Time for Dublin to leave Croker comfort zone

How could it be that a former Footballer of the Year doesn’t know what it is to bus it into enemy territory on a big match day?

Here’s a thought: Bernard Brogan has never played a championship match outside of Croke Park. Think about that. Twenty All-Ireland appearances in six years for Dublin and all of them on the same patch of grass.

An exclusive piece of real estate, no doubt about it, but does that not strike you as inherently wrong? And sad, in a way, too? One of his generation’s finest talents and he has never been seen on the days that matter most outside of Dublin 3.

Elvis Presley, famously, never performed outside of North America — much to the regret of his fans worldwide — but there’s no Colonel Tom Parker holding Brogan & Co. back, just a complicity of silence that continues to accept a ludicrous situation for what it is.

Brogan’s not alone. A dozen of the team named by Pat Gilroy for this weekend’s Leinster semi-final against Wexford have yet to spend a summer Sunday navigating a path through a championship fixture outside the Pale.

The odd men out, for the record, are Stephen Cluxton, Bryan Cullen and Alan Brogan.

The inequality of it all is heightened by the most arbitrary of inspections into Leinster’s 10 other competing football counties over, say, the last five provincial campaigns in which Dublin have played all 15 of their games along Jones’ Road.

In that same time, six of their competitors have not played as much as one Leinster championship game in their own county ground. Only three experienced an ‘away’ fixture, trips to HQ aside, while Westmeath were somehow landed with four.

Six counties played in Dr Cullen Park, but not Carlow, and the second-most frequented venue was O’Moore Park in Portlaoise although Laois played in front of their own supporters there just once between 2007 and 2011.

That is not a championship, it’s a lottery.

Players will tell you there’s nowhere they would rather perform than Croke Park but how could it be that a former Footballer of the Year doesn’t know what it is to bus it into enemy territory on a big match day when every step is fraught with unfamiliarity?

Sports people are slaves to rituals and no doubt Brogan and the rest of his Dublin teammates know theirs off to a tee by now. Every inch of Croke Park — every sight, smell and sound — reinforces certainties and calms nerves on match days. New surroundings demand new questions. Adaptation. Change. Where to sit in the dressing room. How to get to the pitch for the warm-up. What studs to wear. How to judge the wind gusting in over those low terraces.

Small factors all but they combine for a bigger picture, one which Wexford’s Aindreas Doyle addressed this week when he commented on the inherent unfairness of Dublin’s attachment to a ground and one which has only strengthened in recent years.

Dublin have played nine All-Ireland qualifiers since the back door was introduced in 2002 and you’ll never guess where they have played the majority of them. Hmmm. Five in Croker, another one next door in Parnell Park and only three in the provinces.

Add in their tenancy at HQ for home Allianz League games this past two years and it is hardly any wonder that Doyle felt the need to raise an issue which would not be countenanced in any other sport or, for that matter, any other county.

Money is the obvious glue keeping the cosy relationship together. The Dubs are big business — the GAA’s biggest and everyone realises that it makes sense from a financial point of view to have them perform where most bums can be paired with seats.

It may inflate the coffers but it sucks colour and drama from the championships. Parity too.

Wexford have threatened Dublin in the recent past but the closest they came to taking their scalp was arguably in 2002 when a last-gasp Paddy Christie block prevented a goal which would have handed the underdogs a one-point win.

The venue? Dr Cullen Park.

Three years later and Paul Caffrey’s side were just as relieved to retreat from Longford’s Pearse Park with a two-point buffer 12 months after a 19-point margin had separated them from Luke Dempsey’s side in Croke Park.

The memory of Wexford’s players crashing to the turf in 2002 and of Dempsey standing disconsolate and barefoot on the concrete floor of the tunnel in 2005 as he dissected another one that got away still linger.

Good days that could have been great.

Both were infused with the excitement that only the capital’s travelling hordes bring with them when they make for Connolly or Heuston Stations or the M7. Those excursions shouldn’t occur once in a blue moon.

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