Moving the conversation on from the customary shortage of tickets, Joe McQuillan, and how the game will play out, I asked them why Dublin are made to feel so comfortable at a venue that is not supposed to be their home.
“Tradition,” ventured one. “That’s just the way it is,” suggested another.
Their replies bore little arrogance but were typical of the blind acceptance that exists about match-day protocols.
There are questions that need answering on the matter. Like why are Dublin always assigned the same dressing room underneath the Hogan Stand? Why are they always designated the Hill 16 side of the pitch to warm up? Why are such accommodations made when we are reminded both by them and Croke Park that they aren’t the home team?
If it isn’t enough that after Sunday Dublin will have played just twice in 15 games outside Croke Park across this year’s National League and Championship (only three times in 14 matches in 2011), they are given preferential treatment when they are there.
Familiarity breeds contentment in such circumstances and while Croke Park has to be in a county, it doesn’t necessarily mean the blue carpet has to be rolled out for them there outside of their Spring Series games when they are actually the home side.
Only Mayo have ever dared question the status quo when seven years ago David Heaney and company said enough was enough and took to the Hill 16 side instead of the Canal End they were told to occupy prior to throw-in.
“The thing was we didn’t fear Dublin,” recalled the then Mayo captain in this newspaper 12 months ago.
“They were no better than us and hadn’t achieved anything out of Leinster. We were ready for them and anything they might do. We fancied taking them and always did.”
We remember interviewing Alan Dillon about the incident a couple of weeks later at Mayo’s All-Ireland final press night. Just 24 at the time, he was involved in a chat in the Mayo camp the night before the game that led to Heaney and David Brady taking the decision to upset the Dubs. With a wink and a smile, he quipped he couldn’t go into details as he wanted to be welcomed back to the capital.
There was plenty of method in Mayo’s madness, though. Paul Caffrey’s panel had made a point of acknowledging their legions with a march towards them in an act of solidarity.
However, the importance of the open end of Croke Park to them went deeper than that. If Dublin win the toss Sunday, they’ll play into Hill 16 in the second half. Only home teams act in such a way.
Liverpool and Manchester United are two teams across the water who favour playing into the most fervent end of their stadiums after half-time. When it matters most, it’s preferred to have the crowd “sucking” the ball towards the opposition goal.
Since 2002, just four of Dublin’s 13 Championship defeats have come when they have kicked into an occupied terrace in the second half. Between ’02 and 2007, Dublin won 11 of 15 Championship games when they faced Hill 16 after the interval, drawing three and losing one.
Mayo might point to Sunday’s referee as another advantage to Dublin. However, McQuillan’s much-publicised acquaintance with the Leinster champions can’t be as easily viewed an advantage as the hospitality they receive in Croke Park by Croke Park.
Over the last five years, he has taken charge of one in every three of Dublin’s Championship games compared to one in every five of Mayo’s.
The familiarity was brought up by James Horan last year but it hardly upset Mayo as they hung on to win the game.
The only concern from their perspective is Joe Brolly’s claim McQuillan adopted a laissez faire attitude towards some of their tackling in that game. However, the Cavan man has since refereed them in the National League with relatively little in the way of bother.
Then again, Sunday is so different but McQuillan’s officiating is hardly as open to scrutiny as the comforts Dublin are afforded by the GAA, perks that no other county receives.
That they in return provide so much to the organisation in craic, colour and cash isn’t a strong enough case to provide them with such privileges.
It’s a cosy number they have in Croke Park. That is without question.