Wednesday 12 December 2018

Comment: GAA's offensive attempt to do the right thing for the wrong reasons

The GAA's Feargal McGill. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
The GAA's Feargal McGill. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

A cursory search online tells us that Saint Conleth was a master craftsman in gold and silver who dwelled as a holy hermit on the banks of the Liffey, in what is now the town of Newbridge.

It also tells us he lived between 450-519AD. To honour his venerable memory, the Kildare County Board obviously decided to maintain the ground named after him in similarly ancient condition.

St Conleth's Park is a kip. In the 1950s and '60s it doubled up as a greyhound racing venue. You wouldn't put dogs in it now. The fact that it is their county ground is an embarrassment to Kildare GAA. Just because the match against Mayo went ahead there last night doesn't mean it was fit for purpose. It wasn't and it's not.

The CCCC knows this. It is why they decided last Monday to transplant the fixture to Croke Park. A crowd capacity of 8,200 would be entirely inadequate to meet the demand for tickets. We think the CCCC was trying in good faith to accommodate the estimated extra 10,000 people who would want to attend the match.

We happen not to believe that in this instance revenue was the primary consideration, if it was a consideration at all. The ticket price for the proposed double-header at Croke Park - with Cavan v Tyrone the curtain-raiser - was €25. These are rough estimates but, multiply the extra 10,000 spectators by €25 and the increased revenue would have been €250,000, minus all the overheads and discounts etc. Taken on its own, it is a substantial sum of money. But last year the GAA's income at central level (ie excluding the provincial championships) was a record-breaking €65.6m. It will take another quantum leap this year after revenue from the Super 8 is added to the pile. In this context, the gentlemen of the CCCC were unlikely to have had their heads turned by an extra 250k.

It comes back to the paltry capacity at St Conleth's. But the 4Cs did not, apparently, have authority in the rule book to deny a venue on grounds of capacity, nor indeed because of that venue's dismal facilities. Kildare, on the other hand, were able to cite the relevant rule in black and white: "Home venues shall be used in Rounds 1, 2 and 3 of the All-Ireland qualifier series with the first team drawn having home advantage."

The CCCC could not say to Kildare, at least in public, "but your home is a hovel." So instead it went for the "health and safety" line. And like the boy who cries wolf too often, the tendency of governments and businesses to invoke 'health and safety' as a reason for inflicting all sorts of costs and inconveniences has become a red rag to consumers. They have heard it too often. It comes across as just another line of corporate bullshit.

No one was buying it in this case either. The GAA's rank and file nationwide smelled another high-handed edict from Croke Park. The sense of a widening crevice between the governors and governed has been intensifying in recent years. It has bred anxiety and distrust among the grassroots. This gathering communal resentment found a flashpoint in the Newbridge quarrel, an outlet for an anger that had been festering long before St Conleth's Park came to national attention.

Unfortunately for Croke Park, they only compounded these grievances last week. Firstly they were seen to go over the heads of Kildare with their unilateral declaration for Croke Park. And when Kildare started to kick, they made it worse with statements that were either autocratic or inept.

"Given the capacity, this is all about health and safety, simple as that," said Feargal McGill, the GAA's director of games administration, on Monday evening. He pointed out that Kildare had been given the chance to nominate Navan or Portlaoise as an alternative venue. "They refused to do so." Faced with the threat of the Kildare team boycotting Croke Park, he might have chosen some sort of conciliatory formula for public consumption. Instead we got an alarming exhibition of megaphone diplomacy. "The game has been fixed for 7pm in Croke Park and that is not going to change under any circumstances. We fully appreciate where Kildare are coming from. We don't take home venue off a team lightly. However, health and safety has to come first. It's that simple . . . If Kildare don't show up in Croke Park on Saturday at 7.0pm the game will be awarded to Mayo."

On Tuesday morning, and with the story now all over the news cycle, Ned Quinn attempted to calm the flames by pouring more petrol on them. The chairman of the CCCC raised the spectre of public disorder. "The risk would be that people would get involved with other spectators, that's the risk," he told Newstalk. "I wouldn't call it crowd trouble but there could be animosity shown to people who had tickets and they couldn't get them, claiming they were regular supporters of Kildare."

These comments would have been offensive if they weren't so dumb. It is an ongoing source of pride to the GAA that it is rarely if ever afflicted by hostilities among rival fans. And yet, here was a veteran stalwart at the heart of the organisation suggesting that Kildare and Mayo fans could end up fighting over tickets.

On Wednesday morning came the U-turn. Reaching for some sort of fig leaf to hide their embarrassment, the GAA released a statement saying their "serious concerns" over health and safety had now been miraculously allayed.

Saint Conleth needs a brand new stadium. Croke Park obviously does not. But it needs a makeover in its prevailing culture. They had good reasons for trying to change the venue last week. But the public wasn't buying it. They need to start building a few bridges to their increasingly alienated fanbase.

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