Gaelic football’s black card debate
Two brothers, Pat and Séamus ‘Banty’ McEnaney, go shoulder to shoulder over the black card issue. No pulling or dragging allowed . . .
So on we go, headlong into a black card world. Which is pretty remarkable, when you stop to consider it for a moment. A game that stood largely untinkered with for decades – save for the occasional change in how a goal can be scored or a place kick taken – has been transformed in the space of a few months. Whatever the disagreements over the rights and wrongs, that we are watching a different game now is just about the least contentious thing you can say about it.
The raggedy hills around Corduff in deepest Monaghan might seem an unlikely battleground but it’s raw football country up there and this sort of thing matters. On one side, Pat McEnaney has been one of the black card’s greatest advocates. On the other, Séamus ‘Banty’ McEnaney among its most steadfast foes. Brothers have the best rows.
“Me and Pat wouldn’t exactly be on the same page when it comes to the black card,” warns Banty. Same page? They’re barely looking at the same book.
The league has come, the league has gone and we’ve seen what we’ve seen. Scores are up, cards are down, behaviour has changed. Changed for the better?
We’ll let the brothers try to work it out . . .
Séamus: “I believe it is taking the physicality out of the game. What I mean is that players are afraid now to give hits in the middle of games. The International Rules was a real, good physical game with thousands upon thousands going to watch it. When they took the physicality out of it and watered it down to nearly a non-contact sport, the interest in it has deteriorated and it has been washed out to sea.
“And I am afraid that that’s the way we’ll go with our sport. It’s a physical game. It’s a man’s game. And what the push seems to be at the minute is to bring it to a point where athleticism is more important than physicality. This is becoming a game for runners. Eamonn Coghlan could play this game now.”
Pat: “The two things that we’re talking about are the body check and the deliberate drag-down. If that’s what people are talking about when they say the physicality is going out of the game, then they’re right. We do want to take those two things out of the game.
“But body-checking and dragging down were never supposed to be in our game. It’s illegal to do it, it always has been illegal to do it. But now the penalty is greater. The player gets punished now, not the team.”
Séamus: “That’s not what I’m talking about with physicality. Absolutely, I agree 100 per cent – take out the body check, take out the deliberate drag down. But the problem is that this is too radical a solution. In taking them out by sending players off, you’re having the effect of taking other things that people like about the game out along with them. You’re using a sledgehammer to kill a fly.
“Players are afraid to put in good, hard shoulder-to-shoulder hits in case they’re half-missed. Do that and next thing is, you’re off for the rest of the game. There’s no doubt that some big game very shortly is going to be decided because of black cards.”
Pat: “If I was a manager of a player who said he was afraid to tackle, I would be insulted. Because it means that I haven’t coached him properly. Players have definitely stopped body-checking and now they need to practice how to tackle correctly.
“We need to spend more time on tackling properly. If one of my under-16s said that they were afraid to go in hard and put in a tackle now, I’d be absolutely disgusted with him. I would take it as a personal insult.”
Séamus: “Maybe it’s better to say then that players are afraid to hit! But look, the problem there is what one referee sees as a tackle, another sees as a foul. What one coach sees as a tackle, another sees as a hit. We coach to tackle to dispossess the ball but the interpretation of referees varies.
“The bottom line is that they have brought in a huge change to the game in order to fix one very small problem. We have totally changed the nature of a core part of the game, which is the physical exchanges, and I don’t think that was worth doing for a scenario that didn’t happen very often anyway.
“People talk about the Seán Cavanagh thing – how often did it happen? Really and truly, was it such a common occurrence?”
Pat: “He’s right, there’s not a big lot of them. But then again, if you go back to the All-Ireland final last year, wasn’t there three or four in the last eight minutes? If you go back to the London v Leitrim game in Carrick last year, I could find you 10 of them in that game alone.
“So yes, it was rare enough but it did happen. It didn’t happen as much as body-checking, I accept that. But body-checking is gone from the game now, more or less. You hardly ever see it in a game. So let’s get rid of the drag-down altogether as well – that’s the thinking behind the black card. I think we have had a very interesting league because of it.”
Séamus: “Scores have gone up, no doubt about it. But can you just decide that that’s because of the black card? Is it not fair to say that a big part of that has been down to the advantage rule?
“I think it’s a great rule and it has been refereed very well through the league. It has given forwards more opportunity to get through for goals and given them a second bite at the cherry from a free if their shot has gone wide or been saved. I’d say that must account for at least 50 per cent of the increase in scores.
Pat: “I wouldn’t agree. I would say that the biggest change in terms of scores has been the black card and especially the body-checking aspect of it. That has freed the game up a huge amount.
“But I think what you will find as we go on is that the scoring rates will go down again because good teams will spend more time tackling correctly. You will see an improvement with the standard of defending and players focusing on the ball.”
Séamus: “I actually think a more cynical thing was teams having their forwards fouling players that were coming out of defence with the ball. That was far more common than the Seán Cavanagh situation.
“But wouldn’t the advantage rule have cured that just as well? Play advantage, let a fella get out of the tackle and then come back and book the forward at the next break in play. That on its own would have changed things. They should have tried the advantage rule for a season first on its own and see what improvements it made.”
Pat: “The advantage rule is a good rule but I think as referees we should never go into a game thinking that we have this great tool in our box in the advantage rule. The change in the advantage rule is that this year you can call play back and give a free after a fella has a shot, whereas last year you couldn’t do that. I think referees should still go in with the mindset that you blow the free unless there’s a very clear advantage to be got. If you use it too often or if you go out relying on it, games can get out of control.”
Séamus: “You won’t know what people really think of the black card until the first weekend in August. When you get into Croke Park, the intensity goes up and the referees are that bit different to what they were in the provincial championships. You won’t know until then what way the black card is going.
“Will referees opt out of the big decision when it gets to that point of the season? Will they go with yellow cards when there’s so much on the line?
“Loads of games, referees are backing out of giving black cards by coming out with yellows. That’s a major problem. That’s a consistency problem and it’s happening in every game.”
Pat: “I believe we’ve issued black cards when there should have been yellow and yellow cards when there should have been black. I accept that has happened through the league in certain matches. But if you take the helicopter view, the big picture is that we’ve got a lot of them right. Yes, of course there is tidying up to be done. I accept that.
“But I wouldn’t accept that there’s more on one side than the other. I would say that’s incorrect. I don’t accept the argument that referees have copped out from giving the black card. There have been one or two incidents but when you consider the amount overall, you’re only looking at around four or five per cent of cases.”
Séamus: “The way I manage teams, I would look for a physical edge. There are loads of days when I would come away from a game and if we hadn’t picked up five or six yellow cards, then I would be saying to the lads that we weren’t physical enough. I’ll be honest about it – I want to see the game played physically.
“Fellas are afraid now to do it because it might not be a yellow card they see – it might be black. And that’s that, they’re off. I have no grá for managing again really if that’s what the sport is going to be. It’s not my style to coach athleticism above everything else.”
Pat: “In general, I’m very happy with how it has gone. I think the game is easier refereed now than it was before – when there’s no bodychecking in a football match, it’s much easier to referee. I think it’s a more enjoyable game to play in. And the National League would tell us that it has been quite good football. I think the championship will be just a follow on from this.”