started a debate on the future of the game.

GAA president Liam O’Neill’s response at yesterday’s Allianz Hurling League launch in Croke Park was that he would seek Central Council approval for a broad-based discussion on hurling to take into account a broad spread of view.

Maybe a Hurling Review Committee – if that’s not too derivative.

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