Unable to keep my counsel on black card debate

Driving home from work on Friday evening, I decided to call into my mechanic and GAA counsellor, Francie John O’Kane.

Apart from the fact I owed him some money, there was another reason I wanted to talk to him. After ringing round the nine counties of Ulster earlier in the week, I learned Tyrone, Down, Antrim and Fermanagh are set to vote against the bulk of the FRC’s proposals at this weekend’s Annual Congress. All four counties are against the black card, the mark, and bringing the ball forward by 30 yards. The news left me slightly dejected. I was also totally mystified.

While I knew the Tyrone board would take their direction from Mickey Harte, the verdict of the others baffled me. I couldn’t understand it. Why would county board officials be opposed to rules which have the potential to reap so many rewards? And that’s why I needed to talk to Francie John. I reckoned he could give me an insight into the mindset of the men making these decisions. After all, he is usually opposed to most things.

When I arrived at the house outside Castledawson, it was the usual scene. Work done for the day, Francie John was at the table in the kitchen. His daughter, Claire (goalkeeper of the Derry camogie team), was stationed at the kettle. Francie’s wife, Nuala was also there. “Isn’t it great the Pope has called himself after Francie?” she said, beaming.

And so it began. The conversation turned to what it always turns to with Francie John — football.

“What about these counties voting against the new rules?” I asked. Expecting to gain some clarity on the matter, I was shocked to learn that Francie John was in the same boat as myself. While I might have been a bit depressed about the situation, Francie John doesn’t do depression. He does angry and does it well. One of his trademark diatribes (with a generous sprinkling of expletives) followed. Suffice to say, he wasn’t happy.

But Francie John’s stance only left me more confused. Here is a man who is grassroots GAA to the bone. He grew up in an era when Gaelic football was brutal rather than cynical.

He saw the late Eamonn Coleman, “a hardy boy”, getting floored with a punch in the face, but getting up and going back for more. But that was then, and this is now. Today, we’ve got more sophisticated. Nowadays, players spit on each other. They goad, and whisper and taunt.

Punching is virtually a thing of the past. It’s too obvious. The punishment is too severe and because no manager wants to lose a man, it doesn’t really happen. Unfortunately, no similar deterrent exists for deliberately stopping a player running. In most cases, this type of foul only results in a free-kick. At worst, it’s a yellow card, and by this stage we all know how utterly ineffective they are.

As the most vocal and outspoken critic of the black card, Mickey Harte had repeatedly outlined his opposition. But the Tyrone manager is on dangerous ground. On Saturday night, while defending their lead, four Tyrone players were booked for deliberate fouls which stopped Dublin’s momentum. It was like watching a propaganda video for the black card. Afterwards, Mickey Harte reiterated his opposition to the new motion: “I do believe that referees have a yellow card to deal with the deliberate personal foul and I think that would suffice.”

Dublin supporters might disagree. What benefit did their team gain from the yellows? Anyone who has watched their team being systemically fouled out of a game would also disagree. By defending the status quo, some people have already drawn the conclusion the Tyrone manager is in favour of the current rules because they don’t punish tactical fouling.

This is extremely misleading and unfair because it could lead to a situation where referees make an example of Tyrone. But let’s not forget, Tyrone have also suffered under the current rules. At the weekend, Mickey said he has never heard of one example where a team went out and deliberately fouled.

I’ll provide him with one. When Derry beat Tyrone in the first round of the Ulster Championship in 2006, a blind man could see what the Oak Leafers were doing. Hell-bent on stopping Tyrone’s running game, Derry fouled the Red Hands from start to finish. Had a ‘black card’ existed the outcome may have been different.

Also, the targeted fouling of Sean Cavanagh during his career has been scandalous. He is probably the most fouled player of the past decade. More often than not, offenders escape with a yellow card. Think what would happen if the fear of a black card eradicated those fouls and he got to make those runs?

But Tyrone have decided the ‘black card’ isn’t for them. They’re also against ‘the mark’ and the 30-yard advantage.

As a manager, Harte has never gone for high-fielding specialists. He prefers all-rounders like Collie Holmes, Enda McGinley and Kevin Hughes. Naturally, Tyrone will be opposed to any rule that rewards high fielding. But before voting at Congress, each county should look at their players. For Cork (Aidan Walsh), Mayo (Aidan O’Shea), Donegal (Neil Gallagher) and Carlow (Brendan Murphy) to vote against the mark is just plain stupid.

Ultimately, delegates need to look at the game now and decide if they’re happy with it. Is it right that a team can concede umpteen free-kicks and receive nine yellows, but still finish the match with 15 players? Is it right that a team trying to mount a comeback can be fouled repeatedly? Is it right that a midfielder who takes a clean catch is penalised for overcarrying after being swarmed by three players when he lands?

That is the game we have at present. Riddled with cynicism, our rules are rewarding the pullers and draggers.

A picture taken during the 1958 All-Ireland final hangs in the room, it shows Jim McKeever catching a 45 in the Derry goalmouth. With his body arched behind a Dublin opponent, the photo reveals the athleticism, grace and skill of a top-class footballer. But what would happen to a player if he took that catch in Croke Park today? No doubt, he’d be dragged to the ground as the opposition ensured he didn’t instigate a counter-attack.

That’s the modern game. And that’s how it will continue unless there are changes at Congress in Derry. Sadly, I fear the worst and suspect another visit to my GAA counsellor in Castledawson will soon be required.

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