Crowds, chaos, and controversy: The last time the ‘new’ Páirc hosted a Munster final

Tonight’s Munster final echoes the same game back in 1976, when Cork and Kerry also met in the provincial decider for the opening of what was then a brand new stadium.

Crowds, chaos, and controversy: The last time the ‘new’ Páirc hosted a Munster final

That 1976 game lives on in the folk memory not just for what happened on the field - a titanic struggle between two of the best three teams in the country at the time - but for what happened just outside the playing area.

Thousands of spectators got in for free as the stewarding broke down, and hundreds of them took up vantage points along the sideline.

Some years ago Kerry star Pat Spillane recalled for this writer what the environment was like.

“We weren’t conscious of the people on the sideline, Having said that, I was standing in the goal for a 45 when a fella hit me with an umbrella across the back of the legs and said, ‘don’t come in here again’.”

Over by the covered stand, the new Cork medic got to see the action up close and personal. Too close and personal.

“The crowds were in on the pitch, almost,” said Dr Con Murphy later.

“We were nearly on the sidelines ourselves. In the first few minutes Kevin Kehily and Brendan Lynch almost fell on me flaking each other, and Paudie Lynch jumped in then.”

“I was working with Brendan and knew Paudie from UCC, so it was a strange situation for me.

“Looking back on those games, they were fantastic occasions but we certainly didn’t get the rub of the green.”

How was the opening so chaotic?

Diarmuid O’Donovan is now Cork senior administrator, but in 1976 he was a fan, albeit one whose father Donie was the Cork trainer.

“Looking back now there were a few factors that fed into the confusion.

“One lesson that was applied when the Páirc was redeveloped, for instance, was the idea of a ‘soft opening’. Before we ran big games in the stadium last season there was an intermediate hurling championship played there between Blarney and Valley Rovers, which gave the stewards and security and everyone else a dry run in a match situation that wasn’t a Munster final, or a double-header of All-Ireland hurling qualifiers.

“Back in 1976 you had thousands of people coming to a brand new stadium who had no idea where to go, what to expect, or who even knew where the gates were.”

The size of the crowd was another issue - or imagining the size of the crowd.

“At the time Cork had won a football All-Ireland only three years before, and Kerry were reigning All-Ireland champions, so there was huge interest in the game,” says O’Donovan.

“Straight knock-out, Munster final, two very evenly matched teams, as was seen by the fact they played two draws in those games.

“So it would have been presumed that there’d be a decent sized crowd, people wanting to see the new stadium. But when you didn’t have the ability to track ticket sales and make decent predictions about the size of the crowd there was always potential for trouble.

“As we’re talking now (Friday) there are over 20,000 tickets sold for this Munster final, so you can make good predictions on the eventual size of the crowd.

“A crowd of 50,000 might have been expected, but at the time it was difficult even to conceive of a crowd of that size. The old Athletic Grounds wouldn’t have been accommodating crowds on that kind of scale through the sixties, certainly, and the stewarding system in place then wouldn’t have been designed to handle that kind of crowd.

“And in 1976 the big, big crowds would have been 20 years in the past, the big county hurling finals of the mid-fifties, so most of the stewards would probably not have had experience of very big crowds.”

Add in a general supporter attitude of leaving it until the very last minute to rock up to a venue - one which survives to this day in the GAA - not to mention the fact that the concept of health and safety lay decades in the future . ..

“One of the issues at the time, for instance, was that when people got in they didn’t go up to the back of the terrace and the stands, but they went down to the front seats, near the fencing,” says O’Donovan.

“That had been the way in the old Athletic Grounds, you got yourself down close to the action because you didn’t have those steep stands where you could go up high and get a good overview of the action.

“For the ‘76 Munster final the crowds at the bottom of the stands and terraces caused congestion, the crowds backed up, and there was total confusion.”

The first game in 1976 was drawn, 0-10 apiece, and Kerry won the replay in extra time, 3-20 to 2-19, a fortnight later. That replay still boils with controversy, but off the field at least it passed off without incident.

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