Open the Páirc to build on the dream

It’s not too long since Croke Park was first opened up to female players, a hugely positive and inclusive decision. A decision that allowed a generation of women to dream bigger.

The anticipation ahead of the ladies football final was fascinating. Rumours circulated the day before that tickets were moving faster than in previous years.

And as matchday went by I watched the stands fill. I noticed the upper level of Croke Park being dotted with people. These dots soon formed lines and squares of colour. The swelling crowd was generating its own buzz.

A spectacular roar went up when the announcement was made that we were part of a record-breaking attendance of 46,286.

I felt so much joy at that moment and I was so proud of the progress we had made as football fans, as a sport and as a country. For a fleeting moment I was envious of the experience the players would have of running out to be greeted by so much support but that envy wasn’t long ebbing away as I thought of how truly special this landmark was for the game and for all those playing this year and in future years. This is what the players, and the sport, deserve.

For a fleeting moment I was envious of the experience the players would have of running out to be greeted by so much support but that envy wasn’t long ebbing away as I thought of how truly special this landmark was for the game and for all those playing this year and in future years. This is what the players, and the sport, deserve.

Ireland has now set the bar for supporting women. It now holds the record for the largest attendance in the world this year for a female sports event. As Mary White tweeted last Monday: “To put the attendance in perspective, it would have been a sell-out at Stamford Bridge, White Hart Lane or Villa Park.” 

Now that is impressive. More impressive is that all ages were well represented. It wasn’t just aspiring young girls who filled the seats and emptied their lungs. Men and women, young and old, packed the stadium. They were Dublin fans, Mayo fans and football fans eager to see the spectacle this final has repeatedly produced.

Support for the final has gradually built. Mayo fans have always loyally travelled in numbers. And in Dublin, I think the balance was tipped by the vocal influence of male players during the build-up, which drove awareness of the women’s final. At their homecoming, the Dublin team urged their supporters to lend that support to the women the following week.

The debate about whether the final should be played at Croke Park hasn’t gone away, the argument being that a capacity crowd elsewhere would create a superior atmosphere.

But I have never been in favour of giving up on the dream. Although the dream doesn’t exist for me now, the next generation has the potential to fill Croke Park.

The venue alone is a big draw to many supporters. The women’s finals day allows families access to headquarters at a reasonable price. More importantly, it gives young girls an opportunity to watch their role models play in the most admired stadium in Ireland. And allows those at the pinnacle of their careers to play in the best stadium the country has to offer.

Closer to home, with the ladies football county final around the corner, we can continue to back the dream by supporting the games.

Before last year’s replay between Mourneabbey and St Val’s I found myself stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the game – a first for me – and I was delighted.

The first match had produced an epic contest in Cork IT. The stand was full and spectators spilt over to the perimeters of the pitch. Many neutrals were drawn to the inevitable battle between teams that have contested the last three finals in a row.

The central venue contributed to the sense of occasion and added to the hype and significance of the match. It wasn’t too long ago when the county finals were held in remote pitches, often without stands for supports. An easily accessible and comfortable pitch was certainly a draw for neutral fans.

I would love to see next year’s county final held in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

If there is doubt about the level of support justifying opening the stadium, why not put it ahead of the men’s county final? Are we not all the same community looking to enjoy the best of Cork club football?

It’s worth dreaming.


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