At the end of most games of Gaelic football at all levels there’s a debate about the performance of the referee.
At the highest level, as it was after Saturday’s All-Ireland final replay between Dublin and Mayo, that debate is amplified and held nationally.
But the truth of the matter is that the GAA have, in Gaelic football, a game that is simply impossible to referee.
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At Croke Park, match official Maurice Deegan was scrutinised for the big calls he made.
Should John Small have been the first player to see a black card, and indeed a red, should Jonny Cooper have been black-carded, should Lee Keegan have walked?
The fact that so many of the talking points surrounded the black card serves to prove that it has served to complicate the matter, rather than making things clearer.
The black card was brought in with the best of intentions, aimed at reducing the instances of cynical play. But in practice it has heaped more responsibility and pressure on referees, particularly those in the television spotlight.
For a black card the pull-down, one of five offences introduced, has to be ‘intentional’. To say that word is open to interpretation in football is an understatement.
But the black card is just a small part of the problem that the GAA find themselves with.
The rules of the game are ill-defined and often not implemented.
Did you know there are are only two legal tackles in football? Well, that’s the case hard as it is to believe.
The first of these is to tackle the ball; in other words, to try to punch of slap it out of an opponents’ grip.
According to the rules ‘deliberate bodily contact (such as punching, slapping, arm holding, pushing, tripping, jersey pulling or a full frontal charge) is forbidden’. But when’s the last time you saw a player blown up for slapping or punching an opponent in the chest as he aimed for a turnover?
Gaelic football is all about getting contact on your man. So tackle the ball by all means, but if you get a few slaps in on an opponent too, so much the better.
The other tackle is ‘shoulder-to-shoulder with at least one foot on the ground.’ Everything else is a foul.
Referees aren’t helped ahead of big games when managers try to exert pressure on them through loaded pre-match interviews or when well-known former footballers are wheeled out in the media to put their county’s point across, as they did on the Keegan-Diarmuid Connolly issue last week.
The players too are constantly testing the boundaries, to see what they can get away with. The action on what is a huge pitch for one whistler to watch is faster and more intense than ever, often with little or negligible support from the six other officials on the ground - four umpires and two linesmen.
The job of keeping control under these circumstances is an unforgiving one.
The GAA long ago ceded control of hurling. The rules of that game aren’t applied, though it seems to suit all of the major stakeholders and it will be allowed to continue.
No one seems to want to see anyone sent off in a game of hurling, no matter what occurs, so the players are allowed to get on with it and everyone is happy.
If Croke Park don’t want football to go the way of hurling and become completely lawless they are going to have to go back to the drawing board.
The rules need to be redrafted and clearly defined. The black card can have a place in the new rules too, though it too needs to be looked at again.
If action isn’t taken referees will continue to be scrutinised and criticised and their job will continue to get even more difficult. And if that happens, football will slip deeper into a vicious circle of tweaking and tampering and it will be poorer for it.