Monday 26 June 2017

PITCH INVASIONS: The Dangers, The Solutions, The Objections, The Myths and The Future

THE PROBLEM (1): WHY NOW AND NOT OVER THE YEARS?

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

The argument that pitch invasions in Croke Park have been an integral part of All-Ireland final days down through the decades is the most common put forward by those who want to retain them 'as part of what we are'.

It's flatly rejected by GAA director general Paraic Duffy on the basis that: (a) it was always dangerous; (b) times have changed in terms of health and safety issues; (c) it's easier to get on to the pitch than before the redevelopment; (d) the evidence of the risks and the danger are there for everybody to see.

"We have had injuries and very scary moments arising from the invasions," Duffy said. "That's a fact. Do we need a fatality before people realise how dangerous it is?

"Last year, Kilkenny captain, Michael Fennelly had to ask the crowd to move back before the presentation because he could see just how dangerous it had become in front of the Hogan Stand. Imagine how much worse it would have been if that was a county which hadn't won the All-Ireland title for a long time.

"Croke Park wasn't redeveloped with crowd invasions in mind. It was harder to get onto the old pitch which used to have wire fencing which even extended in front of the stands.

"Besides, the capacity of Croke Park is now larger than in the pre-developed days, so you get more people coming on the pitch. As for health and safety, it's a far bigger issue than it used to be in every walk of life, which is as it should be."

The Problem (2):

Congestion on

Jones's Road

This is a new concern which has arisen as a result of the pitch invasions.

Since access to Jones's Road provides the quickest route back into the city centre, the majority of people who invade the pitch from the Hill 16, Cusack and Davin Stands leave through the Hogan Stand exits, causing serious congestion outside.

It was quite frightening on Jones's Road for a period after the more recent finals. It also means that emergency services cannot access Jones's Road if required.

Said Croke Park stadium director Peter McKenna: "This is serious. What if somebody collapses on Jones's Road? What if there was a fire or explosion at the back of the Hogan Stand or in the Croke Park hotel?

"Emergency services couldn't get through for 20-30 minutes at least. People say, 'but there's never been a fire or explosion'. That would sound very hollow if something happened.

"You have to be prepared on the basis of what might happen in the future, rather than what didn't happen in the past."

The Policy:

How did the GAA go

about solving the

problem?

They embarked on a policy of persuasion, based on educating people regarding the dangers of pitch invasions.

They brought players and managers on board, asking spectators to stay off the pitch and allow the presentation to take place either on the half-way line or on the Hogan Stand as usual.

The Reaction:

Total rejection by

large numbers of

people

"Clearly, our education drive didn't work," said Duffy. "What has shocked us is the in-built hostility to something we want to do for the safety of the public while in no way reducing their enjoyment of the celebration.

"We're surprised by the reaction of some commentators and, indeed, some of our own county officers, yet not one delegate spoke in favour of allowing pitch invasions to continue when it was raised at Congress in April."

McKenna is less diplomatic: "To be honest, it's annoying to hear people, who should know better, pontificating about retaining something that could be a matter of life and death as if it's a trivial consideration about holding on to an old tradition."

The New Plan:

Erect a 2.8 metre

barrier in front of

Hill 16

Recent trends have shown that the dam usually bursts on Hill 16 and that the rest follows.

The GAA believe that if they can hold Hill 16, the stands will be quite easily contained since it's more difficult to build up a stampede from elsewhere. However, if that doesn't work out, fencing may be erected all the way around the ground.

"Fencing the whole ground is something we're not looking at for the present anyway. We'll see how the Hill 16 barriers work first," said Duffy.

The Accusation:

Why single out Hill 16?

"It's where the main stampede comes from. You're always more likely to get pressure from 13,000 people standing on a terrace than from those on the stands," said McKenna. "It's no reflection on the people on Hill 16 -- it's just the way things are."

The Stand Plan:

Allocating the first

few rows of seats to non-competing

counties

Designed to ensure there isn't an immediate rush on the stewards from the front rows, it has led to accusations of using people from non-competing counties as human shields.

Said Duffy: "That's a bit over the top. We feel it may help in a small way if the initial push doesn't come from the front rows. It's not a major part of the strategy by any means."

The Danger of

Fencing:

Real or perceived?

Fencing pitches is off the agenda in most countries, following tragic consequences at some venues. The GAA insist it's risk-free in Croke Park. "The barriers are designed and constructed to the highest standards, passing all health and safety tests," said McKenna.

"They will be instantly collapsible in the event of an emergency. They pose no risk whatsoever. In fairness, we would hardly try to prevent one threat to life and limb by installing something that was dangerous.

"As for visibility, the designers are doing the very best they can to ensure the barriers have minimum impact."

The Big Test (1):

Will the pitch be kept clear after the All-Ireland finals?

Who knows? If a dangerous crush develops at the barriers in front of Hill 16, the gates will have to be opened. That will be a Garda decision. Said McKenna: "Safety will come first, as it should."

The Big Test (2):

What if it works in

front of Hill 16, but

the pitch is invaded

from elsewhere?

It could lead to fencing the entire ground. "It's not something we're contemplating at present. We believe this will work," said Duffy.

The Bigger Test:

What if it fails for

both All-Ireland

finals?

There will be an immediate review of the situation. Ultimately, it could lead to seating Hill 16.

"Again, we're not thinking that far ahead," said Duffy. "We're concentrating on getting it right this year. What can't happen is that we throw our hands in the air and say, 'we can't stop the invasions, so let them continue'. That simply is not an option."

McKenna added: "Why on earth are we doing this to ourselves? We have a fantastic stadium, complete with the Hill 16 terrace, which is pretty unique by international standards, so why can't we enjoy its amenities for the benefit of all? The fact is that pitch invasions are deeply dangerous.

"Apart from the risk of death or serious injury, we have had cases of finding missing children as far away as Mountjoy Square, bawling their eyes out because parents -- or whoever was in charge of them -- lost them on the pitch."

The Myth:

That this is all a ruse to protect the pitch

It has been claimed by some that moves to prevent pitch invasions are really designed to protect the pitch.

"Absolutely not," responded Duffy. "The surface always recovers. Does anybody seriously believe we would go this far just to protect the pitch?

"The real issue here is much more serious than that. It's about taking responsibility to ensure that we avoid a tragedy. Nobody respects GAA traditions more than our Management Committee and Central Council, but we can't compromise on safety."

Irish Independent

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