How the GAA's disciplinary system avoided controversy in 2016

It was the end of the world as we knew it. That’s what we were told, anyway. That the reprieve offered to Diarmuid Connolly by two of the three men sitting on the Disputes Resolution Authority (DRA) panel had taken a match to the GAA’s disciplinary system.

How the GAA's disciplinary system avoided controversy in 2016

Never mind that the decision to free Connolly up to play in the 2015 All-Ireland semi-final replay was tenuous and strongly questioned by one of the DRA members Brian Rennick, the simple fact the Dublin forward’s suspension was quashed was regarded in some quarters as a hefty blow for the association.

Meath’s Joe Sheridan tweeted that the GAA “really need to look at themselves after overturning that decision”, although it was the independent DRA that had done so. When the full report was published, one media outlet claimed it “could also help cure insomnia”. When such ignorance was encouraged, there was always going to be misunderstanding of the situation.

That decision and the one made by the Central Hearings Committee (CHC) to clear Mayo defender Kevin Keane to play in the 2015 drawn game with Dublin weren’t enough to convince GAA director general Páraic Duffy that there was anything inherently wrong with the way the organisation doled out disciplinary measures.

“For my part, I do not believe that there is any fundamental weakness in our disciplinary structures,” he wrote in his annual report 12 months ago.

“I may have been surprised by the decisions announced in the specific cases mentioned, just as I have often been surprised, as we all have been, by decisions made by disciplinary bodies outside of the GAA, and even by the courts. But we are surprised in these cases only because we are not privy to the debate or to considerations taken into account in reaching a decision. And, sometimes, too, decision-makers, as fallible human beings, will just get it wrong.”

The most telling line in that sentence was the last one. And going by a largely quiet 2016 season on the disciplinary front, Duffy has been proven right, although there is still a question mark over the GAA’s ability to make a punishment stick at the tailend of the championship.

Obviously, there were those who chanced their arm in the wake of the Connolly case. It was on that precedent that Ballyboden St Enda’s thought they could get Declan O’Mahony off the red card that prevented him lining out in the All-Ireland club final, but the DRA found the Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC), the CHC and the Central Appeals Committee had dotted all their Is and crossed their Ts.

As DRA secretary Jack Anderson wrote in this newspaper last summer about the four early 2016 cases that sought to overturn player suspensions: “The reason for these rejected appeals is the rule book ‘loophole’ found by the DRA Tribunal in Connolly has since been closed, which in many ways is the point of the system.”

However, he warned: “That being said, and writing in a personal capacity, I think the nature of the GAA’s championships and the complexity of its disciplinary system does leave it vulnerable to appeals and unnecessary off-field dramas.”

It helped that the GAA disciplinary bodies made no trouble for themselves last year. There was no repeat of the Keane case or the preposterous attempt by the CCCC to make an example of Tyrone defender Tiernan McCann with an eight-week ban, which was rightly thrown out by the CHC.

In total, we received eight emails citing 15 decisions taken by the CHC in 2016. Reported infractions were downgraded to lesser ones on three occasions but in the majority of cases, penalties proposed by the CCCC but questioned by claimants were upheld, which should serve as a strong endorsement of referees.

The fact that no black cards were contested last year obviously had an impact, largely because of a rule introduced at Congress 11 months ago stipulating they can only be queried when a proposed suspension is forthcoming. It was sold as a time-saving exercise for the CCCC, but in truth it has been more about saving face for referees. Carlow’s Brendan Murphy was among three players to be suspended on a cumulative black card basis. As Jonny Cooper hasn’t queried his one-match ban, he will sit out Dublin’s Division 1 opener against Cavan as he picked up his third black card in 2016 in the All-Ireland final replay.

The legitimacy of the black card has been strengthened by such a measure even if referees’ administration of it — particularly towards the end of last year’s championship — has been a hot topic in recent months. No doubt there will be more black cards shown when the Allianz League recommences as Croke Park, in their quest for consistency, appear to be more concerned about the cynical fouls not being picked up (John Small) than the borderline ones that are (Robbie Kiely).

Football referees, in that sphere, will continue to bake under the spotlight, but 2016 was one year when they weren’t undermined by the GAA’s disciplinary committees. In fact, they were almost emboldened by them. It makes for a refreshing change.

CPA can’t be too ambitious

It was quite the cast Club Players Association (CPA) secretary Declan Brennan put together at the top table in Ballyboden St Enda’s clubhouse hall yesterday morning. Knowing the bona fides of several of the men, they are certain to make a positive impression in the coming months.

That being said, the CPA have to be careful on a couple of issues. One of the aspirations is to improve the inter-county scene and by enriching the club teams that provide the elite players, they can do that.

However, the idea put forward by Brennan that the All-Ireland finals could take place on the August Bank Holiday “at least” would be detrimental to the profile of football and hurling, from a viewing perspective.

Next month’s motion to bring forward the All-Ireland final to the end of August, as originally suggested by Cork’s Derek Kavanagh back in 2012, is a sensible one but to cut the inter-county season even further would truly diminish the GAA’s impression on the sports calendar.

It was also mentioned by at least two CPA figures that the club game, providing it was given the space, time, and billing, could be as attractive and almost as lucrative as inter-county.

Without the numbers that follow counties, that will never happen.

It’s by being realistic that the CPA will be relevant. For the most part, they are just that but they may need a reminder from time to time.

New rule won’t leave lasting mark

Managers are by nature negative to most playing rule changes. Just go back over any of the times experimental rules were introduced in pre-season competitions or the national leagues and that is obvious. Naysayers they most certainly were, and continue to be.

So their indifference and opposition to the mark’s first full weekend as a permanent fixture in Gaelic football shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise. All the same, what was notable was just how many of them feel it will offer little to the game. Even at this early stage, it can be stated the mark, in its present form, is no addition to Gaelic football but merely an opportunity to time-waste.

Those who have defended its introduction point out it caused minimal fuss as an experimental rule back in 2010. But that’s precisely the point — it made so small an impression, that former Cork midfielder Pearse O’Neill, talking to this newspaper on Saturday, couldn’t even remember it.

DCU manager Niall Moyna on Sunday called it “a bit of a pain in the ass”. An ash-tray on the back of a motorbike might be a more appropriate description. As long as goalkeepers are permitted to kick short, it will have a negligible impact on the game.

Email: john.fogarty@examiner.ie

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