Belfast Telegraph

Irish FA: It's time for this stupid rule to go

Our finest players don't deserve to miss showpiece occasions

By Graham Luney

If you didn't know better you would leap to the conclusion that Victor Meldrew's immortal catchphrase 'I don't believe it!' on the BBC comedy One Foot in the Grave was inspired by years of watching the Irish FA at work.

The latest blunder from our football body came just before Saturday's League Cup final when Ballymena United were informed their captain Allan Jenkins was likely to miss the game through suspension after picking up five yellow cards.

United, who keep an extensive record of their bookings as well as other relevant statistics, challenged the claim and they were proved right.

So the Irish FA made another mistake. Is that really news you ask? Is there any truth in the rumour the IFA sent the Sky Blues another email saying the earth was square and no-one in Northern Ireland gave a damn about flags?

What this sorry episode confirms to us once again is that why should a player be suspended for a major final just because he collected five bookings in another competition?

There should be an amnesty extended to players when it comes to being free from suspension for what is going to be one of the biggest games of their careers.

No-one can tell me the punishment fits the crime. This rule still disgusts me. It's a disgrace and should be kicked into touch. Imagine if Gary Hamilton had been suspended for last year's Irish Cup final… why would anyone want to remove what romance football has left to cling to? Then Linfield defender William Murphy was ruled out of the 2011 Irish Cup final through suspension while Crusaders stalwart David Magowan missed the 2009 decider.

Murphy remarked: "When I got the official news that I was suspended for the final, it hurt me. I had a few days to get over it but it was still hard to take on the day of the final."

Magowan said: "I was gutted and having to sit and watch the boys in the final was devastating."

In the 2009 final, Crusaders defeated Cliftonville to win the prize for the first time since 1968. I can remember approaching Magowan amidst the celebrations afterwards but he didn't want to say anything. The story was about who played. Only Mark Dickson had made as many appearances as Mags that season but anyone who didn't cross that white line was never going to feel part of it.

Think about it. All those golden memories ripped from you. Whoever dreamed up these rules failed to understand what it means to a player to lead out his team on the showpiece occasion with his son or daughter alongside him, holding his hand and family looking on, bursting with pride.

And of course, as players know this ridiculous rule exists, they might go out and pick up a deliberate booking to try and avert such a disastrous outcome. The thought of Ballymena United going into Saturday's final against Cliftonville without their inspirational leader sent a shiver down the spine of their manager Glenn Ferguson.

'Spike' agrees that no player should be robbed of the chance to feature in a major final following an accumulation of yellow cards.

"I can remember playing in an Irish Cup final in 1996 for Glenavon against Glentoran and Lee Doherty and Dermot O'Neill both missed it," said Ferguson. "They had picked up five yellow cards. You play all year to hopefully make the Irish Cup final. It's the showpiece game of the season and if you've picked up five yellows for trying to make five genuine attempts to win the ball throughout the course of the season it shouldn't deprive you of taking part in the Irish Cup final.

"Managers now have to keep an eye on how many bookings players have and there is always the danger of players deliberately getting booked to be available for certain matches. Is that what we want?"

For once, our game's decision makers should do the decent and honourable thing and introduce a suspension amnesty for major finals.

It may be too late for Doherty, O'Neill, Murphy and Magowan but don't let more players experience that horrible feeling.

They don't deserve it.

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