True Gael will always find a way to deepen his winter of discontent

In GAA world of extremes black card can’t just be an irritant. It has to be blight on game

Mayo’s Lee Keegan is black carded by referee Maurice Deegan in the All-Ireland football final replay. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

Mayo’s Lee Keegan is black carded by referee Maurice Deegan in the All-Ireland football final replay. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho

 

And so to winter talk, as treasured a birthright of the put-upon Gael as parking on the green of a nearby housing estate on county final day and playing dumb with the Gardaí afterwards. Into the news vacuum created by competing forces – on one side complaining that the intercounty season is too long, on the other fidgeting irritably until the McKenna Cup or whatever starts again – is sucked all the space junk that was just floating around for the summer waiting to be noticed. We are what we repeatedly do, said Aristotle – himself a noted opponent of the black card.

Ever notice how it doesn’t happen so much with other sports? The rugby and soccer seasons broadly finish up around the same time at the end of May and then as soon as whatever summer tour or tournament is done, everybody involved happily and contentedly yawns, stretches and heads to bed for a couple of months. This is anathema to the Gael and forms a crucial plank of the pity/disdain held by said Gael for those poor unfortunates born to different codes.

Still, it’s hard not to feel there is much to be learned from their example. In soccer, they actually instituted a list of rule changes as long as your arm BETWEEN the end of the season and the start of the Euros/Copa America this year.

That’s why you saw one player taking the kick-off rather than two. It’s why a player who’d been thunked two feet up in the air by an opponent didn’t have to leave the pitch for treatment as long as his thunker got a yellow card.

In rugby, there are rule changes all the time. There are changes of emphasis within existing rules more or less every season. But nobody – nobody – spends a single minute of June, July or August talking about them.

Thick and heavy

Yet here we are, the whistle barely dropped from Maurice Deegan’s lips and already it’s coming in thick and heavy as fog on a moor. The various draw for next summer take place tomorrow night and RTÉ are wrapping a 90-minute show around it. That’s 90 [ninety], as the BBC vidiprinter might have it. To rob an old Doug Stanhope joke, putting on a 90-minute championship draw is like leading troops into battle – they’re not all going to be still with you at the end.

Chief among the winter talk bonnet bees is, of course, the black card. Only in the GAA could we watch two of the most compelling finals for a decade in the space of a fortnight and then roundly agree afterwards that a disciplinary measure designed to release the game from its cynical shackles is actually destroying it.

Second Captains

But that’s our sport. It exists in a world of extremes. Hence, the black card can’t just be an irritant. It has to be a blight on the game and therefore it has to go. The Sunday Game lads say so. Columnists up and down the land – this parish included – don’t agree on much but they’re of one belief when it comes to this. Scrap it, kill it, bin it.

Problem is, it just doesn’t ring true. Not to these eyes, anyway. At a rough estimate, I’ve been to 40 intercounty games since the start of January. I’ve seen games ruined by the weather, by bad referees, by brutal pitches, by blanket defences, by wonky shooting, by thuggish defending, by hapless sidelines and one by a cold I couldn’t shake. I didn’t see one that was ruined by a black card.

I saw games that changed on the back of black cards that were given in error but that’s a different thing. I saw games that changed on the back of penalties that were given in error too but nobody’s calling for them to be scrapped. Since the dawn of time, there have been sendings-off that shouldn’t have been dished out. It happens. The game survived. The Republic did not fall.

It’s no harm sometimes to remind ourselves of the reason it was brought in in the first place. Contrary to popular myth, the black card did not come in because Seán Cavanagh rugby tackled Conor McManus in 2013. It had already been voted in by Congress at that stage and was set to be introduced at the start of 2014. The football public had tired of the rampant cynicism that was the lingua franca of the game and this was their effort to change the culture.

That’s the key point. It wasn’t because of one rugby tackle, it was because of loads of rugby tackles. It wasn’t because of isolated incidents, it was because of the accepted norms in the game when it came to constant body-checking throughout matches and time-buying fouls late on in them. But the tenor of the arguments to get rid of the black card make it sound like it was brought in through petty meddling designed to annoy players and managers.

Early objections

Remember the early objections? The black card would, at a stroke, take the physicality out of football. If that happened initially as players felt around to work out where their boundaries lay, not even the most virulent black card hater would say there’s any deficit of physicality in the game now.

These days, the biggest trump card held against it is the fact that it is too hard to police when the punishment is removing players from big games that they’ve trained all their life for. Robbie Kiely, James McCarthy and Lee Keegan all walked on black cards that were debatable during the All-Ireland series.

Whatever about McCarthy, the other two stopped genuine goalscoring chances developing but nonetheless they were tight calls and it was tough on them all to end their day as a result.

Thin justification

But again, this seems like pretty thin justification for getting rid of a measure that was introduced to benefit the game as a whole. We are living in an age with the heaviest scoring there has ever been in the history of the game. For the fourth summer in a row, the scoring average across the championship was higher than at any time in the 1980s, 1990s or 2000s.

Football is about more than scoring, yes. And other measures have contributed – the advantage rule and proper stoppage time chief among them. But by any metric you wish to use, it’s clear there is less obviously cynical play now in the game than there was before the black card.

Winter talk won’t leave it be though. More’s the pity.

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