Proponents of ‘black card’ change prove more persuasive
McGee delighted and relieved at reform vote
A view of the top table at GAA annual congress in Derry. Photograph: Lorcan Doherty/Inpho/Presseye
It was like the old post-match cliché. Saturday’s momentous debate at the GAA’s annual congress in Derry eventually went to the side that seemed to want it more. On a weekend, which saw a litany of important proposals debated, it was the recommendations of the Football Review Committee that occupied top billing.
Key to those was motion four: the introduction of the black card, requiring offending players to be substituted for the rest of the match, to punish specific cynical fouls: pulling down, tripping and deliberately colliding.
This centrepiece of the FRC platform had been seen – even by its proponents as late as Saturday morning – as being under pressure. But FRC chair Eugene McGee’s prediction on Friday night that the actual debate would be crucial proved accurate, as an exhausted but relieved McGee reiterated in the aftermath of a 71-29 per cent victory, comfortable over the required two-thirds majority.
“The debate was crucial. There were about 80 non-attached delegates but I was surprised at the margin. In theory great progress has been made but it has to be put into practice. In particular the referees have to get full-square behind it now and we’ll probably go and meet the referees now that this has been done.
“A lot of the changes are designed to make life for referees easier. The payback for them is that they’ll have to referee more consistently. Hopefully this will help a great deal. By the time this comes in next January everyone will know the three black-card offences; they’ll be obvious.
“Look this isn’t going to answer everything. People who are devious in the play in any sport will always come up with something new. But I wouldn’t put it in negative terms. This is a huge boost for the game and the image of the game.”
The most striking feature of the debate was its one-sidedness: passionate advocacy by the proponents of reform and diffident silence from opponents. McGee said he was surprised by this but paid tribute to Tim Healy and Paul Earley, who had made persuasive presentations, including a devastating ‘show-reel’ of cynical fouls, rugby tackles and trips.
“It was surprising. I thought they’d have a few lined up but I thought the presentation of the two lads was good. There must have been a lot of potential speakers, who began to get more and more embarrassed – anti guys; I mean what were they going to get up and say?”
The speaker count was 13-2 once Healy and Earley had proposed the motion.
Dublin chair Andy Kettle spoke in favour: “We’re not introducing new rules but new penalties for infringement of those rules,” he said, adding that his county had had no difficulty in separating the needs of football from hurling.
He was supported by Central Competitions Control Committee chair Tony O’Keeffe, Kildare’s Martin McEvoy, Tony Bass (European board), Pat Teehan (Offaly) and National Referees Committee chair Pat McEnaney.
GAA president Liam O’Neill intervened to ask for speakers in opposition. The only two to oblige were Cork’s Christy Ring, son of the legendary hurler, who said that pretending to have been fouled was the most cynical foul, and Tyrone chair Ciarán McLoughlin, who questioned how the black card could be administered by referees at levels other than senior, for instance under-14.
Peter O’Reilly (Longford) countered the argument that smaller units would be unfairly affected because of a lack of panel depth by saying that “small counties have a history of adapting to rules”.
Further support came from Paul Curran (Monaghan), who said: “Last week I was at a match which was an exhibition of cynical fouling. These proposals will result in a game that is much more positive.”
FRC member and Derry All-Ireland-winning corner back Tony Scullion made an emotional address and he was supported by Seán Walsh (Kerry) and former GAA president, Joe McDonagh (Galway).
It didn’t all go the FRC’s way and the clean pick-up and 30-metre penalty for obstructing frees were unsuccessful but the proposal to introduce the mark fell just agonisingly short of the two-thirds majority, winning the vote 65-35.
“I’m disappointed at the 30-metre one,” said McGee, “and I won’t be the only one: the referees wanted 50 and the public wanted a 14-yard free. But that can be revisited.”
Part two of the FRC’s task is to produce a report on championship structures but GAA president Liam O’Neill, thanking the members, said that they deserved a rest for the moment: “ They’ll have learned from this experience and they’ll take their time to come back with a well-researched proposal.”
According to GAA director general Páraic Duffy, the weekend had been: “The best congress (of his tenure) in terms of driving change. This was a terrific day for the association and I think it’s absolutely positive for Gaelic football, the opportunity for it to develop its full potential. People have nothing to fear from this. This is going to be a better game, better to play and better to watch.”
But Louth manager Aidan O’Rourke reacted on Twitter: “Black card carried. Victory for the meddlers & little to be ats who never coach. The game has been sanitised into a parody of itself.”