Sunday 22 April 2018

Deadly serious

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

IT was a challenge the GAA never envisaged when a fully redeveloped Croke Park reopened its doors amid proud boasts that it was one of the best sports stadiums in the world.

There was no expectation midway through the last decade that a long-standing, if somewhat chaotic, tradition would grow into what has now become a major problem. Supporters pouring down from Hill 16 and the Canal End, and in from the Hogan and Cusack Stands, to celebrate All-Ireland wins has long been part of GAA folklore.

It has been accompanied by colourful descriptions in the print and broadcast media of the dramatic scenes in front of the Hogan Stand as the winning county expresses its identity in a very personal way.

At face value, the sheer jubilance and joy of the occasion is one of the highlights of All-Ireland final day, a unique Irish way of celebrating success in the tribal world that is inter-county competition.

But, according to the GAA, just beneath the surface of the colourful sea of emotion and delight lurks a silent killer, preparing to seize some unsuspecting soul and send him or her to their maker.

An over-dramatic presentation? Not according to GAA director general Paraic Duffy and Croke Park stadium director Peter McKenna.

"Should this practice (pitch invasions) continue uninhibited, it is our opinion, and that of the Garda Siochana, the emergency services and the relevant safety authorities that serious and potentially tragic incidents are inevitable. Not possible or probable, but inevitable," said Duffy.

McKenna's assessment is equally stark. "It's all very fine to portray the scenes in Croke Park after All-Ireland finals as lovely moments when happy people come on to the pitch to celebrate and where parents can dance with their children in the September sun, but I'm afraid the reality is a whole lot different. The manner in which most of them have got there and the subsequent 'celebration' in a packed area in front of the Hogan Stand are dangerous to the point of being deadly. That's a fact, not a theory," said McKenna.

alarming

And if all that weren't alarming enough, there's the subsequent chaos out on Jones's Road when many fans that have entered the pitch from Hill 16, Cusack and Davin (Canal End) Stands leave by the convenient Hogan Stand exits causing severe congestion.

McKenna said: "Apart from the crushing when the Hogan Stand exits pour anything up to an extra 20,000 people out onto Jones's Road, there's the potential for disaster if the emergency services were required in a hurry. What if we had a fire or an explosion at the back of the Hogan Stand or in the Croke Park Hotel? It simply wouldn't be possible to get Fire Brigades and ambulances onto Jones's Road because it's jammed with people who should have left through other exits.

"The Hogan Stand exits are well able to cope with those who were in that stand, as is Jones's Road, but it's a different matter when thousands of extra supporters pack into a small area. It's a direct consequence of the pitch invasions," he said.

The GAA have tried over the last few years to encourage supporters to remain on Hill 16 and in their stand seats while the presentation took place, either on the pitch or in the Hogan Stand. They have enlisted the help of players and managers to plead for co-operation with fans; the GPA has enthusiastically endorsed the GAA's approach, but the dam still burst every year, starting from Hill 16 and sweeping through the rest of the ground.

The instruction over the public address for stewards and gardai to revert to 'Plan B' (allow everybody on the pitch) is accompanied by a red flashing sign to the same effect on the giant screens. Once again, order has broken down, chaos is rampant and all the authorities can do is hope that when it has subsided, nobody has been killed or seriously injured.

Despite grim warnings of the dangers, attempts to keep the pitch free of invaders have met with a mixed reaction from the public. Many are happy to abide by the requests, but others have adopted a hostile stance, insisting that post All-Ireland final invasions are a long-time tradition and accusing the Croke Park authorities of exaggerating the risks involved.

It's a viewpoint expressed by some commentators and county officials too, although, curiously, there wasn't a murmur of dissent when it was explained to 330 delegates at Congress last April that pitch invasions would no longer be tolerated.

Work will begin shortly on installing special 2.8-metre high fencing in front of Hill 16 to prevent invasions at this year's finals. It will be in place for the Kildare-Down All-Ireland football semi-final on August 29 and although it's unlikely to come under any pressure that day, there will be considerable interest in how it impacts on spectator visibility.

It will also provide an opportunity for the GAA to test it out in a match-day situation. That applies mainly to the mechanisms which will be in place to instantly open the gates in the event of an emergency.

A week later it will undergo its first real test when faced with the challenge of Kilkenny/Tipperary/Waterford supporters who try to get on to the pitch after the hurling final.

The success -- or otherwise -- will give the first indication of whether a solution has been found to a problem which the GAA insists must be solved.

"We have to get this right. Allowing things to continue as they have been is simply not an option," said Duffy.

Irish Independent

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