It may only be late May, but the howls of anguish over the ticket drought in Donegal ahead of Sunday’s Ulster SFC game with Tyrone have decorated the All-Ireland’s earlier stages with a soundtrack that has rarely, if ever, been heard before the kids trudge back to school in September.
All winter, the debate over the venue for this game has dragged on. Clones, with its greater capacity and traditions of hosting anything approaching the status of a ‘big’ match up north, was championed by supporters in both counties and beyond, yet MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey it is.
The stampede to decry the decision was all too predictable.
Tyrone moaned that their allocation of just under 6,000 tickets fell way short of their needs for such a plum tie, but then sent back one-sixth of them earlier this week, while one official claimed families have been put off attending because the terraces would be too full.
It is easy to sympathise with that as a parent and someone who has watched more than his fair share of sporting events over the shoulders of others (not just as a child, given I still stand at an unexceptional 5ft 8ins, but should we really be considering a different venue because a provincial GAA ground might actually be close to full for a game?
The fact is, in over 30 years attending GAA matches, this observer has never once witnessed a ‘full house’ sign swinging from the gates of a provincial ground prior to throw-in, so the prospect of one of the summer’s heavyweight clashes being played in a venue throbbing with humanity finds nothing but favour here.
It’s only a few weeks since Kilkenny and Tipperary played out an engaging Allianz Hurling League final at the compact but comfortable Nowlan Park yet, in terms of quality, the contest was no great shakes. No, it was the atmosphere generated by the cosy environs that electrified and elevated the day beyond the norm.
Supply and demand can be a wonderful thing. Okay, so you can grumble, as people in Donegal have, about how there has only been one ticket available between every two members for the Tyrone game, but let’s put this into some sort of perspective and remind ourselves that there are over 160,000 people living in the county.
With the GAA boasting such a passionate following there, surely it would be more concerning if there wasn’t a scramble for tickets for a contest of this nature given their status as All-Ireland champions, the fact it is the start of that defence and their recent history with Mickey Harte’s lads.
Donegal and Tyrone have already met twice in Ulster this past two years. Both contests were played out in St Tiernach’s Park in Clones and the average crowd worked out at 18,133. Want to know what the capacity in Ballybofey is this weekend after €100,000 of redevelopment work? Just under 18,000, that’s what.
Which brings us on nicely to another point that bears mentioning. Millions of euro have been poured into bricks and mortar by the GAA and its units this past 10 or 20 years and yet county grounds have, in some instances, gone years without hosting a meaningful provincial championship fixture.
What was the point in spending all that cash if games were switched to the same old neutral venues like Clones, Portlaoise or Thurles at the first sign of something approximating to a crowd? And what does that say about any county board’s attitude towards its players, its team, their fans and its sponsors?
Think about it this way: every GAA county board depends on the generosity of local businesses in some shape or form. Shouldn’t these business people be paid back by keeping the biggest games in-house?
It is a two-hour drive from Ballybofey, on the eastern border of Donegal, to Clones. Were Sunday’s game held in the latter, fans would have spent more on fuel, food and drink and a huge proportion of it would have landed in tills in Omagh, Ballygawley or Aughnacloy — all of which are in Tyrone — rather than Letterkenny or Killybegs.
And what of the businesses in Ballybofey in two days’ time? How much will it be worth to news-agents, restaurants, bars and street traders to have 18,000 fans milling about the town rather than passing through? Isn’t supporting your own exactly what the GAA’s parish ethos is supposed to be about?
Really, the more you look at it, the more Ballybofey was a no-brainer.
But of course, the most salient fact in all this has to be that Donegal clearly stand a better chance of actually winning this game by dint of the reality that it is being held on home soil, and how can anyone argue with that?
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