Croke Park has been treated by the GAA public lately as if it were a vacuous hunk on the receiving end of a particularly awkward Love Island dumping.
“Look, I know we had a connection, babes…and the physical side of things is great, don’t get me wrong…but, y’know, you’ve kinda become the symbol of the oppressive corporate GAA regime intent on crushing the grassroots under its sponsored jackboot…know what I mean, babes?”
It’s nothing personal, of course. The GAA’s cathedral on Jones Road is still the field of dreams for anyone who’s ever swung a hurley or kicked an O’Neill’s.
But with the #Newbridgeornowhere saga and Donegal’s bid to drag Dublin out of their Drumcondra foxhole, Croker has been served a classic dose of it’s-not-you-it’s-me.
Whatever the deeper reasons, it’s quite a turn of events to have leading counties not wanting to play in Croke Park. Not that Kildare and Donegal didn’t want to play in Croke Park per se.
The stadium just happened to get caught up in the current spirit of GAA populism, the Irish version of the Trump and Brexit phenomena. In this scenario the disenfranchised masses have targeted the all-powerful GAA politicos and the well-heeled Dublin elite, both of whom are billeted in Croker, and cried ‘Drain the Swamp!’
While Kildare had the rules on their side, Donegal’s protest at the Dubs getting two home games in the Super 8 was more of a symbolic move, a sort of student sit-in to raise awareness of the inherent inequalities in the system, man.
But there was a time, not so long ago, when the idea of turning down an invite to the big house would have been preposterous. Remember how they used to play Ulster finals there? For three years, from 2004 to 2006, the sons of Ulster marched on Dublin 3 and it seemed like a perfectly fine idea to all concerned.
In 2005, nine of the 10 games in the Leinster Football Championship were played there. People couldn’t get enough of the place. In fact, nothing illustrates the grim decline of the Leinster Championship better than the fact that this year just three matches in Leinster were in HQ, while it was just two last season.
It was the Dubs wot done it, of course — either the GAA’s massive investment in the capital or the once-in-a-lifetime magic of Jim Gavin’s golden generation, whatever you’re having yourself.
Dublin’s remorseless destruction of their provincial neighbours left the Leinster Championship an empty husk of a thing, while ‘getting the Dubs out of Croker’ has become a key slogan in the current revolutionary climate.
The thinking is that Dublin have become so dominant that, rather than take them on in their seat of power, we need to make like Michael Collins and lure them to an ambush on a country boreen somewhere.
Donegal were quite right to wonder at the fairness of the Super 8 shake-up, but sadly their complaints were also evidence that fewer and fewer counties can now aspire to having a crack at what is, without a doubt, the most fun thing to do in sport: Beating the Dubs in Croker.
Beating Dublin in Croke Park was like blowing up the Death Star. It required audacity, courage, and no small amount of recklessness. But it if you fired your proton torpedoes at Hill 16’s vulnerable reactor core in just the right spot…
Unfortunately, things are different these days. In the current version of the movie Luke Skywalker misses, the stormtroopers torch the Ewoks, and Chewbacca gets turned into a rug.
When they were at a lower ebb, it was often said that the GAA needed a strong Dublin; the truth is that the GAA needs a strong Dublin, but not too strong.
The sweet spot is to have the Dubs thriving just enough so that the sky-blue-and-navy-clad hordes keep the turnstiles clicking, but not so much that the country bumpkins can’t dream of coming up to Croke Park and taking them down occasionally.
It doesn’t even need to happen that often. Donegal did it in 1992 and 2014 — that’s only once every 22 years, but it’s plenty.
I remember the kinetic energy of the stadium on both days, crackling round the stands and onto the pitch. The chants of “We want Sam!” from the Donegal fans in 1992, building quietly in an ‘I’m Spartacus’ show of defiance.
The stunned faces on the Hill in the 2014 All-Ireland semi-final as Ryan McHugh kept scurrying clear of the Dublin cover like that baby iguana being chased by racer snakes in Planet Earth II.
And the moment of victory — especially in 2014 when I immediately realised that they would now lose the final, because nothing could really top this. That moment is the little streets being hurled upon the great; you are the worm that turned; you have captured the castle. Sweet.
And the Dubs, at heart an incredibly gracious lot, allow you to enjoy it to its fullest.
We get that, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, “a sense of the fundamental decencies is parcelled out unequally at birth,” but many now see Dublin in Croke Park as representing too many of the parcels being stacked in the one place.
But I will head along with my son on Saturday, he supporting Dublin as he always does even when they are playing his father’s county (I’m pretty sure there’s something Oedipal going on here, but that’s for another day).
And I will tell him I’m cheering for both teams, but really I’ll be hoping Donegal defy all the odds and send Emperor Gavin, Darth Cluxton and co. back to the drawing board.
And if they do, in that moment of victory, I’ll look around the great concrete bowl, lately so unloved, and think: You big handsome lump, it just wouldn’t be the same anywhere else.
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