GAA Football

Kicking Out: Cynicism still pays in Gaelic football

More than six years on from Sean Cavanagh's famous drag down on Conor McManus in the 2013 All-Ireland SFC quarter-final, and despite the introduction of the black card, cynicism continues to pay in Gaelic football. Picture by Philip Walsh

IN last weekend’s Spanish Super Cup final, Madrid rivals Real and Atletico were locked at 0-0 and proving inseparable towards the end of extra-time.

Five minutes left, with bodies committed forward, a mistake by Real defender Dani Carvajal allowed Alvaro Morata to race clean through on the break for Atletico.

As soon as 21-year-old Federico Valverde got close enough, he launched himself and chopped Morata down 25 yards from goal.

It was a horrible, deliberate, cynical act. But Valverde was simply doing what any footballer would have.

Valverde was sent off. Real Madrid won the Super Cup on penalties. The young midfielder picked up the man-of-the-match award.

Atletico manager Diego Simeone even praised him afterwards, saying: “I told him [Valverde] that he did what he had to do at that moment. I think the prize for the best player makes perfect sense because Valverde won the game in this action.”

Simeone would be no stranger to it himself and simply remembered that the sporting world is a cynical place.

Such incidents are hardly a new phenomenon.

The red card punishment for a professional foul came into football mostly because 17-year-old Paul Allen, playing for Second Division side West Ham, was chopped down by Arsenal’s Willie Young with the fairytale winner at his mercy in the 1980 FA Cup final.

Preventing a goalscoring opportunity became a red card offence two years later, and has been a fairly successful deterrent in most cases ever since.

But no matter what form of punishment exists to combat such acts, there comes a time in any team sport when no individual sentence would outweigh the consequences.

Luis Suarez would still have palmed that Dominic Adiyiah header off the goal-line no matter if the punishment was execution at dawn. Winning will always take over.

We are no strangers to the concept in the GAA.

There was a largely negative reaction to Sunday’s All-Ireland club final, a lot of it surprise that three-in-a-row champions Corofin, for all their undoubted brilliance, could be as cynical as they were.

All great teams are the same. Dublin, the All Blacks, etc. They all know how to see a game out.

Neither side was angelic over 90 strangely compelling minutes. The last 10 minutes, Corofin did what all great teams do. They bent the rules and pulled every trick in the book to stunt the Ulster champions’ momentum.

In the end, they were punished. Not by any amount of black cards, not by Mike Farragher’s red card, but by Conor Lane’s decision to draw the final Kilcoo free in by almost 30 metres, setting it in front of goal.

The move won’t be found in any rule book and yet it seemed like the appropriate punishment for the way in which the Galway men went about trying to kill the game.

Perhaps that single decision highlighted the need for more to be done in order to combat cynicism. Had Conor Lane not done it, Kilcoo probably wouldn’t have found their equaliser.

In soccer, the professional foul rule has worked fairly well, but some would argue it doesn’t go far enough.

Indeed, FIFA recently took a step down on their red card policy by downgrading some last-man tackles inside the penalty area as the double jeopardy punishment of red card and penalty kick was deemed too harsh.

Rugby’s rulebook goes the furthest. Where a score looks almost certain and is stopped by deliberately foul means, the penalty try and sin bin double whammy is a monstrous deterrent.

Given that on average, a team concedes 7-10 points in rugby when they have a man in the bin, players have no choice but to think twice. What they face is the definition of a deterrent.

The GAA has taken a step forward this winter. The change to the black card punishment, which now carries the same 10-minute binning as for yellow in rugby, will prove to be a real positive.

Given that so much of the badness happens in the final 10 minutes of a game, it effectively becomes a red card in that time. Watch the number of late black cards tumble this year.

Attempts to eat into that time are being pre-empted by rules going to Congress that will see players forced off the pitch until the next break in play if they receive physio treatment.

That will make players cautious of feigning a head injury to get the game stopped, as is commonplace.

Yet part of the issue is that a lot of the cynicism we see still doesn’t fall under the black card’s strict headings. The GAA needs to review its wording and allow referees a bit more leeway in their interpretation of fouls.

How often do you see a forward held going through on goal, but there can’t be a black card given because he was pulled back rather than down? Our rules on it are too prescriptive.

Do we go the way of rugby and award a penalty and a black card for a professional foul that prevents a goal chance? It may seem like too great a punishment, but the idea should be to deter as much as to punish.

Ultimately, just as the red card didn’t stop Valverde or Young or Suarez, very little would have stopped Sean Cavanagh ripping down Conor McManus that famous day in Croke Park.

And if you want to properly punish cynical play, you have to start from that worst-case scenario for a defender - a late match-winning chance, the moment when winning steps above the punishment in a player’s mind.

You decide what punishment would actually have deterred Cavanagh from making that foul, and go backwards from there with your rule.

It has to be draconian or else it doesn’t work. And so we probably are looking at a black card plus a penalty kick on a goalscoring chance, and a 20-metre free on anything further out the pitch.

Because as Sunday proved, unless you have referees making up their own rules to solve it, cynicism still pays in Gaelic football.

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