It’s time to throw open gates once and for all

The same day Roy Keane adorned the front page of this paper by flying back into his hometown to launch the Liam Miller tribute match also happened to be the 25th anniversary of him joining Manchester United for a then record British transfer fee.

It’s time to throw open gates once and for all

It’s long part of football folklore now, how the Corkman spurned Kenny Dalglish after being persuaded by an 11th-hour pitch Alex Ferguson made to him over a game of snooker.

The club’s true guv’nor from Govan had just ended their famine of going the previous 25 years without winning a league title and already he was eyeing further and bigger prizes.

“Roy, Manchester United are going to dominate the domestic game with or without you,” he’d tell Keane, according to the latter’s first autobiography.

“With you, we can win in Europe.”

In time, they would, that glorious climax in ’99 in the Nou Camp being an impossibility without Keane’s unforgettable intervention in Turin in the semi-final, or indeed against Inter and Bayern and Barca in earlier rounds.

Ferguson, however, would have hoped that United with Keane would have made their impact a good deal sooner, including in their maiden European Cup campaign of 1993-94.

United won their first-round tie over Honved from Hungary, thanks in no small part to two goals in the away leg from their 21-year-old new signing from Nottingham Forest, but then they came unstuck in the second round, Galatasaray notoriously welcoming them to hell and dumping them out of the competition on away goals. What’s largely forgotten though is that Galatasaray also barely scraped past their first-round opponents.

After their opening game of the campaign, the Turkish champions themselves looked vulnerable to exiting on the away goals rule.

They’d jumped into a 2-0 lead against Irish champions Cork City only for the visitors’ crafty midfielder, Dave Barry, to remind Stefan Effenberg and everyone else in Europe that three years on from his goal against Bayern in Turner’s Cross, that Daddy still had game. By virtue of Barry’s goal, City only needed to sneak one at home and keep a clean sheet to advance.

As it turned out, the Turkish champions would be the ones who would edge out that return leg 1-0 in the short-lived Bishopstown Stadium, courtesy of a goal 15 minutes from time from Kubilay Turkyilmaz.

However, consider what if that effort had gone wide of the post or had been denied by Phil Harrington? And Barry had made it a trilogy of sweet European strikes, or Pat Morley had got on the end of a cross from Keane’s old Forest teammate Tommy Gaynor, on loan from the City Ground? City wouldn’t have just been through to play anyone in the second round of the Champions League. They would have been facing Manchester United.

You can imagine how huge that one would have been. United — with Cantona, Schmeichel, Ince and Giggs in their pomp — strutting into town. Roy — just three months after his transfer — and Denis back in their hometown.

Suffice to say, Bishopstown wouldn’t have been big enough to host it.

Sadly, though, the GAA wouldn’t have been big enough either to allow it to be staged in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.

Back then, Rule 42 was in full effect, with no Tommy Kenoy or Noel Walsh or Sean Kelly yet to propose or champion any amendment to it.

The Cork County Board certainly wouldn’t have been on for any relaxing of the rule; if they were so intransigent as to dismiss the views of their own clubs and the overwhelming majority of the country over Rule 42 in 2005, they were hardly going to accommodate a foreign game on their own patch in 1993.

U2 had just been in town a few months earlier, providing the sort of concert cash Ed Sheeran would a quarter-of-a-century later. At the time, Frank Murphy was not even halfway through his reign. The county footballers had just contested the All-Ireland final. The hurlers were reigning league champions.

‘De Double’ had been only three years earlier. Why would Cork GAA open its grounds to soccer? At the time, they were more in the business of using soccer grounds for GAA, still delighting in the ambush purchase of the ground formerly known as Flower Lodge.

Instead, City would most likely have had to take the game up to the old Lansdowne Road; a clash between Irwin and Keane and their fellow countymen taking place on that last resort of all Corkonians: Dublin soil.

Twenty-five years on and it’s stunning that even after opening the doors of Croke Park to soccer and rugby and despite cooperating with the 2023 Rugby World Cup bid, the GAA has allowed itself to be bound by such an inflexible and outdated rule.

Back then, it could have been City and United. Five years later, it was Omagh Town and United; as Michael Foley of The Sunday Times reminded us last weekend, Keane, Irwin & Co were willing to honour and fundraise for the victims of the bomb that devastated the town, only for Rule 42 to dash any prospect of such a charity match occurring in Healy Park. Now we’ve had the Miller saga.

They’re just games featuring Keane and his former United teammates.

There is still the odd person out there rationalising the GAA’s current position by rhetorically questioning why a professional sport such as soccer does not have a big enough stadium in the second-biggest city in the country to stage such an event.

We’ve already seen this summer how Croke Park is too big for almost every game short of an All Ireland semi-final and how Páirc Uí Chaoimh was unfitting for an All-Ireland hurling quarter-final.

Are such trolls on twitter seriously advocating that between them the FAI and Cork City build a 25,000-plus stadium for once-every-five-years occasions instead of Turner’s Cross continuing to regularly provide an atmosphere that most county grounds would die for? The GAA provides enough white elephants for most of the year without soccer joining in.

There may have been a time that Rule 42 worked in the best interests of the GAA, but the PR disaster of the past week has shown that time has come and gone.

At the turn of the millennium, when Tommy Kenoy was drafting a motion for Congress which was Croke Park-specific, I remember talking to one of the most progressive county chairmen in the country at the time, Limerick’s Donal Fitzgibbon. Back then the old Thomond Park could hold just 13,000 people. The Gaelic Grounds could hold at least three times that. Fitzgibbon was all for the Gaelic Grounds being made available for rugby. But it could only be a runner if Croke Park was made available first.

By the time Croker was, it was too late for the Gaelic Grounds. Munster Rugby had understandably ploughed on with its own plans and redeveloped Thomond Park. So, we have the baffling situation and sight on the Limerick landscape of two huge stadia within a mile of each other that between them barely attract 20 games a year that the old Thomond wouldn’t have had the capacity to hold.

Surely, Galway GAA should have the option to occasionally rent out its grounds to Connacht rugby, if the latter doesn’t feel the atmosphere would be too like Croke Park hosting a Super 8 game with all its empty seats? As much as the new championship format promises more home games for the likes of Salthill, the Gaelic Grounds and Páirc Uí Chaoimh, it’s still not enough.

For too long, not only has the GAA had an erratic and incoherent strategy regarding stadia development, but so has the country and state itself. Why should so much public funding go to a facility that is exclusively for one sport?

The Miller case has again shown the temerity if not the utter shamelessness the GAA top brass can possess, claiming not staging the testimonial doesn’t contravene the spirit of the €30m public funding used to develop the Páirc. As if the money was solely to support a Rugby World Cup the place and country was never guaranteed to host anyway.

It would be both beautifully fitting and ironic if the worst remnants of Rule 42 were blown away and buried in Cork. The GAA may be the biggest sport in Cork, yet for as non-ecumenical as the local county board has been, the city and county itself is probably the most ecumenical and greatest sporting constituency in the country. Athletics, basketball, camogie — Cork historically lead the country in all three — and that’s just sports beginning with A, B and C.

It’s precisely because Cork people play and follow so many sports that it has produced so many sporting greats. Roy Keane became Roy Keane because he was a product of his environment, developing a rare hardiness and brilliant quick feet, not just from boxing in the ring, but occasionally having to throw and duck the odd box on the GAA pitch.

JBM doesn’t kick that goal past Tipp in ’85 or Galway in ’73 if Jimmy, oh Jimmy didn’t know what to do when facing a goalkeeper in countless games of ground football growing up. Cork don’t pull off De Double without Dave Barry displaying the same craft and vision he showcased to Effenberg and Hagi in European nights in Munich and Istanbul.

What better way — outside of a return of Liam MacCarthy to Leeside — to mark the final months of Frank Murphy’s tenure as county secretary than for him to facilitate the staging of such an ecumenical event in the house he built? Ian Paisley chuckling alongside Martin McGuinness wouldn’t be a patch on such a reinvention.

The GAA can’t stall and leave itself open to another possible PR crisis or situation where Cork City could be drawn against a Man United or Celtic in Europe — as will invariably arise someday — and its gates remain closed.

Instead an event honouring one of their own— an Eire Óg clubman – who played for United and Celtic as well as City should see the chain-lock smashed once and for all.

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