KIERAN SHANNON: How can black card issue be an experiment if it’s already in rule?

Steel yourself: it’s coming very soon to a field and a radio and paper near you.

Not only will you have managers condemning the black card, but you’ll have commentators condemning managers for condemning the black card.

It’s invariably how GAA Januarys go. Some new rules are brought in and as referees raise their arms to raise cards, managers are up in arms as well. We had it with the sin-bin in 2005; the same again in 2009 when players were replaced after a yellow card; the mark in 2010. Before the rules were even given a chance, the managers were giving them the red card.

There’s one major difference this year. Previously those were only experimental rules. The black card is not serving a trial period. It is in rule. It will be there in the championship – this year’s championship. It will be there for every club game.

Virtually all other playing rule changes in football have been tried out beforehand. For instance, the past two championships an attacking player has been able to enter the square before the ball arrives in there. There were fears this would lead to mayhem around the square, giant full forwards camped in there, goalies and full backs being bundled into the net. But it didn’t happen and was always unlikely to happen because the league of 2010 which experimented with such a rule showed it wouldn’t.

You would think something of the magnitude of the black card would have been tried out before it became a rule in championship. Maybe in Sigerson, U21, a league, or in everything for least one full calendar year – before it was imposed on virtually every grade in every competition, for possibly ever.

Of course it’s welcome that cynical fouling in football is finally being taken seriously. This column has been writing about it constantly for 15 years. But is the black card the most effective way of doing so? We don’t know. We don’t know enough.

And for something that will be in place in this year’s All-Ireland final and your local county final, is that good enough? That’s why this column won’t be so dismissive of managerial criticisms this time. In the past too many of them weren’t even prepared to give an experiment a chance. A certain group-think took over among them.

But this time we’ve to be watchful that a group-think doesn’t overtake GAA commentary. The FRC’s proposal was for the right reasons. There would be a wide regard in the media for its chairman Eugene McGee. But in their respect for McGee and their desire to see cynical foul tackled, has the GAA media been too eager and premature in acclaiming the black card’s success at Congress?

No doubt some of the managerial outrages in the coming weeks will be biased and short-sighted. But some concerns will be valid. The fact the black card has never been experimented with before means this is the biggest experiment and gamble of all. It could well work. It could trigger chaos, then everyone adjusts and everything settles, and it will work out fine. It could prove too cumbersome to officiate or administer at club level. We don’t know. No one should quibble with most of the behaviours that will be punished by a black card, especially the deliberate trip and the deliberate pull down. But the ‘deliberate body collision’ is going to be a very grey area and very difficult to monitor. We’d have made it a yellow-card offence only. Now some players will charge into other players off the ball and fall down to try to have their opponent black-carded for supposedly body-checking off the ball. In other words, some managers and players will cynically exploit the FRC’s desire to address cynical play.

Some body collisions will be innocuous enough – even a couple of clips showcased on video at Congress to advance the FRC’s case did not appear deliberate in these eyes. Referees are going to have to be extremely judicious on this one. With the speed players are travelling at these days, some collisions are going to look worse and meaner than what they actually are.

We can see some sporting players missing an All Ireland semi-final or final by virtue of picking up three black cards over a season. Take the speed and the aggression wing backs like James McCarthy, Karl Lacey and Lee Keegan play at. Their teams could very likely play eight or nine games in the league and another five in the championship before September. If they were to be on the wrong side of a dodgy body collision call, they can only incur one more black card in their remaining 14 games. Big difference between committing three black cards in five games and three in 15.

It could well be some teams will gladly take a couple of black cards in the closing minutes, further institutionalising and normalising such fouls. A player won’t mind missing the last 10 minutes of a game if it means his team is even more likely to win. He’ll even relish the martyrdom of taking one for the team.

Fifteen months ago this column advocated that such deliberate fouls should also be punished on the scoreboard by what I termed an orangeball. Last week on Setanta Sport’s review of the football year, Darragh Ó Sé advocated something similar. Take Kevin McMenamin deliberately hauling down Lee Keegan late on in this year’s All Ireland final. In 2014 McMenamin would most likely commit the same foul again with just minutes to go, even if it meant his team reduced to 14 men. But if the clock stopped, an orange ball was brought to a mark 25 metres out from goal, Cillian O’Connor put it over the bar and the clock resumed with a Mayo free from where Keegan was fouled, he’d be less inclined to commit that foul.

Or take Sean Cavanagh’s infamous foul on Conor McManus. The clock stops, the orange ball comes out, a Monaghan man slots it over from the 25m mark – that’s one point. Then play resumes from where the foul was committed – a 20m free in front of the posts– that’s two points. All Cavanagh has saved his team by denying the goal is a single point – and as an individual he’ll either have to leave the field or at least be severely restricted on it.

The orange ball would have been at least worth trying out. So was the black card. Let the great permanent experiment begin – and all the fun and mayhem that comes with it.


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