COLM COOPER: Newbridge U-turn was about more than health and safety

WHO’D have thought the entire GAA grassroot community would be so vexed about Kildare retaining home advantage for this evening’s All-Ireland SFC qualifier with Mayo?

Seldom has an issue galvanised virtually every county across the four provinces as quickly as the initial CCCC decision to overturn the GAA’s own stated intention to reward first out of the hat with a home fixture. 

Could such a volte face really stoke anger and support of Kildare’s position to such a degree?

I have my doubts.

For some time, I’ve had a real sense that the Croke Park arm of the GAA has been losing their way in communicating to and convincing its rank-and-file members and clubs that it has their back.

For many of the disaffected, the fact that Croke Park decision-makers and their relationship with Sky Sports were potential victims of this stand-off was too seductive to resist in terms of pointing the finger.

I am not sure that’s altogether true; there are a lot of good people at HQ who are dyed in the wool club people as much as any of us. And they are not all about the money.

However, I am not buying the explanation that the initial decision was all about health and safety. What we saw this week was not a wave of sympathy for Kildare as much as it was a dam-burst of frustration from around the country from GAA people who feel disconnected from important decisions that affect them. 

I believe there is a substantial swell of public resentment towards Croke Park at this moment, whether it be over the lack of cohesion that characterised the April club month — Kerry was an exception, to be fair — or the lot of the club player generally and the way the growing chasm between inter-county and club has affected that.

The Newbridge or Nowhere movement was one issue too far in some respects. 

By itself, the initial decision came across as a breath-taking display of arrogance and, while I listened to both Ned Quinn and Alan Milton explaining the rationale for same, I still found that very difficult to square against what I heard on RTÉ radio on Monday morning in the presence of the GAA president: namely that first out of the hat WOULD HAVE HOME ADVANTAGE unless they were paired with a Division 3 or 4 side.

Even when the GAA made a correct, and timely U-turn, there was no acknowledgment that the initial decision to take the game out of Newbridge was a mistake. It was a mistake and had this all played out differently we would have seen the error in a far more excruciating light. 

I could be completely wrong here, but had the stand-off continued there would have been the prospect of an appalling legal argument ahead for the GAA and the football championship which sensible people in Croke Park believed too horrendous to contemplate.

I think the GAA, like me, were taken aback by the ferocity of the reaction around the country. It was like the lancing of a boil that had been festering for a while. 

Cian O’Neill gave a commanding, but more importantly unambiguous performance on television on Monday and, while I presume there was communication going on in the background, publicly Croke Park appeared to be patting Kildare on the head, telling them they had made their point, and to go away now and fall into line. if that was so, boy did they utterly misjudged the public mood.

In all the argument and counter-argument over season tickets and crowd control — which I appreciate Croke Park has to be responsible for — did no-one on high not give a moment to consider where Cian and the Kildare players were coming from. They are less concerned with how many Kildare people will be in St Conleth’s Park tonight than they are of getting the max out of themselves to stay in the championship. 

After the defeat to Carlow, they’ve been struggling to breathe every day and night since, but after battling back to the point where they see a chink of light with wins in Derry and Longford, they were hardly going to chuck up the single biggest advantage they will have against Mayo because someone in a committee room told them to.

If Cian is doing his stuff, he’ll have created a siege mentality in that dressing room reminiscent of Mick O’Dwyer when he used say that even half of Kerry was against his side. Anyone with a mic was ready to do Kildare down after Carlow, so whether there’s 2,000 or 8,000 Lilywhites in the ground tonight, it makes no difference to the Kildare players. They already have their motivation.

Mayo have been clever in keeping their nose clean on the issue. It’s nothing to do with them, and the only narrative Stephen Rochford will be drilling into his players is the route to the Super 8s goes through Newbridge instead of Jones’s Road. It’s still a field with four white lines and two goalposts. Beyond tonight’s result — and I still believe Mayo will progress — the learnings from this episode will be digested and acted upon by Croke Park. 

From a regulatory point of view, one thing is certain: At next year’s Congress there will be moves to introduce minimum criteria for stadiums hosting knockout championship games. That’s fine too, but the debate must be a representative one that puts the GAA’s community heartbeat front and centre. There’s commerce and business on the local main street too. 

What sort of welcome would the Kildare County Board have got from the local shops and trades if they’d ceded home advantage on this occasion? ‘Sorry lads, there’s no championship games in this town anymore, nothing from ye to help bolster the economy. We’re getting no twist.’ For as long as I am involved in the GAA, we hear the whole time that it’s all about the grassroots, but the actions to support that seem more inconsistent every year. I know it’s easy to be populist this week, and the easy jibe in this direction will be about testimonial dinners etc. But nobody can question my commitment to my GAA club and to the association over the last 25 years. This could have turned very messy but if it tidies up some problems and shines a light on a few others, it mightn’t have been the worst week in terms of the long-term direction of the GAA.

GIVEN all that has happened regarding Kildare-Mayo, it’s easy to forget there are three other Round 3 qualifiers today — and easier still to forget the Munster football final from a week ago. Cork people would be happier to park it altogether, but there were strong messages to emerge from Páirc Uí Chaoimh we cannot ignore. Kerry were extremely good.

I’ve seen them twice in the flesh now and, while there’s legitimacy in pointing out that Cork were all at sea, Kerry continue to encourage me in a couple of key areas. One, the young fellas have settled in really, really well. Secondly, the chemistry up front was a big bone of contention for me last season, but I could certainly not say that now. They’re playing it fast and clever and the spread of scorers is so different to last year’s reliance on Paul Geaney and the hope that James O’Donoghue might find form.

It will be interesting to see whether Eamonn Fitzmaurice sticks with Micheal Burns now for the Galway game. He wasn’t great in Cork, but that can happen. I think he will stick with him, and that raises the strange possibility where a Kerry team we knew zero about a month ago is now virtually settled on 12 or 13 positions going into the first Super 8 game. It’s amazing how settled and cohesive it’s become. Management took a lot of flak last year, but so far this summer, there seems to be a real spark about them and their conditioning is excellent.

I never expected Cork to beat Kerry, but what’s really worrying if I was a Cork player or supporter is the ease with which they are raising the white flag in matches. Whatever about competing at a Division One level, you don’t — especially against Kerry — buckle like Killarney a year ago and again last Saturday night. If there was a mental hardness in the team it wouldn’t happen.

The Munster final opened my eyes to the scale of the job Ronan McCarthy and his management team have ahead of them. I am not sure how far they can develop that even in 12 months. This is a longer-term job, but the short-termism is where it’s at now and the message must be clear from management: A lot of these Cork players are playing for their careers next Saturday. 

If you don’t show me something the next day, you are out of my plans going forward. That must be the message from McCarthy, whether he explicitly says so or not. There are some fresh faces, but a lot of the squad have been around the block. 

I had to look around to see if Aidan Walsh was playing last Saturday. I mention him because he’s an All-Ireland medal winner and Cork need more from the experienced heads.

More than the man in possession, I was watching the Kerry forward working the space and it was too easy, two or three yards ahead of their Cork marker. It wasn’t even close. 

That shouldn’t happen in a provincial final. I have written here a month ago about the need for a long-term rethink in Cork, but with the prize of a Super 8 place on the line in a week’s time, it might be as much about pride and guts as tactics and strategies for the moment.

They won’t be catching Kerry any time soon.



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