Wednesday 18 July 2018

Alan Brogan explains why Croke Park should not be classed as a home venue for Jim Gavin's Dublin

Dublin have been playing in Croke Park for years - it's only an issue now due to recent dominance

Croke Park. Photo: Stephen McCarthy
Croke Park. Photo: Stephen McCarthy

Alan Brogan

No sooner was the Kildare venue debacle out of the way than attention turned to Dublin playing two of their Super 8 games in Croke Park. Before we go any further, it's important to note that the format for the Super 8 was fixed at Congress in February 2017. At that stage you didn't have to be Einstein to work out that Dublin would be going forward as Leinster champions. It was clear also that Dublin would play two matches in Croke Park. The proposal was voted in by a majority at Congress.

So why has it become such an issue now? It has always been the case that teams have come to Croke Park to play Dublin in the All-Ireland championship and it has never been raised as an issue that it's the equivalent of a home game for Dublin. Is it an issue now because of Dublin's recent success? Do people feel it has become too much of a competitive advantage for Dublin?

The issue is not black and white and there are merits on both sides of the argument. Traditionally, and officially, Dublin's home ground is Parnell Park. When I started playing, all our league games were in Parnell Park, but all our championship games were in Croke Park because of the increased attendances.

So it has always been the case that Dublin played in Croke Park more than most counties. Where the problem for most people seems to arise is when Dublin's league games started to be played in Croke Park, around seven years ago.

The very successful marketing campaign by the Dublin County Board, together with the GAA, to move games to Croke Park coincided with the league becoming a much improved competition. The change increased attendances, raised the profile of the inter-county game in the spring months and gave other Division 1 teams an opportunity to play in Croke Park - a venue they mightn't have seen until August, or maybe not all.

But now, many opposing fans and pundits think it has become too much, that Dublin now hold an advantage and Croke Park has become Dublin's official home ground.

Yes, Dublin get to play a few more games in Croke Park and are able to give young lads a bit of experience there before the championship, but I don't think it can be classed a home ground like Ballybofey is to Donegal or Castlebar is to Mayo.

One simple, practical reason is this: when my brother Bernard was taking frees, he would practice before and after training in DCU during championship week. On the Wednesday, we might go up to Westmanstown and do a shooting session. Never once did he get to practice a free in Croke Park until 15 minutes before the throw-in. Free takers like to get the feel of a pitch, find their range etc. It's essential for their confidence going into a game.

Compare this to, say, Cillian O'Connor. I couldn't say for certain, but knowing how seriously he takes his free-taking, if Mayo had a championship game in Castlebar on a Sunday, Mayo would train there that week and I'm sure Cillian would do a free-taking session on his own, thus getting a real feel for range etc. The opposition free-taker couldn't do this and that's a distinct advantage of a home draw. Dublin have never had that in Croke Park. Indeed, I never trained with Dublin in Croke Park. How can it be classed as a home venue for Dublin in the same way as other home venues?

I asked four former inter-county footballers last week, two of whom think Croke Park is now Dublin's home pitch, whether they ever viewed coming to play Dublin in Croker as a home match for Dublin. All four said no, they saw it as a championship match in Croke Park. They didn't see it as an advantage for Dublin, even though we played all our championship matches in Croke Park at the time. Is this because we weren't winning All-Irelands? Is changing things now and looking to move Dublin out of Croke Park just a means to try and level the playing field when it was never really seen as an advantage before?

The game in question at the moment is Dublin v Donegal. This is the 'Croke Park' game in the Super 8 format. Declan Bonner came out last week to say the CCCC should have a look at moving it. I'm really surprised at this for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the format of games was set at Congress and so is enshrined in the rule book. Secondly, most of his side have plenty of experience of Croke Park and playing Dublin there won't faze them in the slightest.

It's a challenge any top side or player would relish. Kevin Cassidy, a man who never shirked a challenge throughout his career, tweeted about the "stupid" comments about taking this game out of Croke Park. Maybe it's the mind games starting, but I think Bonner and Donegal will fancy their chances against Dublin in Croke Park and I'd be shocked if, given the choice, they would prefer to play the game somewhere else.

I don't think any of the other top teams would either, as most are well used to Croke Park at this stage.

For the sake of argument, if it was decided that Dublin playing two Super 8 games in Croke Park gave them an unfair advantage, what are the options?

1. Dublin play their home game in Parnell Park - not feasible due to capacity

2. Dublin's Croke Park match is moved to a neutral venue. Declan Bonner mentioned Cavan or Clones. I can't recall the last time Dublin played in Cavan or Clones so they're hardly neutral venues. Donegal are a lot more familiar with Croke Park than Dublin are with either of those venues. A truly neutral venue would have to be in another province, somewhere capable of accommodating the crowd. Thurles? Páirc Uí Chaoimh? Somewhere in Connacht? The game starts to lose a bit of sparkle then.

If it is decided that Croke Park is Dublin's official home ground, then it's only fair that Dublin have access to the pitch in the week leading up to a home championship game.

This may cause problems when Dublin are involved in All-Ireland semi-finals and finals as these will then be viewed as home games for Dublin.

The venue will have little bearing on the result of Dublin v Donegal. The game will be won and lost between the white lines whether those white lines are in Croke Park, Clones or Thurles.

A game of that magnitude deserves to be staged in front of a full house in Croke Park. With all due respect to Clones and Cavan, I don't think Michael Murphy or any of his team-mates grew up dreaming of beating Dublin in either of those venues.

Finally, like all genuine GAA supporters, I am very disappointed that we won't see Paddy McBrearty in action during the business end of the championship. He has been a joy to watch and is a huge loss to Donegal. I wish him all the best with his recovery from injury and look forward to seeing him return as soon as possible.

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