Black cards have improved Gaelic football, but we should not forget their original purpose

The weekend that was: Recent black cards punished honest mistakes instead of truly cynical acts, a deviation from the point of the card

For all the bellyaching you hear about new rules in Gaelic football, the vast majority of them improve the game. People don’t want to hear that but it’s true. The humble, damned, eternally spat-upon black card has changed how football is played for the better. There’s still a healthy dose of cynicism at play, as there is in every field sport, but it’s more likely to be punished at all levels now. This is a good thing.

Moreover, the new(ish) rule relating to black card penalties is, on the whole, a force for good in the world. People don’t want to hear that either but you only need to watch club hurling to see the merit of it. Players are still getting dragged down as soon as they get a sniff of a goal and all the defender gets as punishment is a free against him and a yellow card. A game where the miscreant defender has something to fear from a deliberate foul in that spot is, inarguably, a better game.

But for these cards to work, they can’t be operating in grey areas. Referees can’t be getting high on their own supply. Twice over the weekend, Division One football matches were interrupted by interventions that left players, supporters and broadcasters confused as to what was happening. On both occasions, the decision led to a penalty, a black card and a goal against the defending team. But you’d be hard-pressed in either case to find the circumstances that chimed with the actual rule.

In the Tyrone v Mayo match on Saturday night in Omagh, Tyrone defender Cormac Quinn was in trouble when Jordan Flynn got a step on him just outside the large square. Quinn tried to jump from behind Flynn to get a hand to Enda Hession’s pop pass but in the process, his legs got tangled up with Flynn’s and referee Brendan Cawley blew his whistle.


Nobody had any issue with it being called as a foul. Quinn was on the wrong side, his starting position was poor, he lunged for the ball and didn’t get to it. In that situation, regardless of where the ball is on the pitch, it’s a foul.

There were fewer bodies around the vicinity of Kieran Molloy’s foul on Diarmuid Barker in the Galway v Derry game on Sunday. But the nuts and bolts of the incident are largely similar. Barker ran onto a kicked pass in behind the Galway defence and Molloy was caught in a bad position. He chased after the Derry defender and made a last-ditch lunge from behind to fist the ball out of his possession. He missed the ball by inches, Barker kicked off balance but scored his point anyway. Derek O’Mahony nonetheless called it back for a penalty.

In both cases, the player in possession was fouled. But the black card rule wasn’t brought in to do away with fouling. It was to drain as much of the poison of cynical fouling out of the game as possible. It was never intended to punish players for honest attempts at making up for positional mistakes. A sport that over-punishes defenders who are trying to essay the skills of the game is a sport that has lost the run of itself and its rules.

Whatever about Barker, who was at least straight through on goal and had an obvious goal-scoring opportunity denied by Molloy’s foul in the Derry game, Flynn had three Tyrone defenders coming across to block his route to goal. In this, the language in the rule is possibly a bit too woolly – it refers to the “opinion of the referee” as the determinant of whether there is, in fact, a goalscoring opportunity. But if Flynn had caught the ball and Quinn had just stood up, the Mayo man would have been surrounded on four sides immediately. One man’s goalscoring opportunity is another’s take-your-point-lad.

The grey areas are always going to be there when you’re verging into the world of opinion. And that’s fine – refereeing is a brutal job even when things are cut and dried. But in both of these cases, the referees saw deliberate intent where there was none. It was as if they wanted to showcase the black card rule instead of asking themselves what was a just outcome to the passage of play.

Refereeing mistakes are no big deal. Refereeing mindsets are far more important. Fairness has to be the driving force, far more so than show-offy nit-picking.

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