No future for the black card in its current guise
IT was only last month former inter-county referee Pat McEnaney was praising the overall performances of referees in the various provincial Championships.
The application of the black card, he felt, was finding greater consistency than in previous years but it needed to be better applied if it was to survive beyond the current season.
“We need to get better at it,” insisted the Monaghan man.
“And I think we have got a bit better at it. It hasn't been bad this year but it still needs to get more consistent.”
The fact that McEnaney is no longer part of the Referees Association allows him to speak with a bit more freedom.
“It's to do with consistency, but some of our referees got them wrong last year when you had spectators knowing it was a black card, commentators knowing it was a black card, co-commentators knowing it was a black card – and we go and do something different.
“At the moment we're going okay.”
But McEnaney's cautious praise came with a stark warning. He knew it only takes a few more black card controversies for it to unravel.
“If we don't improve the black card by 60 or 70 per cent from last year, then I think it should be reviewed,” he said.
Referees may have made a decent start to the Championship this year but when the stakes are starting to get higher that's when the scrutiny really comes.
And as the Championship progresses the margin for error is slim for the issuing of black cards.
Judging by the last couple of weekends it looks like McEnaney's target of “60 or 70 per cent” improvement is outlandishly optimistic.
Down's Kevin McKernan received a controversial black card after 40 minutes of this month's Ulster final following a brush with Sean Cavanagh.
In the same game, Kieran McGeary was banished after a decidedly untidy challenge on Down's Gerard McGovern.
Last weekend, Michael Murphy was harshly black-carded for a challenge on Galway's Shane Walsh.
Worse still, Jamie Clarke was gone after 10 seconds in Armagh's All-Ireland Qualifier win over Westmeath a few weeks back.
Now, we can debate the merits of each black card and we might reach the conclusion that McKernan and Murphy have our sympathy more than Clarke or McGeary.
But one of the biggest problems with the black card is that it is ignorant of context.
In its strictest application, Clarke probably deserved a black card but is it right that a player misses virtually the entire game for an insignificant body check in the middle of the field?
While supporters of the black card argue that the dismissed player can be replaced, it kind of ignores the injustice visited on the individual player.
That's where the black card is falling down.
There has to be greater consideration given over to the player rather than the team not losing a man.
In last year's Ulster final Mattie Donnelly and Cathal McShane's afternoons were ruined by dubious black card decisions.
Ulster finals don't come around that often.
You could easily lip-read what Kevin McKernan thought of Joe McQuillan's decision to black card him in the Ulster final earlier this month.
When these players look back on their careers all they will remember is the injustice of the day.
In a recent interview with former Antrim dual player Kieran McGourty, he made the point that the black card favours the teams with greater depth.
He cited Johnny Cooper's black card dismissal in last year's All-Ireland final against Mayo to illustrate the unfair advantage of the ruling.
“As it turned out Ciaran Kilkenny moved to wing half-back [after Cooper's black card] and Cormac Costello came on and scored three or four points.
“So Dublin didn't lose out. [Bernard] Brogan didn't start that day; neither did Eoghan O'Gara. So there's no real punishment for Dublin.”
But when Down lose Kevin McKernan and Armagh lose Jamie Clarke and Donegal lose Michael Murphy, they are unable to replace them like with like as perhaps Dublin, Tyrone or Kerry can.
Put simply, the black card in its current guise is too robotic to be a success.
Many of these black card offences are committed in the middle of the field or on the periphery of the game.
If Jamie Clarke's Westmeath opponent was bearing down on goal and ready to shoot then the Armagh forward deserves to be sidelined.
But his sin was an ill-timed shoulder charge in the middle of the field that prevented his man from making a supporting run.
Had Clarke pulled his opponent's jersey he would have received a yellow card and stayed on the field.
Michael Murphy tried to put in a tackle on Galway's Shane Walsh in Galway's half of the field.
The result? A ludicrous black card.
The black card in too many instances simply makes no sense.
If it is to survive, which must be doubtful, the GAA needs to take a leaf out of soccer's book and consider where the offence takes place rather than focussing on the actual sin itself.
There is some merit to the black card insofar as the third man tackle has been greatly reduced.
Rather than the GAA's rule-makers committing itself to dogma, the good parts of the black card should be like an a la carte menu: you take the bits you like and ignore the rest.
Alternatively, the GAA could remove this unwanted layer of on-field bureaucracy that referees find almost impossible to administer and go back to the old yellow and red card system and apply it with the vigour it was intended.