Tuesday 21 November 2017

Eugene McGee: GAA must spend more wisely on its stadiums

Money has been wasted with too many grounds still below standard

The sweet kiss of victory as Ballinderry’s Colin Devlin and Aaron Devlin celebrate with the Seamus McFerran Cup after the team’s Ulster SFC club victory SPORTSFILE
The sweet kiss of victory as Ballinderry’s Colin Devlin and Aaron Devlin celebrate with the Seamus McFerran Cup after the team’s Ulster SFC club victory SPORTSFILE
Eugene McGee

Eugene McGee

THE GAA has a reputation for being slow to make changes but in recent years that idea has been blown away following decisions like the opening of Croke Park for soccer and rugby, and the growth of commercialism in the games through sponsorship and expanded television coverage.

But there are still pockets of tardiness in the Association that seem difficult to bring around and that reflect badly on how things are run.

For example, the GAA has spent countless millions on stadium-building around the country over the past 25 years, and while this expenditure is justified to some extent, we have also been left with some strange anomalies.

For instance, Louth do not have a ground capable of holding a home game in the Leinster championship, and the same can probably be said about Kildare.

In hurling, the Munster Council recently confirmed that the Cork-Waterford championship game this year would not take place in Walsh Park because the ground was considered to be inadequate. There are many other county grounds that are allowed to host senior championship games, but only if the crowd levels are very low.

Yet according to the 2011 census, the population of Kildare was 210,312, Louth had 122,897 and Waterford had 113,795.

On the other hand, Leitrim had 31,798, Longford 39,000 and Carlow 54,612 – and all these counties have grounds capable of accommodating Leinster or Connacht SFC games. So why is it that these three large-population counties have inadequate grounds, while the three smallest in the country have adequate ones?

On reflection, the expenditure on massive stadiums in Limerick, Tipperary, Cork, Kerry, Portlaoise and some other counties may not have been really necessary.

But the GAA philosophy over the years was that any county that felt they had the resources to build a major stadium should be allowed to do so, regardless of their capacity to fill it.

Killarney, for example, is generally not filled to more than 75pc capacity other than for a Cork-Kerry Munster final every second year.

I cannot ever remember seeing Portlaoise full to the rafters either and the Ennis Road grounds in Limerick is in the same category, even though this year's Munster hurling final between Limerick and Cork did test it.

In Ulster, they have been more careful in allocating resources, which means that all nine counties now have grounds capable of staging SFC games. The arrival of long-overdue funding to the Ulster Council from the Northern Ireland authorities has made a huge difference, and the newly developed Casement Park will be the second best stadium outside of Croke Park in a couple of years' time.

All nine Ulster counties were also given substantial funding to install floodlights at their county grounds – Ulster is the only province where all county grounds have such a facility.

That sort of communal responsibility towards developing adequate grounds in each county should be the template for Munster and Leinster too, and that would assist counties like Louth and Kildare to provide proper grounds for big games.

Since Croke Park is in Leinster, there should be no need for any other ground to hold more than about 30,000.

The recent development of O'Connor Park in Tullamore should be the template for any major development because it has provided state-of-the-art facilities, such as very large dressing-rooms, team buses being allowed to drop players at the dressing-room doors, and they have even provided wheelchair access to the highest level of the stand.

CONTROVERSIAL

Developing stadiums has always been controversial, with county boards lobbying for their upgrades. Common sense seems to be taking over, largely because of financial restrictions.

But there is still a major problem with a handful of county grounds that are not fit for purpose, where the relevant county boards are not financially capable of solving the problem.

There was a notion floated a few years ago about building a new stadium in the vicinity of the M50 that could be shared and used by a few different counties, in particular Kildare, Louth and Dublin.

Meath was also mentioned in that regard but Meath GAA people would probably feel duty bound to go it alone with the ageing Pairc Tailteann, and they are one county, with a population of 184,135, that could make themselves self-sufficient.

Anyway, it looks as if that proposal has died a quick death because there is an intrinsic streak of independence among all GAA counties that rarely facilitates co-operation in such matters.

Every county wants to have its own county ground, regardless of the quality.

Spending large amounts of money on different facilities has often been haphazard, and not just with regard to crowd capacities. Floodlighting is another area which needs to be forensically examined to see if every county ground needs it.

Are these lighting projects subjected to financial scrutiny to see if they actually provide value for money?

I see floodlighting in different places being put to far greater use in educational establishments or large clubs than at county grounds that rarely use such lights.

Providing expensive facilities has cost the GAA dearly in the past, so maybe the current hard times will ensure that such financial commitments will be more carefully examined from now on.

Irish Independent

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