Epic matches can’t hide worrying trends for the GAA

After apparently significant progress on the problems of indiscipline it’s been a worrying couple of weeks in the football championship

Tempers flare during the All-Ireland football semi-final between Kerry and Mayo at Gaelic Grounds, Limerick. Photograph: James Crosbie/Inpho.

Tempers flare during the All-Ireland football semi-final between Kerry and Mayo at Gaelic Grounds, Limerick. Photograph: James Crosbie/Inpho.


After some featureless stuff in the provinces and a wholly expected clean sweep for the provincial champions in the All-Ireland quarter-finals, the football championship erupted at semi-final stage to provide one modern epic and one of the greatest upsets of the qualifier era.

Quite why it was such a massive surprise is another question but to a greater or lesser extent such was the reputation of Jim Gavin’s Dublin that most – not excluding this column – were willing to overlook potential fault-lines: the record of defending champions, the lack of any meaningful competition and the almost tangible desire of Donegal to redeem last year.

There were so many talking points between the last two weekends that insufficient attention has been focused on what is turning into a very bad-news story for the GAA – the serious deterioration in on-field discipline in football.

At the start of the year the introduction of the new black-card sanction was a great success. There were teething problems but in general it did what all good rules do: it regulated behaviour for the better by confronting and punishing cynical play.

Black card

Slippage was detected during the summer but it was hard to say categorically that every incident held up as a failure to implement the black card was crystal clear as opposed to a matter of debate. It was nonetheless significant that very few were shown in the closing stages of the championship.

Cork’s Tomás Clancy was the only player dismissed on a black card in the entire series of All-Ireland quarter-finals. He certainly wasn’t the only one to commit a black-card foul.

The semi-final between Kerry and Mayo for all that it was a terrific contest over two and a quarter matches also pulsed with an undercurrent of indiscipline.

On the first day Lee Keegan was red-carded by Meath referee David Coldrick for attempting to kick Johnny Buckley. A cut-and-dried decision according to rule, it still prompted the usual outburst of condemnation and special pleading, which could lead the weary onlooker to conclude that for some people it’s never justified to send off a player and especially in a semi-final.

When Keegan sprang free like Houdini a few days later it was on a technicality. Mayo showed video evidence to demonstrate that the kick hadn’t connected. In fact this should have made little difference because “kicking” and “attempting to kick” are included in the same section of both the playing rules [Official Guide II at 5.16], governing red cards, and the general rules [Official Guide I at 7.2 (b) III (iii)], mandating a suspension of one match.

Maybe it would be an idea if referees were able to cite the rule they felt had been breached but they are specifically discouraged from doing so, in a directive going back to 2006, presumably on the basis that they describe in their own words what happened and the CCCC or CHC decides what rule has been breached.

So going into the replay there was a sense of grievance in Kerry that Mayo had been unfairly strengthened by a poor administrative decision.

Contentious decisions

The replay also had a Meath referee, Cormac Reilly, and whereas he got some contentious decisions correct, he had a nightmare in respect of his disciplinary remit.

Several warranted black-card decisions were avoided, most egregiously when Shane Enright, already on a sixth-minute yellow, took down Cillian O’Connor for the Mayo penalty. He should have been sent off on the spot, as the foul had to merit at least a second yellow.

Instead he stayed on long enough to commit another card-able foul on Aidan O’Shea, who had just released the ball to O’Connor. Most of these errors of omission favoured Kerry but that’s not relevant to the main point here, which is that pretty quickly players began to sense that the limits on their misbehaviour were pretty flabby.

It was a match that slid into anarchy from time to time with bouts of brawling erupting, which runs completely counter to one – or even both – of the two great responsibilities every referee has when taking charge of a match: apply the rules and control the contest.

Small wonder then that one Mayo supporter decided to try and get on to the pitch to accost the referee. Eventually stewards removed him.

In Australia he’d have been arrested and facing a hefty fine but here he was shortly afterwards – inevitably – posing for selfies and being greeted as a celebrity in the Ennis Road Supermacs. Furthermore in what was by no means an isolated incident this season on the sidelines in general, a member of Mayo’s back-room team got involved in a confrontation with Kerry players towards the end of the match.

Pitch invasion

It is, however, likely that the Croke Park authorities will pursue all of these matters when investigating what happened in Limerick on Saturday. Previously supporters have been suspended, if members, for pitch invasion or if not banned from GAA grounds.

Having been applauded for taking a grip on the problems of indiscipline the GAA have had a bad couple of weeks, on and off the pitch. smoran@irishtimes.com

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