Belfast Telegraph

Friday 19 September 2014

Why do we have to deal in the language of catastrophe?

Armagh's Ciaran McKeever isn't a fan of the newly adopted black card rule
Armagh's Ciaran McKeever isn't a fan of the newly adopted black card rule

Even allowing for how reaction-driven sports reporting has become, the comments of Armagh's Ciaran McKeever on the introduction of the black card were baffling.

Let me remind you. Last week, McKeever claimed that "If they don't review it, people will go to different codes. Nobody will go to a Gaelic football game and the GAA will be dead in five years. It will kill club football because emigration is already killing clubs".

Let us insert a couple of sub-clauses here. McKeever is the current Armagh captain and a fiercely committed on-field general of Paul Grimley's.

As vice-captain of the Irish International Rules team, charged with handling media responsibilities in lieu of Stephen Cluxton's inability/reluctance to talk about a game to adults, he revealed a thoughtful and bright side that rounded out his warrior persona.

McKeever is no mug. He is a link from the 2005 Armagh team that in many judges' eyes – including this pair – would rate as the greatest Armagh team ever; higher than their 2002 All-Ireland-winning equivalent. The spirit of that team is embodied by the approach of their present captain.

Yet, it appears that he is caught up in the language of catastrophe. The GAA changes and alters their own playing rules constantly. Some have been ill-fated exercises in experimentation while others have improved the game immeasurably. Take the free-kick from the hands for example, or the outlawing of goals hand-passed to the net.

While the black card excited a lot of debate, some of the opposition to it invoked situations not pertaining to the situation. In all the 'football is losing its' physicality' conjecture, there was not one compelling or definite argument to suggest that was the case. It was an abstract notion regularly cast up with no evidence or examples.

There are few enough former players who allude to the dark arts in football and hurling, although they happily operate as columnists for a number of newspapers. When Jarlath Burns openly describes his role as the Armagh 'Stopman' however, charged with obstructing runners coming through midfield, it is revolutionary.

What it teaches us is that as recently as 15 years ago, football was only beginning to exploit loopholes in the rule book. It has taken us that long to appropriately punish the offences that will merit a black card, which are for reasons that bear repeating here; 'to deliberately pull down an opponent, to deliberately trip an opponent with the hand(s) and to deliberately body collide with an opponent after he has played the ball away or for the purpose of taking him out of a movement of play.'

The first three examples will be punishable by an enforced substitution, and thereafter players will walk for it. Rightly so.

Cheating, like Burns admits to doing when acting as the 'Stopman', was often left to go unchecked. When other teams copped this, they copied. Today's game is littered with such offences with some teams in particular accomplished in the practice of fouling at crucial times and breaking up the rhythm of a game.

The GAA had survived 110 years up until the point where cheating became profitable. In another five years, the Association will be even healthier.

Rugby is mentioned as one of the codes that would benefit from a player migration away from Gaelic games. An alarming truth however, is that the respect within that sport for referees puts Gaelic games to shame.

In recent times it has become practice for GAA teams to flatter a referee by calling him by his Christian name throughout and making a pally effort before matches.

Some referees like this. Some love it. But it allows some players then to challenge the referee over decisions using vulgar language and even intimidate the opposition with the same behaviour.

The black card attempts to gain some measure of this when they impose a black card for; 'to threaten or to use abusive and provocative language or gestures to an opponent or a teammate', and 'to remonstrate in an aggressive manner with a Match Official.'

At the other end of the scale, we winced last weekend as we watched the stroppy attitude and stinking body language of Liverpool captain Steven Gerrard as he gave referee Lee Mason a mouthful while being booked during their victory over Aston Villa.

Which code should the GAA learn from? The new rules are designed to help players. In an otherwise sketchy league campaign for Armagh, Ciaran McKeever's forays forward have been a real highlight.

For him to be dragged down or tripped would be immensely infuriating and it would mean nothing for the promotion of loosely-defined 'physicality'. Roll on January.

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