Last Sunday was one of those days when Croke Park began to look its age. The bucket seats on the Lower Cusack Stand sat a faded shade of bluey gray and the concrete holding up any sporting edifice takes on a gloomy hue when the sky spits and coats the walls with damp.
To sit there and watch the Leinster football semi double header last weekend was to be reminded that the stand, the first to be built when the stadium was reimagined in the 1990s, is a quarter of a century old. It’s still one of Europe’s biggest stadiums, but you could argue about Croker’s place in the roll call of ‘finest’.
That’s not a criticism so much as a fact of life.
Time moves on and stadiums with it. We live in an era now where Tottenham Hotspur’s repurposed home has blown every other Premier League ground out of the water. That includes Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium across North London which had its ribbon cut 10 years after the Cusack was unveiled.
All of which is fine. We’re long past the point when rugby and soccer paid rent, when visiting journalists, fans and dignitaries would be ushered through the GAA’s pride and joy and asked with a needy cap-in-hand air if this wasn’t the finest damn stadium you’d ever clapped eyes on.
This isn’t the Premier League with its endless pit of money, or America where stadiums reach a sell-by-date quicker than your average Ford or Chrysler. And anyway, Croke Park still has plenty going for it, even aside from the enormous capacity, stunning sight lines and sense of heritage and tradition it still evokes.
Visitors to Dublin flock to the place for its award-winning museum and the Skyline experience. And HQ has been deemed good enough in recent years to host Queen Elizabeth II, the People’s Republic of China’s vice-president Xi Jinping, the Olympic flame and a Eucharistic Congress.
Some of the world’s biggest acts have appeared on stage there. U2 alone have taken up residency five times — a figure which would stir envy in many a county team — and the ground has benefited from more than a few improvements that have helped maintain its place at the top of the table.
The new Desso pitch; the floodlights that were switched on for the first time in 2007; the first steps taken towards a fully carbon neutral footprint a year later; the introduction of HawkEye in 2013. All have been welcomed but none can mask the fact that the stadium’s chief selling point is losing its appeal.
Last Sunday, with the place more than half-empty, didn’t tell us anything new about the paucity of the Leinster Championship, the chasm between Dublin and the rest. All it did was confirm the repetitive frequency with which visits to the GAA’s principle cathedral culminate with so many praying for it to end.
There is an obvious determination to utilise Croke Park to the full extent. The GAA prides itself on its all-for-one community spirit and one that gave rise to any number of outcries in the past 15 years as various county teams were deprived of the chance to play or train on the association’s most famous sod.
There is a dichotomy to Croke Park: it is the goal to which all elite players across the four codes and both genders aspire and yet it is opened to schoolkids, club sides of all ranks, and league deciders all the way down to Division 4.
There is a deeply held conviction that this should hold but there is a case for less equalling more.
That’s not to say that we should take the club finals or Cumann na mBunscoil away from D1, but the slavish devotion to opening the gates for championship games which would really be better served ‘down the country’ is well past the point where it can continue. The crowd numbers alone are telling us that.
Hurling only bothers the ground staff there four times a summer. You could make a point for the Leinster final being moved elsewhere too but, either way, that figure isn’t far wrong. There is a sense of occasion when the small ball is seen in Croke Park that we just don’t associate with the football.
The standard and style of the latter game clearly has much to do with that and yet we could all list off a rump of recent games that would have been better served were they held in tighter venues away from the capital. A cursory examination of football championship fixtures at the ground this past five years only backs that up.
There have been 54 games of inter-county football championship played at HQ stretching back to, and including, the 2015 season. By this onlooker’s reckoning, nine could be categorised as genuinely entertaining/exciting, another 13 were in some way diverting while 32 were poor-to-dreadful occasions.
Odds are you’re more likely to get a dud than a cracker.
The one surprise in the Lower Cusack last Sunday was the volume of tourists who took it all in. Our advice to them and others would be to pick their chosen day of visit more wisely next time. Maybe wait for the hurling. Or just avoid match days altogether and make for the museum.
And that’s a sad thing to say.