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Cynical ploys that pay dividends are ruining our game

By Declan Bogue

Last Wednesday night during one of the Ulster Under-21 Championship games, a goalkeeper went to take one of his first kickouts. Almost immediately after he left the ball on his tee, the members of the opposition bench were onto the nearby linesman, making a lot of fuss about how long the kickout was taking, even though the goalkeeper had yet to even begin his run-up.

After some time, the linesman must have felt the heat as he relayed it to the referee. From that point, the goalkeeper was unfairly pressured to rush his kickouts.

Who were the teams? It doesn't matter. It happened and it was clearly a strategy they thought they could implement. And it paid dividends.

That is among Under-21s, who take their lead from the senior inter-county game. Last weekend, we had an All-Ireland Club final and an Ulster derby that showed up the major fault of Gaelic football, which is that - four years after the introduction of the black card - it still pays to cheat.

Nowadays, players hold on to an opponents' jersey and drag them back. It is no less a cynical foul than a trip, or dragging your opponent to the ground.

While there is a yellow card to deal with that kind of infraction, for some inexplicable reason referees display extreme caution when it comes to dishing a few out.

On Friday, Slaughtneil's inspirational Chrissy McKaigue was fouled 11 times when he gained possession in the All-Ireland Club final against Dr Crokes. His marker Gavin O'Shea was a persistent offender, but other forwards such as Johnny Buckley and Kieran O'Leary got in on the act.

Now, Kerry men have never had an issue with doing what it takes to win a game of football.

Two years ago in the final league match of the year, Kerry fouled 34 times in comparison to Tyrone's 14. They didn't really make any bones about it.

The true competitors of Kerry - the likes of the Ó Sé brothers, Mike Quirke and Dara Ó Cinnéide - will speak openly of the need to 'hammer the hammer'.

When selector Harry O'Neill was asked about Crokes hammering the hammer that is McKaigue, he clearly wasn't expecting the question but fronted up. You target the big opposition players, he said.

The thing is, the ways and means of 'targeting' opposition players has descended into schoolyard bullying. Last summer, Diarmuid Connolly spent significant minutes across a few games standing on the Croke Park sideline waiting to get a replacement jersey after his original was ripped by opponents.

Sean Cavanagh was dismissed after a second yellow card in an All-Ireland quarter-final because of an outbreak of pulling and dragging that the referee would like us to think he was equally culpable of.

And last Saturday night in Ballybofey when Donegal beat Tyrone, we watched the same old nonsense playing itself out between two teams that seem to just hate each other - a virus that has worked its way down to under-age levels.

Neither side want to go down to 14 men, so they spend an inordinate amount of time trying to goad each other into a reaction and forcing the referee to send off a member of the opposition.

Asked about the nature of the rivalry between these two in particular, Tyrone boss Mickey Harte responded: "When someone rises as a power, someone else wants to challenge that power.

"Rivalries happen from time to time, and sometimes the whole idea of the enmity that exists within that can be overplayed.

"I know crowds can get fractious in terms of the vociferous nature of their comments and things like that but that is always going to happen when you have people who are very passionate and maybe don't have as much sense to go with the passion."

He has a point and sometimes you should be careful what you wish for. After all, the rivalries contained within Ulster football makes it practically the only provincial Championship worth following every game when other provinces have given up.

But it does not have to be like this. The black card was also brought in for 'sledging' of opponents. If referee David Coldrick had his umpires on the lookout for this and flashed a few cards early on, we could have ended up with a different game altogether.

It was Coldrick, you might recall, who was the central character in the 2014 documentary 'Man In Black' which had him mic'd up for the 2013 Ulster final. That was a game played before the era of the black card, but it's hard to imagine that players have toned down the verbals significantly.

The suspicion is that somewhere along the way, referees have been instructed to use the black card very sparingly for sledging. What we are left with are games ruined by spite.

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