Tony Scullion doesn’t hold cynical play against players – it’s the rules that are to blame

Passionate black card advocate admits he’d be cynical too if he was still playing football

Stephen O’Neill is shown a red card after a second yellow against Meath. The cynicism on show last weekend was probably no worse than at any other stage of the championship. Photograph: Inpho

Stephen O’Neill is shown a red card after a second yellow against Meath. The cynicism on show last weekend was probably no worse than at any other stage of the championship. Photograph: Inpho


As a defender in a Derry jersey, the last thing Tony Scullion ever pulled out of was a tough challenge. As a member of the Football Review Committee, his contribution from the Congress floor back in March stood out for its passion in the midst of a black card debate that was coming down to forensics and nit-picking. At one point, his microphone stopped working but he continued with his exhortations, undaunted.

A coaching development officer for the Ulster Council, the way the game is played matters to him and he can’t pretend otherwise. So as he has sat down and watched the games roll by this summer, he’s become more and more convinced that they work the FRC did last winter will ultimately prove worthwhile. Football is as cynical as ever but he doesn’t hold it against the players or the managers involved. Instead, it’s the lack of proper sanction in the rules that has made the game what it is.

Stand-out examples
Last weekend brought a few stand-out examples of the worst of the worst. Near the end of Tyrone’s win over Meath, Seán Cavanagh and Stephen O’Neill picked up yellow cards – Cavanagh for a rugby tackle, O’Neill for one around the neck. There was no particular malice in either one but they were deliberate and they looked bad in players of their outsized talent. Still, Scullion holds no brief against them. They’re just products of a game that forces them into it.

“Seán Cavanagh and Stephen O’Neill got the late cards last week but if you were their manager and they didn’t make those tackles, you’d be very annoyed” he says. “That was the proper thing to do at the proper time. That isn’t a Tyrone thing, it happens with every county. It was highlighted last week because it was on television but it happens in every club ground and county ground in Ireland.

“I would say they’re right to do it because the rulebook allows them to. The most important thing at the end of the day is to win. Whatever it takes to win within the rules, you’ll do it. So I would say fair play to those men because they’re only playing the rulebook as it exists. But when it comes to next year with the black card, they will have to think twice. No team will want to lose their best players and no player will want to spend the game on the sideline.”

The cynicism on show last weekend was probably no worse than at any other stage of the championship but the fact that it was in Croke Park and the fact that Tyrone were involved meant it stood out. Mickey Harte was highly irritated when it came up in the press conference afterwards, pointing out – not unreasonably – that they’d been as sinned against as sinning. Just maybe not as blatantly and not when the game was winding down to its end.

“We had players pulled down in a similar fashion at other times in the game when the momentum was with us,” said Harte. “So I mean we can’t just be looking at this last little bit of the game and saying that’s cynical, that’s not. It happened during the game. Both sides were guilty of it from time to time. So what?”

Scullion has a certain degree of sympathy for Harte on this one. The FRC was never set up to target one county or one province or even just the intercounty side of the sport at all. Drag-down tackling and deliberate tripping happens in club games and school games at all levels and the idea behind the black card was to bring in a sanction because the existing one isn’t fit for purpose. From next January, things will change. That’s the idea, anyway.

“Some of the comments after last week’s games have been overboard,” says Scullion, “and I don’t entirely agree with them. Because these players are only playing within the rules of the game as they are now. There is a rulebook there and if I was still playing myself, I would have no problem committing a foul if I felt it was going to help my team to win. Any player that wouldn’t take a yellow card for their team is not playing as a team member. It’s as simple as that.

“People might say that it is coached. It doesn’t have to be coached, especially at county level. If a player is playing at county level and he has the ability and the smartness to play at that level, you know when it’s the time to foul and when it’s not the time to foul. You know when to take the yellow card and when not to take it.

“The problem is that you can pick up yellow cards to your heart’s content without it affecting your team. Any team can pick up 20 yellow cards on any given day and still be playing within the rules.

“The black card is a different sanction. It puts players off the field and after three black cards, players can’t be replaced. That will help the game because it will make for better defensive play, it will make for better tackling. Players will have to time their tackles properly and be coached as better tacklers.”