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Cynical fouls in Gaelic football and hurling: Will GAA Congress vote for a black card and a penalty?

With the GAA Congress set to consider a motion to introduce a black card and a penalty to punish cynical fouls in hurling and Gaelic football, we ponder if both sanctions would be too harsh a punishment for defenders.

Brian Barry

In the dying embers of the 2020 Connacht Football Championship final last November, Galway trailed by two points with less than a minute left on the clock.

Sean Kelly made a bursting run towards the goal, keen on raising a green flag which would surely have secured the Tribesmen the victory.

Aware of the danger unfolding, Mayo half-back Eoghan McLaughlin brought Kelly down illegally.

McLaughlin was shown a black card; a 10-minute time-out, of which he would serve approximately 60 seconds. It was a sanction he was more than happy to accept. Mayo had time to get numbers back on the goal-line, and Shane Walsh had no option to tap over the resulting free.

Galway were unable to mount another attack in the limited time remaining after the kick-out, and Mayo held on for a one-point victory.

It was a moment which highlighted the loophole in the current black card rule. There was little to deter McLaughlin, whose professional foul benefited his team, and essentially knocked Galway out of the championship.

Action was sought, with many suggesting that a more appropriate sanction in such circumstances would be an automatic penalty for the attacking team. If they were unfairly denied a goal-scoring chance, then surely they should be given a fresh opportunity, in the form of a penalty kick?

The powers that be have listened, and this weekend’s Congress sees a motion to introduce a penalty in such instances.

However should the motion pass, it would see the 10-minute sin bin remain, along with the addition of the automatic penalty in cases of a goal-scoring opportunity being denied, inside the 21-yard line or the ‘D’.

The question must be posed; would that now be too harsh a punishment on defenders? Would the GAA be over-correcting the problem?


In Gaelic football, it is a mere alteration to a current rule in place.

Whereas in hurling, an express punishment for cynical fouls is a far more alien concept.

While professional fouls were clear to see throughout the 2020 All-Ireland Championship, prompting this action by the law-makers, players seem to be broadly against any change.

“I think the game of hurling that I fell in love with years and years and years ago, it didn’t have any cards at all I don’t think,” Cork’s Patrick Horgan argued earlier this month.

“We’re trying to change too much, I think the game is absolutely perfect the way it is. It’s exciting, it’s fast. These cynical fouls that people are on about, you rarely see them, and they probably level themselves out over the course of the year anyway.

“I’d hate to see one of our players getting sent off for it. Any other team would hate to see their players getting sent off for it. It’s just the way the game is, and that’s the way it’s played.”

Horgan is not the only one.

“The black card would, in my opinion, completely ruin the game because you have to have that pulling and dragging from a defender, you have to have that hard-hitting [element],” Tipperary’s John ‘Bubbles’ O’Dwyer said last year.

“You are losing the whole GAA aspect, your whole hurling aspect if you start bringing in these black cards, pink cards, whatever.”

Nonetheless, many agree action is needed. But similar to Gaelic football, would a black card and a penalty be a step too far?

Overcorrecting the issue?

At what point does the punishment outweigh the crime?

Would the double-whammy of conceding a penalty coupled with a trip to the sin-bin be too harsh a clamp-down on defenders?

Of course, a back will now think twice before pulling a jersey, holding back a forward’s hurl, or grabbing an opponent to the ground in order to prevent a goal opportunity. That is the desired outcome of the impediments being introduced.

But at what point does the sanction deter defenders from honestly committing to a tackle? Would a back be reluctant to fully engage an attacker, for fear of risking the concession of a penalty and a free-kick?

GPA opposition

The Gaelic Players Association made a late play on Thursday, calling for the GAA to postpone the vote until later in the year. Of the 47 motions set for the 2021 Congress, 10 were pushed back until a ‘Special Congress’, in order to allow for a more substantial, in-person debate.

Among those which will be debated at the Special Congress are the motions pertaining to a restructure of the All-Ireland Football Championship.

The players’ body surveyed its members, and found strong opposition to the motion surrounding black cards and penalties for cynical fouls.

“Inter-county hurlers overwhelmingly rejected the motion (70 per cent) while among those who were in favour of it, multiple questions were raised, clarifications sought and amendments suggested. While the number of footballers who were against the motion was lower (54 per cent), again the majority of those who said yes did so with multiple caveats,” GPA chief Paul Flynn wrote in a letter to the GAA.

“We would also further question the way in which this motion is being introduced. It would appear to be one of the most contentious motions to be brought before Congress this weekend and we do not believe an online video call will allow opportunity for it to be properly debated.

“Many other less contentious motions were delayed until a Special Congress later in the year and we believe this should also be the case with Motion 20.”

Trial period

In truth, the 11th hour appeal from the GPA is unlikely to defer the motion. If passed this weekend, the new rules will be introduced in 2021 on a trial basis.

If the National League were to be cancelled due to a shortened season caused by coronavirus restrictions, the new rules would get their first run-out in the championship. That, in itself, is another consideration for what is the most important decision that will be made at the GAA’s virtual pow-wow this weekend.

As with many things in Gaelic games over the coming months, much uncertainty lies ahead.

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