GAA Football

Brendan Crossan: For everyone's sake, let's bin the black card

Cargin's John Carron is shown a black card by referee Pádraig Hughes in last Sunday's Ulster quarter-final

THERE was a familiar refrain among press reporters in Healy Park last Sunday afternoon when Killyclogher and Cargin faced off against one another.

‘That’s a black card, ref'. This is what we hear ourselves saying to one another each and every time we congregate in press boxes across the province.

Last Sunday, I counted three times in the first half where reporters shouted: ‘That’s a black card, ref.’ It’s not that we want to see players banished to the sidelines for innocuous trips or body-checks. But rules are rules, right?

In the 25th minute, Cargin’s Kieran Close blocked the forward run of Killyclogher defender Gabhan Sludden. It was off the ball beside the press box and under the nose of the linesman.

It wasn’t in any way nasty or spiteful, but it was still one player blocking another player’s run. Nothing against Close - but the press box howled: ‘Black card, ref.’

We’re actually fed up listening to ourselves and watching these glaring inconsistencies unfold in every single game that is played. During the next break in play, referee Pádraig Hughes called Close over and issued a yellow card.

Hughes was in an unenviable position which refs find themselves in at least four or five times per game. Does he issue a black card for blocking the player’s run or does he go for the easy option and issue a yellow card?

Timing, you see, is everything in Gaelic football. The earlier in the game you commit a black card offence, the more chance there is of the referee showing you a yellow. It’s one of those unwritten rules.

And who could blame the ref for keeping the black card in his pocket? Imagine what the remainder of the game would be like for him. Last Sunday, the first-half still had five minutes plus stoppage-time to run. Time was on Close’s side.

Nobody wants to see black cards - not even those who howl ‘Black card, ref’ in the press box. A few minutes after Close received a yellow card, Cargin’s number five Ronan Devlin must have suffered whiplash when tackled high by a Killyclogher player. It looked unintentional but still dangerous.

The result? Nothing. No blacks or yellows. And yet it was infinitely more dangerous than Close’s indiscretion. Not even a free was awarded to Devlin. But if the rules were applied properly, Close should have been off the field after 25 minutes for obstructing Sludden.

Does the referee issue a black card for blocking the player's run or does he go for the easy option and issue a yellow?

Never one to mince his words, Cargin defender Tony Scullion summed up the disciplinary mayhem as a “pile of nonsense” after the game. Scullion is absolutely correct.

Every ambitious club player in the country is clocking up the training sessions and gym sessions and minding their bodies, and then they have to suffer the consequence of bad rules.

The black card is a failed enterprise. An abomination. A pockmark on Gaelic football. Everybody knows it. But this is the GAA, where dogma and bad rules thrive.

Eugene McGee, the head of the football review committee, campaigned for the introduction of the black card and succeeded in 2014. The genuine pity is McGee still regards the black card to be a good rule, mainly because he was one of the co-creators of it.

No amount of cherry-picking of shining examples of the black card working can convince the GAA populace. Wouldn’t it be better if McGee admitted the black card hasn’t worked as he would have liked and that something else needs to be tried, instead of being dogmatic about it?

Scullion also drew attention to another issue that has “sickened” him to the teeth - the dismissive attitude of referees towards players. I’ve charted the Cargin man’s career and got to know him since he arrived on the inter-county scene in 2005. Scullion is a straight-talker and a very intelligent man.

Speaking to a couple of reporters in the Healy Park corridors on Sunday evening, the 33-year-old had no qualms with the result. He described Killyclogher as a “first-class team”, saying they deserved their five-point victory. Cargin, in short, didn’t turn up.

He appeared for the start of the second-half as a replacement for the injured Kevin O’Boyle. He was booked in the 37th and 56th minutes. If getting sent off wasn’t hard enough to take, Scullion was arguably more frustrated with what he perceived to be the dismissive attitude displayed by referee Hughes and one of his linesmen when he asked why he was getting the line.

“I asked Pádraig why exactly I got my second yellow card,” Scullion said, “and his reply to me was: ‘Bye-bye’.”

Hughes couldn’t be contacted by The Irish News for his version of events. Scullion added: “I went to the linesman off the field - again, mannerly - and I asked: ‘What exactly was that for?’ And he said: ‘Cheerio’.

“They [referees] have on their jerseys: ‘Give Respect, Get Respect’. We deserve respect too. We are entitled to know what the decision is…”

Scullion underwent knee surgery five weeks ago and woke to see “half my knee in a jar beside me”. It was credit to his fitness levels and desire that he got back on the field for Cargin’s crack at Ulster.

But for some, the natural instinct is to be suspicious of Scullion’s complaint. He’s a sore loser, incapable of giving an unemotional account of the perceived injustice visited upon him.

In these circumstances, aim a broadside at the poor referee. But why should we automatically discount Scullion’s version of events? Surely, referees have to earn respect too.

There are mountains of anecdotal evidence from players over the years where referees have felt they don’t need to earn the respect of the players they officiate.

Scullion’s complaint is perfectly legitimate. Better communication is key here. Former inter-county referee Pat McEnaney mightn’t have got everything right in his career but, crucially, he had the respect of the players because he was able to speak to them on their level.

Hughes issued 10 yellow cards and one black card in the second half of last Sunday’s tie between the Tyrone and Antrim champions. It wasn’t a dirty game. It was a game that merited around four yellow cards in total. Not double figures.

But what’s abundantly clear is referees should no longer be burdened with the black card. Binning it might also take some of the heat out of referee-player relations.

As it stands though, there’s irrefutable evidence to back up Tony Scullion’s analysis on the black card. It is really and truly “a pile of nonsense”.

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