What's going on in Croke Park now the games have ended?

With the closing of the inter-county curtain, all attention will switch to the club fields. Any Big Day from here on in will no longer be in the Big House
What's going on in Croke Park now the games have ended?

FIELD OF DREAMS: Under 10 players during an LGFA Go Games Activity Day at Croke Park in 2019. Pic: Harry Murphy/Sportsfile

And then there were no more games there. At least not how or when we’ve been accustomed to.

For the last 13 weekends it had been relentless there. The games, Horslips and Bowie heralding the re-emergence of the teams from the tunnel, Jerry Grogan on the mic, announcing their lineup and changes. Out of those 26 Saturdays or Sundays, there were only eight in which he had the day off and the rest of us weren’t either in that big house or tuning in to events there. 

“It was fairly hectic now,” Grogan says with that familiar voice and smile breaking through that distinctive beard. “Very enjoyable but very condensed, especially with the (five consecutive double weekends), and pretty tiring. You hardly had time to take in the game you’d just seen before there was another coming along! Again, you were loving it, but when it was all over you were thinking, ‘God, I could do with a break!’” 

Well now he has it. And the rest of us. And Peter McKenna, the stadium director of Croke Park as well as the GAA’s commercial director. For the first time in over 20 years he’s been able to take a foreign holiday in August because, bar the obvious outlier that was 2020, this is the first time in 85 years there won’t be any All Ireland semi-final played there in August.

Even more significantly, it’ll be the first time in precisely a century, bar again with that obvious exception of two years ago, that there won’t be any September All-Ireland final at HQ. Once Ray Kelly blew that whistle shortly after that Denise Gaule free last Sunday, it signalled the closing of the inter-county curtain and all attention to switch to the club fields. Any Big Day from here on in will no longer be in the Big House. Any scanning of tickets, any clicking of turnstiles, will be for a match anywhere but where we normally associate with this time of year – Croker.

It’s some contrast to almost any year you choose.

Take, say, 2014. That year you had 68,725 in the house to see Seamie Callanan score those brace of goals against Cork, and another 45,500 braving a monsoon to take in the other All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Kilkenny and Limerick. The four All Ireland football quarter-finals attracted over 110,000 through that bank holiday August weekend. The Kerry-Mayo semi-final drew another 52,500, the watershed Donegal-Dublin one 81,500.

All in all that’s 358,225 that came through the stiles in Croker for inter-county men’s games that August – and it would easily have surpassed the 400,000 mark if the Kerry-Mayo replay hadn’t had to be staged elsewhere or if you were to throw in the 55,000 that were in HQ for the Penn State-Central Florida game that banished James O’Donoghue and James Horan to Limerick the same crazy day. You’re talking about basically seventeen-fold the crowd we’ll have for August 20022, that tally solely being made up of the 23,500 who made their way to the camogie finals last weekend.

You’ll be glad to know though that the place, the pitch, is not going to waste. Games of hurling and football are still being held in Croke Park throughout this month – and try telling the participants that it’s not a big day or their All Ireland final.

Over the last decade Croke Park as both an organisation and as a venue has welcomed underage club teams from all over the country to play there in what are known as Activity Days. The week either side of Easter Sunday has been a regular slot in the calendar for these series of games, whereby right through the week, from morning through to evening, six clubs will be designated an hour to typically play three 20-minute games across three mini-pitches.

Every kids gets a minimum of a game and a half, and just as thrillingly, get their name in a programme and on the big screen. They get to tour the venue’s brilliant museum, tog out in the dressing room of their heroes, and then run out onto the field of their dreams. And this year they’re able to do it in August.

Precisely three years on from their clubman Con O’Callaghan banging a goal into the Davin End in an All Ireland semi-final, the Cuala U11s got to step on that coveted green carpet under the tunnel of the Cusack Stand and even better the magnificent green sod of the pitch itself. Next Thursday, the U12s of Ballyea, who also know all about O’Callaghan from St Patrick’s Day 2017, will hurl on the same surface precisely nine years on from when their most famous son, Tony Kelly, roamed so majestically in an All-Ireland semi-final against Limerick. 

Every county will have several representatives in some code or age group. So this August and every August in the foreseeable future it will remain for over 2,000 kids a truly national stadium and a field where games are played.

September though, will be different – and from almost any other we or the place has known. Over the course of five evenings – three nights on, and then after a break, a further two consecutive nights – from September 9 to September 17, a certain Garth Brooks will be packing them in at a clip rivalling Dublin-Meath ’91 and Dublin-Mayo at its zenith.

“We’ve been fortunate the way it’s worked out for us this year,” says McKenna, taking a call and time out from a holiday in Portugal. “We’re not the market-makers when it comes to the scheduling of concerts. But first you had Ed Sheeran wanting to start his world tour in Ireland and now we’ve Garth Brooks playing the last outdoor concerts of his career. That’s quite a coup for us, considering we’re talking about someone who has sold even more records than Elvis.

“You could say the machinery was a bit rusty for the Ed Sheeran concerts but we managed to get through it and have 160,000 in the venue over two great concerts which was brilliant after having nothing like that for a few years with Covid. And now we’re ready for 400,000 for the Brooks’ concerts which is an extraordinary number when you think of the size of the country’s population.” 

The operation certainly is well-tuned at this point for an event like Brooks. McKenna reckons the Croke Park pitch has never been better than it has been this summer. “Coming up to the finals we actually had to take some grass of it because it was almost too good.” But after the Brooks concerts, a new pitch will be laid down, one currently growing and being attended to in the GAA’s new farm out in Balbriggan, an investment and bit of foresight that gets better all the time in these post-Brexit days. 

By October it’ll be fit to host some Go-Games and Cumann na mBunscol finals, followed in November by the Leinster club semi-finals and finals. By January there’ll be the club All-Ireland finals, and then a few weeks later, a league game for the Dubs. As McKenna says, the place has and will have as many games and more than ever before, just that a lot of them are being played at a different time of the year than before.

There were some poor attendances this year, most notably at the Leinster final. McKenna, however, points to mitigating circumstances. “On the same evening you had a [soccer] Champions League final and a European rugby Champions Cup final involving Leinster and a team coached by an Irish icon [Ronan O’Gara]. It would be very unusual for something like all that to happen again.” 

The figures and income for the year are still being processed but after two years of Covid, 2022 has to go down as a resounding success for the venue and the association in his eyes.

Not that they can be complacent. Other aspects of the Croke Park experience are being assessed, such as the absence of curtain-raisers, especially minor games, which was most keenly felt at the embarrassingly-low number of seats occupied when the silver jubilee teams were introduced on All-Ireland final days.

For now though another set of kids will be able to play in Croker this August while the Cliffords and Gillanes are the ones in the club fields.

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