Belfast Telegraph

GAA going black to future

By Declan Bogue

All-Ireland final day, 10 seasons ago. Tyrone are leading Armagh but they are leaning against the ropes. Diarmuid Marsden collects the ball, holds off a challenge from Gavin Devlin and slips the ball through to Steven McDonnell.

The Armagh forward was one of the most goal-hungry players of his era and as he advanced into the penalty area, a goal seemed the only outcome. Until Conor Gormley came steaming out of the background to throw himself into a Superman dive and smother the shot.

That play has become known in Gaelic football as 'The Block.'

Because it was in the penalty area, the execution of it needed to be precise. All the circumstances, the occasion and so on, meant that it has become one of the finest examples of skill under pressure.

Back then, the various stakeholders were not happy with the direction of Gaelic football and there were accusations of teams not playing the game in the correct spirit.

By last season, cheating had reached epidemic proportions. The Football Review Committee had concocted the black card to deal with cynical play and by the time of Annual Congress, the Association had reached a fork in the road.

Let's say that scenario had unfolded last season and the action was just outside the penalty area. Gormley might have forsaken the full-length dive, exposing himself to the danger of a dummy, and instead just have wrapped himself around McDonnell.

Sound familiar?

He would have got a booking and his fans would have loved him for it, because ultimately they would have won. And that's what Gaelic football has become all about.

Proof of that arrived in last year's final, when Dublin's Darren Daly, Kevin McManamon and Ger Brennan were all booked late on for hauling opponents to the ground.

Manager Jim Gavin even took the entirely bizarre position of blaming referees for their treatment of Dublin all year, even though evidence of the foul counts in games involving the Dubs did not back him up.

Last weekend was the first round of meaningful competition that the black card has been in force to deal with body checks, deliberate hauling down of opponents, tripping and foul and aggressive remonstrating with match officials.

By and large, most were not complaining. We do note the comments of Jim McGuinness though who said: "You can grab someone and not let them go past you but not pull them to the ground. That's not a black card."

While you are allowed to hold your ground as a defender, there is nothing in the rule book that permits grappling and holding – this will still be a foul, if not considered as a body-check.

In general, most managers adopted a 'wait-and-see' position, correctly pointing out that it could be towards the end of the National League before we truly see the benefits or otherwise of the new ruling.

One man who wasn't holding back was Armagh manager Paul Grimley. He commented: "The rule change was uncalled for because it was a disproportionate response to the amount of cynical tackling. It was driven by punditry and the media."

We must say this is ultimately self-defeating and incorrect. If anything was driving it, it was the extensive research carried out by the Football Review Committee, by dyed-in-the-wool football people such as Eugene McGee and Tony Scullion.

The media, as they should, had a keen interest in this and they reported extensively on an issue that was always going to provide a huge change to the game.

Grimley went on to mention that, "supporters in general will become completely disillusioned and a wee bit frustrated" at the awarding of black cards.

We had a lot of that talk at the time of Congress from players and managers on Twitter. It's hot air.

Holding, pulling and tripping has nothing to do with the skills of the game. It came as a result of players and managers exploiting the rule book and, quite often, poor and lazy defending.

Fears about managers experiencing difficulty in getting players ready to come on after a black card are already highlighted, but in time this will become another skill in a manager's repertoire.

All sport is in a constant state of flux. The notion of maintaining the rules as they stand would not be tolerated in other sports.

Why should Gaelic football be any different?

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