Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 2 October 2014

Cynical fouls: an unnecessary evil?

Point taken: Donegal's Colm McFadden is one of several top-flight players who can punish cynical fouling by converting long-range frees

The spotlight has not so much been turned on cynical fouling this week as rigidly transfixed on what is regarded as one of the major ills currently afflicting gaelic football.

Of course, the malaise has always been with us. But then for decades there was not the forensic examination of transgressions nor the in-depth analysis of the 'benefits' that can accrue from indulgence in this particular dark art that are highlighted in such graphic detail today.

Blocking a supporting runner, affecting a third man tackle, interfering unnecessarily with a free-taker and time-wasting are, sadly, almost accepted elements of the modern game.

Yet it's only when such dubious practices are dissected in top-flight matches that we all begin to really sit up and take notice.

Hence when Tyrone manager Mickey Harte and his Donegal counterpart Jim McGuinness found themselves at the centre of media attention for rather different reasons following their teams' victories over Meath and Laois in the fourth round of the All-Ireland qualifiers, the curse of cynical fouling was yet again underlined.

While Harte rushed to the defence of his side following accusations that they resorted to cynicism as a weapon in closing out their game against Meath, he inadvertently provided the National Referees' Appointments Committee and its chairman Pat McEnaney with the incentive to scrutinise the performances of whistlers even more closely for the remainder of the All-Ireland series.

And McGuinness's implied allegation that some of his players have been targeted for heavy-handed treatment of late has a different form of cynicism.

The upshot of all this is that cynical fouling is as pronounced now as it was in years gone by except that it is no longer to be considered 'part of the game' – and thank goodness for that.

Indeed, it would be a great pity if a manly pursuit such as gaelic football were to become a haven for cowards, given that a high percentage of cynical fouls are of a snide nature.

The speed, intensity and passion of the modern game make it particularly difficult for even the very best referees to keep up with every facet of play.

How many hand-passes, for instance, are illegal? Quite a few but the pace at which they are made tends to deceive the human eye and renders adjudication virtually impossible.

And when players track back to curb the influence of opponents who may be focussed on launching counter-attacks, there is always a tendency to concede a free rather than concede ground.

Yet this can be self-destructive as many teams – and certainly the top teams – boast players like Colm McFadden, Sean Cavanagh, Cillian O'Connor, Paul Finlay, Stephen Cluxton, Daniel Goulding and Eugene Keating who can pot points from distances of fifty metres.

With corner-backs expected to possess the pace and subtle ball skills of corner-forwards and midfielders regarded as auxiliary defenders, the game has changed significantly.

But it's the teams who have adapted best who tend to make the most progress in the All Ireland championship.

And while exquisite skills, sublime finishing and fluent movement can captivate followers, it is recognised that craft, wily experience and, yes, even a limited dose of cynicism are regarded as pre-requisites for success.

Down and Kildare exited the All-Ireland race not because they are bad teams but because they were naïve in ways, Down almost disbelieving when they were presented with gilt-edged second-half scoring chances against Donegal and Kildare persisting with a long-ball policy which got them precisely nowhere in the first-half against Tyrone.

Had both teams been a little more streetwise and reacted quickly and positively to the situations in which they found themselves they could well be contemplating last eight action this weekend.

Perhaps the most sinister form of cynicism is that which 'governs' the capacity of a team to ensure that an opposition player incurs a second yellow card and thus automatic expulsion from a game.

A player feigning injury to secure this particular end should have no place in the GAA – indeed, he should forfeit his right to selection.

Obviously the overall level of physicality, intensity and power over the remainder of the All-Ireland series will see teams go above and beyond the call of duty in their bid to achieve success.

And rightly so given that the players will have slogged out many miles on the training grounds since the murky depths of last winter to get to the stage they are at today.

But it is imperative that they bid to reach their destination by playing within the framework of a set of rules that we have been repeatedly told are adequate to control the sport yet in the current championship season a question mark hovers over the deployment of cynical tackles.

January 1 looks a long way away right now given that many people have not even had their summer holiday yet but when it does come round the introduction of the new black card ruling should help to curb cynical fouling.

Let's hope we are not given further reason for thinking that it should be introduced sooner.

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