KIERAN SHANNON: Newbridge wasn’t made for this qualifier, but Portlaoise is

Not that long ago, but before TV3 let alone Sky Sports started covering the qualifiers and before the GAA was routinely accused of selling its soul, a team that had contested the previous year’s All-Ireland final was drawn away to a Leinster team with one of the worst and smallest stadiums in the country, just like Mayo were to Kildare last Monday morning.

On that occasion, Tyrone were the side who had played into September the previous year, and Louth the county with the capacity-challenged home ground.

Their subsequent clash turned out to be the most dramatic match of the 2006 qualifiers, a couple of Owen Mulligan goals saving Tyrone from elimination and earning them a 2-16 apiece draw after extra-time.

What’s significant about that match now is the venue. Though Louth were the designated home county, the game wasn’t played in Drogheda. Instead it was moved 15 miles down the road, to Navan. 

After discussions with the GAA’s Game Administration Committee, Louth county secretary Pat Toner conceded the county was “realistic enough” to accept Drogheda was inadequate, having not even half the capacity to house the likely attendance.

It wasn’t the first time the county had accepted the limitations of its county ground. Two years earlier, when their name came out of the hat just before John O’Mahony’s Galway, the game was switched to Parnell Park.

Two years earlier again, Louth even agreed to play away rather than home against Meath to accommodate all of their own supporters as well as Meath’s that wanted to experience that local derby; it’s estimated over 20,000 people crammed into Páirc Tailteann that night to see Graham Geraghty arrive by helicopter and score a last-minute goal to crown the last great Meath comeback of the Boylan era.

Each time there was no outrage or a statement from the GPA. Everyone involved was “realistic enough” about the inadequate capacity of the home team’s ground.

The relevance of the Louth precedent is this: Ever since the inception of the qualifiers, the CCCC or its equivalent has exercised the right to veto a county’s home advantage when they feel its home ground is inadequate for the potential crowd.

That asterisk and Louth precedent has been ignored or forgotten in the deluge of populist support for Kildare’s Newbridge-or-nowhere stance, the public and even elements of the media delighted to finally have a champion who’s willing to stand up and sock it to the man.

Undoubtedly the world and the GAA has changed since Navan 2006, a time when Paraic Duffy was not yet director general and his successor Tom Ryan still worked for Brown Thomas. There’s a greater distrust of Croke Park, the way it has accommodated the strong getting stronger as the weak get weaker. The Sky deal, the Super 8s, the neglect of the clubs: There’s a groundswell of unrest that was bound to culminate in a moment of defiance, and with the foundation of the CPA proving to be an anti-climax, Newbridge has emerged as the next best thing.

The optics of this fixture hasn’t exactly helped the GAA either: Fixed for Croke Park, covered by Sky Sports, two institutions perceived to be all about money. But Sky, contrary to the false news, did not have any say in the venue of Saturday’s game. 

And the reason why the CCCC designated Croke Park as the venue was because Kildare were unwilling to offer an alternative venue like Portlaoise.

The argument will be made that all sports have sellout games, that there’ll always be cases where the supply exceeds the demand. Only 20,000 people can fit into an arena in Oakland or Cleveland for an NBA finals. Man United have played in Shrewsbury in the FA Cup. The doors have to close at some point. You can’t please or accommodate everyone.

The GAA though is unique. A supporter of a visiting team is as welcome to attend if the travel doesn’t deter them. Usually the travel does, in some cases it doesn’t. 

Twice in the last month Tipperary have been outnumbered at least 3:1 in Thurles: not just by Mayo in last Saturday’s football qualifier, but by Cork in their second game of the new-look Munster hurling championship. If you have cash and will travel, well then the GAA invariably accommodates you.

Of course, it has to put up the ‘sold out’ signs, like with almost every All- Ireland senior final or this weekend’s Munster hurling final. But at no point does it freeze out more than half the people who would be willing to attend a game, certainly not this side of September. If you show up for even an All-Ireland hurling semi-final, or a football one not involving Dublin, you’ll get in.

What though about Mayo-Kildare? Twice already this month Mayo have brought more than 10,000 fans to both Limerick and Thurles. 

With so many of the Mayo diaspora based in Dublin, their numbers would swell to at least 15,000. Factor in the number of Kildare supporters that would want to take in the game and you’re talking about a crowd two or three times the size of that which St Conleth’s can facilitate. Rarely if ever before in the history of the championship would such a high percentage of willing attendees be denied entry.

It’s understandable why there’s such sympathy for Kildare and a backlash against the GAA. The past three seasons Leinster Council blocked Laois, Carlow, and Wicklow hosting Dublin at their home venue. Each time they erred. Both O’Moore Park and Dr Cullen Park would have comfortably accommodated the eventual crowd. Twelve thousand people attended this year’s opening round against Wicklow, just 2,000 over the capacity of Aughrim. But Kildare’s stance would leave nearly 15,000 people unaccommodated.

Kildare’s stance has also been emboldened by the example of Kevin McStay and Roscommon who insisted the Connacht final be played in Dr Hyde Park. Again, there’s a significant difference.

Whatever size crowd was willing to attend the Connacht final, the Hyde was able to hold most if not all of it.

When Louth agreed to play Tyrone in Navan rather than Drogheda, Toner spoke of his county being “realistic enough” to accept its ground was inadequate. Unfortunately such realism hasn’t been pervasive in Kildare this week. If there was, they’d realise this: Newbridge is among just a handful of county grounds not up to hosting certain games.

Drogheda has been able to host all home qualifier games since 2006. They’ve even subsequently hosted Tyrone, in 2008, when the demand for tickets in the Red Hand county wasn’t so hectic. 

But were Louth to draw a Mayo next year, they also would be asked to play somewhere than Drogheda, which only has a capacity of 3,500. Just like Louth would have been, Kildare supporters and sympathisers should note, if they had been drawn at home to Kildare in the McGeeney years.

Antrim’s Corrigan Park has only a capacity of 2,700. Are the sock-it-to-Croke-Park-man crew honestly claiming that if Antrim somehow made the Super 8s, it would be suitable for an All-Ireland quarter-final playoff match? Louth with Drogheda? And yes, Kildare with St Conleth’s?

If Clare GAA with Cusack Park is the equivalent of Roscommon with the Hyde — unkempt ground but fine capacity, good enough for now to host a big provincial championship game — then Kildare with Newbridge is like Waterford GAA with Walsh Park. 

As successful and competitive as both counties have been since 1998, 20 years later neither still has a county ground that is fit for purpose. There comes a time when that catches up with you and 2018 has been that time.

Deep down, both counties know this. Like Waterford with Walsh Park, Kildare are planning to redevelop St Conleth’s by 2020. Pádraig McManus, the former head of the ESB and now chairperson of eir, is overseeing the project which is estimated to cost €7.5m. The plan is to start work in May 2019 and be ready by the following April, meaning it will have to stage home games elsewhere throughout the Super 8s of 2019 and the league of 2020.

Kildare GAA deserves such a ground. But right now its ground doesn’t deserve a game like next Saturday’s. Otherwise it’s telling other counties there’s really no need to upgrade their facilities. 

It could allow Waterford to ease off, empowered by the Newbridge precedent, leaving the Munster championship and the public and the players stuck with Walsh Park as it is.

In his column in this paper, Tony Browne argued that the Waterford County Board had been too nice. That they should have opened their negotiations by insisting on playing in Walsh Park this ummer. Then, being “realistic enough” like Louth in 2006 to appreciate their home ground was inadequate, their fallback and non-negotiate position should have been to play their home games in Nowlan Park or Wexford Park, not accede to playing in Limerick and Thurles.

Kildare and O’Neill cannot be accused of being too nice here. And their opening salvo was probably worth a shot. But it looks like they’ve overshot it. A Portlaoise could have been their Wexford Park, their Navan, their home from home. It was in 2012 when they were happy to move there for another Round Three qualifier, against Limerick, to accommodate more of their own supporters.

For sure the GAA should have handled this better. Had they fixed this for Portlaoise, sympathy for Kildare would have been minimal outside the county. 

By fixing it for headquarters, they’re seen to be pandering not just to the corporate boxes and Sky, but giving a leg up to one of the sport’s big guns, Croke Park being not just a second home to Mayo but a considerably kinder venue to them than their actual home, their winning percentage in Croker being much better than their recent record in Castlebar.

Mayo haven’t played in Portlaoise since 2012, back when O’Neill was their coach. Kildare have regularly played there in the meantime. 

From this vantage point this game was made for O’Moore Park, not Conleth’s. When O’Neill says his players have been let down in this whole saga, he’s right. Their county board should long ago have provided them with a home ground that was unquestionably able to host a game like this.


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