Referees given the tools to mark a players card
Having a plan of action got motion over the line
By last Friday night members of the Football Review Committee were downbeat. It wouldn’t be accurate to say that they’d thrown in the towel but the sense around the City Hotel in Derry was that securing acceptance for the motion on black cards, the main plank in the platform to improve football, would be difficult.
Even the following morning FRC chair Eugene McGee compared the task to the 1982 All-Ireland final when he managed Offaly to thwart Kerry’s heavily-backed five-in-a-row ambitions with a late goal.
McGee had, however, accurately identified one vital influence on the outcome, the debate. Although all of Munster except Kerry and six counties in Ulster (only Cavan, Monaghan and Derry supported) were opposed to the black card, that total came to no more than 100.
This effectively meant that the reformers could afford no more slippage but if they could get virtually everything else, including non-county and overseas delegates, they could achieve the necessary two-thirds.
Officials remained buoyant about the prospects, however, feeling that the technology of hand-held voting devices would make it easier for delegates to vote according to conscience although evidence that mandates were broken is hard to stack up given that the numbers are still reconcilable with declared intentions.
A decision on the presentation of the case was, however, significant. McGee would step aside to allow Paul Earley and Tim Healy to propose the FRC motions.
It was feared that McGee’s brusque and combative style mightn’t work as well with the delegates. One delegate went as far as to say privately that he was convinced the proposals would fail if McGee made the presentation.
As chair of the committee McGee had been intensely wrapped up in the prospects of the proposals and accepted that he had found the whole process exhausting.
A veteran of the Football Development Committee, whose recommendations had crashed and burned at the 2000 congress, he was aware of and worried about the difficulties in getting support for radical proposals.
He took advice and stepped aside. In the conference centre Healy and Early proposed the black card and ran a video, illustrating the three aggressive fouls that would earn it. There was obvious reaction to the blatant nature of the infractions and the speeches that followed began to unpick likely opposition arguments.
Dublin and Offaly, as dual counties, said that there was a clear distinction between the games and emphasised that this was an issue for football. Kerry’s Tony O’Keeffe, chair of the Croke Park CCC, raised the memory of similar proposals, which had fallen short, four years previously and hammered home the message that the game hasn’t got any better in the meantime.
A hugely significant input came from Pat McEnaney, chair of the National Referees Committee, who asked simply that delegates give the tools to deal with these fouls to match officials.
With the speeches all in one direction, there was an intervention from the GAA president Liam O’Neill, asking for those opposed to the motion to speak. This had the effect of highlighting the lack of delegates willing to counter the arguments being made.
In the aftermath there were mixed views on Tony Scullion’s contribution. The Derry All-Ireland winner and All Star corner back had been very wound up and when his microphone failed and had to be replaced, he became a bit flustered but ploughed on. There was a high-voltage sincerity to his speech but it wasn’t exactly forensic.
What wasn’t widely known at that stage was that Scullion had previously delivered an immensely effective talk to overseas delegates in a less formal seminar setting, which is credited with making a big impact on a constituency that was up for grabs.
Neither of the dissenting speeches gained much traction in that both Christy Ring from Cork and Tyrone’s Ciarán McLaughlin focused on different arguments rather than contest the central arguments that cynical fouls were ruining football and that the black card deserved an opportunity to deal with it.
In answer to McLaughlin’s query as to how the cards would work at under-14 level, former president Joe McDonagh said that the association had no need to worry because if such fouls began to occur in that age group no children would – nor would they be let by their parents – play the game.
Aside from skewering the argument, McDonagh’s status as a former All-Ireland hurling captain, was seen to be a significant reassurance to the small-ball community.
In the end though, the process had proved a vindication of president Liam O’Neill’s decision to appoint the FRC and McGee’s focus on providing achievable targets for its work.