GAA will have no option but to ring-fence croker crowd
DELEGATES had just taken their seats for what they expected to be a quiet first session at GAA Congress in Newcastle last April when they were jolted to attention by a stark presentation highlighting the dangers of pitch invasions.
It was followed by a chilling warning from Con Hogan (chairman of an expert group on ground safety) as to where the GAA were headed unless they addressed the issue.
"Do we want to be standing for a minute's silence at next year's Congress in memory of people who died at one of our major games because we did not exercise due care and attention? I want you to consider a future where Croke Park, Thurles, Clones or some other GAA stadium is linked forever with Ibrox and Heysel and Hillsborough, not as iconic sports venues, but as a place where people died because we didn't exercise proper crowd control," he said.
The media are regularly accused of sprinkling sensation to spice up a dish and, in different circumstances, a column which claimed that GAA grounds were accidents waiting to happen might draw a sharp rebuke from Croke Park amid allegations of irresponsibility.
No sports organisation likes to portray itself negatively, so for the GAA to concede that its main grounds are potential disaster sites is quite an admission and shows how concerned they are over the safety risks arising from pitch invasions.
Now, the GAA are planning another attempt at reverting to the system that applied a decade ago when presentations took place in the centre of the pitch. This one has to work or else there will be only one winner -- the barbed-wire company who wins the contract to fence off the Croke Park pitch.
Nobody wants that, but it will happen if there are widespread post All-Ireland invasions this year. There's no alternative once the GAA has told the Government, the gardai and the various safety authorities in the starkest terms imaginable that they fear a disaster.
We can now stand by for a flood of populist nonsense about how coming onto the pitch after All-Ireland finals has a long tradition, how it's 'part of what we are' and how the risks involved are exaggerated.
For a start, tradition grants no rights if it threatens safety. Drinking and driving was, to some degree, 'part of what we are' up to the last decade. It's not anymore and as a result a great many people are alive and well who would otherwise be dead or maimed.
As for exaggerating risk, it's prudent to lean that way where personal safety in concerned.
It's easy to be on the side of the ordinary fan who wants to run onto Croke Park after the All-Ireland final. Players from winning sides will talk of how delighted they were to share the great moment with their friends and neighbours. That ignores the possibility that the revellers may have walked on other people in their desire to join in the back-slapping.
Meanwhile, the losing side have to make their way through thousands of opposition fans and endure the taunting that goes with it.
Pleading with people not to come onto the pitch after All-Ireland finals won't work. It doesn't matter how extensive the information campaigns or many safety warnings are issued, supporters will try to get onto the pitch.
The only way to prevent that is to have enough stewards and Gardai to prevent it, which leads to clashes, usually followed by the 'Plan B' instruction to open the gates, making it all very unsightly and dangerous.
That's why it's difficult to see any physical solution to the problem other than to erect fencing, however unwelcome that might be.
However, if the GAA state that they fear a major disaster, aren't they leaving themselves wide open to claims for even the smallest injury unless they prevent the invasions?
You'll read plenty in the coming weeks from people who insist that the ritual is so special that it must remain sacrosanct. But if one person were to be seriously injured -- or killed -- these upholders of tradition would do a quick flip and lacerate the GAA for negligence.
Making it illegal to enter the playing area -- as is the case in many countries -- is an obvious solution, but somehow I can't see the Government drawing up the necessary legislation in the foreseeable future.
In the meantime, it's down to the GAA to sort out the problem. They have warned of the dire consequences of allowing the pitch invasions to continue and are winding up for another attempt to prevent it this year. Good luck with that, but it's going to be mighty difficult to make it work.
In the longer term, I suspect there's a nice little contract on its way for barbed-wire providers. It may be a little more sophisticated than that, but it will have the same effect.
orchard misery deepened by buoyant neighbours
THERE'S a lot of disappointment around various counties as championship ambitions lay strewn in ditches.
Watching your neighbours going well doesn't make it any easier to take, but you can always look away because another bordering county is bound to be experiencing similar desolation.
Not so, actually. Armagh finds itself totally surrounded by counties who are still in the senior football championship. Tyrone, Monaghan, Louth and Down have left Armagh landlocked by contenders.
Even if they look across Lough Neagh into Antrim, they'll spot a county which is still in the All-Ireland hurling race.
Small wonder it's feeling so claustrophobic in the Orchard this week.