Home advantage is a prize worth fighting for

The GAA’s casual relationship with the notion of home advantage never ceases to amaze, writes Brendan O’Brien.

Home advantage is a prize worth fighting for

Pretty much every other sport takes for granted the idea that teams are entitled to make a stand on their own patch. When Georgia was invaded by Russia a decade ago, their FA fought tooth and nail for the right to face the Republic of Ireland in Tbilisi. They failed and word, up to a few years ago, was that the resentment with their colleagues in Dublin still festered.

That’s how ingrained it should be.

The GAA could do with a bit of the intransigence shown by the Georgians then and Kildare this week when the county dug its heels in and insisted that St Conleth’s Park in Newbridge was the only patch of turf their senior footballers would be gracing. The reality is, though, that Kildare’s stance was the exception to the rule.

Or, should we say, the absence of any rules.

The GAA, when it comes to competitions, has long been an impenetrable jungle of localised agreements and arrangements at local and provincial levels. Counties have, down the years, agreed among themselves to take turns for home advantage. Some provinces use seeding arrangement while others don’t. Some use the same ground for their finals, others don’t.

This is the very definition of making it up as you go along. The association is beset by a lengthy list of seemingly intractable issues, the club versus county debate being one of the most obvious, but this ad hoc use of grounds and the culture of using neutral venues left, right, and centre in particular is a low-hanging fruit just begging to be picked.

The championship structures are already ripe for criticism. The demographics of the counties are impossible to change, the torrent of money earmarked for Dublin at the expense of everyone else less embedded. Introducing a handful of simple rules and regulations to set in stone the sanctity of the home fixture would be little hardship if the vision and will was there.

Take this year’s Leinster championship as Exhibit A.

Five of the first seven fixtures — three preliminary-round games and four quarter-finals — were played at neutral venues. The other two were decided by teams playing either home and away. So, what we had was a situation where counties playing in the SAME ROUND of the SAME COMPETITION were competing on what were effectively uneven playing fields.

Laois and Wexford kicked it off with a game in Wexford. Grand. Next day and Louth were meeting Carlow in Portlaoise with Offaly and Wexford picking up the baton in O’Moore Park afterwards. It’s madness. Three of the first seven games were held in Portlaoise but did Laois feature in any of them? No. Same with Offaly who didn’t appear on the bill either time Tullamore was used.

You’d find more logic in a two-year old’s hand painting.

Neutral venues are part of the furniture in the GAA’s summer schedule but the concept is rickety and worn and belongs in the skip. Would Liverpool and Chelsea be asked to play a league game in Birmingham? Would the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles be expected to face off in Baltimore? Why is it accepted without questioning here?

Neutral venues should be the last resort, not a first. County boards who agree to their teams playing at neutral venues when drawn first out of the hat are guilty of a dereliction of duty towards their players and management teams, to the supporters and to sponsors who fund the GAA locally and could benefit handsomely by having big games in their back yards.

And so to Newbridge. The capacity of just over 8,000 for St Conleth’s this weekend has been used by all sorts of people as reason why Kildare should not be facing Mayo there. That is, to be blunt, immaterial and the suggestion that Kildare have sold supporters short by sticking to their guns is nothing short of laughable.

Where do Kildare stand the best chance of beating Mayo this weekend? It’s got to be their own ground, right? So, what some people seem to be saying is that they should willingly dilute their county’s chances of success if it means more can get in to see the action. There’s a new ground in the pipeline, guys. Take a pew and wait it out.

It may be that the GAA introduces some new rules and regulations to give the CCCC a freer reign over this sort of thing from next year. If that means St Conleth’s is unsuitable because the dressing rooms can’t accommodate the teams and their backrooms, or because the toilets aren’t up to scratch or, god forbid, because the press box is inadequate, then fair enough.

But there is no way that the association should bring in any stipulation that says a county can forfeit home advantage simply because it would be deemed unable to meet demand. Punters are vital to the lifeblood of any sport but the competition itself, and concepts like the inalienable right to claim home advantage, should always supersede everything else.

Email: brendan.obrien@examiner.ie

Twitter: @byBrendanOBrien

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