Only right blend will pack great stadium

Croke Park can expect a somewhat quieter summer than it is accustomed to. Brendan O’Brien reports.

CROKE PARK opens its doors tomorrow for a Leinster football championship double-header but it’s schedule for the rest of the summer will be almost a trickle compared to the torrent of 2005.

The consensus over how best — and how much — to use Croker over the course of a championship season has changed.

With €290m spent on its reconstruction in the past 15 years, it was only natural that the GAA would seek to utilise it at every turn once the scaffolding was packed away and the paint dried. So it proved.

Back in 1998, 17 championship games were contested in Croke Park between the hurling and football series.

By 2003, with the advent of the qualifiers systems, that had risen to 24 and by last year the number had jumped again to 30.

Though always the central focus to any All-Ireland season, Croke Park was now in danger of becoming the championship itself in the public eye.

Last September the winds shifted when falling attendances at All-Ireland qualifiers led to a resultant drop in revenue figures.

The hurling fixtures actually produced a negative return and the football fixtures would have followed suit only for a handful of high-profile replays.

Central Council decided action was needed and the decision was made to reduce the number of qualifiers in Croke Park.

The process of bringing the championship back to the provinces had begun.

“It’s definitely going to happen,” confirmed former president Sean Kelly at the time.

“We might get more at games around the country. We are upgrading the floodlighting systems at venues all over the land and we will have to balance fixtures next season.”

Leinster, of course, has always enjoyed privileged access to the jewel on Dublin’s northside. Back in ‘98, for instance, over half of the 17 championship fixtures played there were in the Leinster football and hurling championships.

In the years when the Rule 42 debate was at it’s most intense, opponents to change pointed out that the GAA would be better served ensuring more of their own members got to play there before welcoming the IFRU and FAI.

Think of the Derry hurlers or Leitrim footballers, they said. Leinster didn’t have that problem.

Every senior football team in the province has played in Croke Park at one stage or another in the last three seasons.

In 2003, the Leinster Council held an unprecedented triple header at the venue, a decision widely praised at the time precisely because it allowed the likes of the Louth and Wicklow footballers to play on the sacrosanct soil.

“Most of the counties involved have not played at our magnificent new stadium since it’s redevelopment,” said then Leinster Council chairman and current GAA president Nickey Brennan “Whether we continue playing opening round games at Croke Park will depend on the success or otherwise of today’s programme.”

In the event, only 17,142 spectators turned up, despite an expected attendance of over 30,000. A magnificent stadium it may have been, but the lesson was that you needed the right entertainment to fill it.

The low turn-out was a serious financial hit for the Leinster Council who decided to tighten the purse strings and use their heads rather than their hearts to decide on venues in the future.

“It remains a great venue and we are fortunate to have it ... and for the major games you will always get extra people there,” said Leinster Council secretary Michael Delaney later that year.

“But there are times when you must use common sense and, when we sit down to make our dates and venues in the coming weeks, we will probably take advantage of some excellent venues which are available around the province.”

Despite those words, Leinster found Croke Park a hard habit to kick. Last year, nine of their ten football fixtures and three of their four in hurling were played there due, they said, to fixture constraints and a Sunday lost to U2.

Whatever the reasoning, the fact remained that such a lopsided programme needed to be addressed.

Since arriving to take over Laois in the winter of 2002, Mick O’Dwyer has led the team into a dozen Leinster championship encounters.

Nine have been in Croke Park. Only one was held at O’Moore Park in Portlaoise, a stadium that underwent a costly facelift of its own in recent years. Even that game — against Offaly — was all of three years ago.

This year, three of Leinster’s eight football matches will be held outside of Croke Park. All bar the hurling final itself have been allocated elsewhere too. A balance, it seems, has been found.

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