Sunday 16 June 2019

Ewan MacKenna: Croke Park has gone from the jewel in the crown to the pain in the a**e

'Thus the start of the Super 8s was brutal for brand image. Naked and afraid'
'Thus the start of the Super 8s was brutal for brand image. Naked and afraid'
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

There's a wonderful photo from way back, comprising of so many of the contradictions that made the GAA special.

It's from 1993 and shows Liam Mulvihill, Peter Quinn and architect Des McMahon sitting stern-faced before a scale model of a new Croke Park as they unveiled an unlikely future. It's a mix of ordinary hard-working men and a massive and complex construction project; of a relatively small organisation with a big dream; of humility alongside grandiose notions that not just could come next for the association, but that had to come next for it.

Indeed while these days we complain about the GAA tipping a scales around a lust for money over meaning, this was the introduction of business when to avoid it would have resulted in big losses to sporting competitors as the entire game changed.

It's interesting in hindsight to look at the quality of the plan, the cost, and the delivery beside other projects since taken on within the GAA. McHale Park with a monstrosity of a stand held together with sight-stopping pillars for €16m; Semple's €18m upgrade that sees warm-ups still forced to a field over the road, and that inspired one of the first remarks upon unveiling to be, “Where did the other €17m go?”; the Mackey Stand at the Gaelic Grounds being built too shallow so you cannot see past the person in front, while the rest of the stadium involved a basic uncovered stand with 12,000 seats and a couple of tick-the-box ends for €12 million; the €70m Páirc Uí Chaoimh where there remain a couple of roof-less terraces, in a place where it rains on average 204 days a year.

And still...

Croke Park may be one of the areas they got it so right, but what was once about foresight and growing the game is now an arena that embodies the thinking that is holding so much back. That's the irony in this. If you don't believe us, look back at the first weekend of the Super 8s. Vacuous. Soulless. Torturous. And all for what? The idea of build it and they will come has long since vanished.

There are a myriad of reasons for the fall in average football attendances in particular, from structures to style to society. But you maxmise what you have for all those involved, from players to fans to more general optics. That hasn't happened though, with the bringing of games there so regularly like a once-fat man wearing old clothes after much weight loss. It feels bad and it looks bad.

The size and scale of the place means that on anything other than the biggest of days, it is a dull and boring experience that sucks the intensity from a game and the life from the crowd. A 2005 report may have said that lining out there would be “the sporting pinnacle in a player’s life”. However those days are gone and that's the myth in headquarters - that it's some sort of reward for a team, as if they'e earned this unusual occasion. What's seldom is wonderful but this is anything but rare.

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Take the last five football championships played out by those that have qualified for this year's Super 8s. Between 2013 and 2017, Galway in a barren spell have been there five times, as have Monaghan. Tyrone have lined out nine times in tough times, only once a year less than their golden era of 2003-2008. Kildare have been called upon 11 times, when there were only 18 similar occasions across the entire 1990s during a period that they were a cash-cow via their following. Kerry have been on 13 visits, versus the 10 of the near five-in-a-row group of 1978-1982. Dublin meanwhile have had 29 summer games in a ground some still claim isn't their home, which is more than Irish rugby team have played in Lansdowne Road - 26 home games in that same spell.

It isn't even a novelty for Roscommon as the second of their two visits for a derby quarter-final replay with Mayo saw just 39,154 show, meaning it wasn't half full. And can you imagine Donegal and the longest trip of all on Saturday, as they were asked to a late throw-in, making it eight trips in six seasons. It's no longer so far fetched to imagine a mother there asking the kids if they want to go only to be met with, “Not again”. What isn't far fetched at all would be a financial sigh of relief.

There's a key economic element in that regard. Last year a government report showed essentially how the capital is eating up Ireland. Dublin's employment growth rate has been at 16 per cent versus six per cent in the west; expendable household income has followed; as has public and private investment. This isn't solely an Irish issue and it doesn't seem a GAA issue, but the GAA had always gone above and beyond in terms of trying to do better for its country outside of sport too. Until recently.

Think about the needless battle to try and stop Kildare hosting Mayo in what was worth €400,000 to the local Newbridge economy, and to try and bring that money to a booming Dublin. Last weekend's two double-headers in Croke Park were also part of that pointless greed when they could have been used to boost not just the sport, but the economy elsewhere across the country.

For some time that hasn't been the case. Mulvihill when director-general said in the 1990s that Croke Park was a bold, forward-looking statement by the GAA to its own supporters as it was “a message to the wider public about the unquenchable spirit of Gaelic games from Malin Head to Mizen Head”. That spirit now needs reviving via a bold statement involving a greater avoidance of the place.

If you are to look at football – for hurling has been fortunate in this sphere, highlighted best by this season where just four of their 30 top-tier games will be in Croke Park - there's a clear and unfortunate trend. Through the 1950s, 6.7 games per season were played in headquarters. By the '60s that number reached 7.5, in the '70s it went to 8, come the '80s it dropped to 7.2, and across the '90s it was 8.3. All those numbers provided a balance well below saturation point, where there was money to be made while keeping the idea of it being a special place.

That changed though. Between 2000 and 2009, 16 games per football championship went there, and nine seasons into this decade that average has been almost retained with 123 matches, providing there are no replays  in the next month. It means that the 283 encounters there in the last 18 years is the same as the 36 seasons prior to it, accounting for a time-frame between 1964 and 1999.

We get the notion people want to show off, thus the whipping out of the holiday photos. But administration must realise we don't want to see them. Besides, this doesn't suit the GAA either. Or it shouldn't. In a part of their main competition that somewhere picked up a name that sounds like Hull should be playing Castleford, this was the sell to Sky and this is how they want to show the game as glorious. Croke Park may be the fur coat in that regard, but the attendance and their atmosphere are the undergarments.

Thus the start of the Super 8s was brutal for brand image. Naked and afraid.

That's been the case around fixtures on Jones' Road for some time now as the novelty faded. Last weekend many bemoaned the 30,740 and 53,501 that paid but why any surprise? With extra games squeezed in it ups costs while taking away the all-or-nothing feel, and you can lump in the idea that Kerry and Galway won't travel regardless of a World Cup final, that it was too early for a bandwagon in Kildare, Monaghan don't have the numbers for a bandwagon, Donegal were asked to get home in the middle of the night, and Dublin are not yet engaged due to later inevitability.

Besides, quarter-finals those same five previous years from 2013 to 2017 haven't been well attended when they had a lot more at stake and a lot more going for them. In 2017, the average per game was 37,380; in 2016 it 27,887; in 2015 it was 30,118; in 2014 it was 27,576; in 2013 it was 33,371. What all those figures scream is that those games would have provided packed grounds, huge occasions and better spectacles at provincial venues. It was a great shame and a terrible waste.

It's why for all the doom and gloom concerning the Super 8s, some of it will lift this weekend as games go nationwide. What we need of that is more, not less. There's still much wrong with the format for sure. Seventy-five per cent of counties aren't involved, and fall further behind in a system already built on unfair provincial structures. Also this creation actually addresses none of the club fixture issues while worsening an intercounty crisis.

But if we are stuck with it until 2020, at least let's maximise it's potential and make that Croke Park round a neutral round from now on. In that sense mistakes are forgivable after all, so long as not repeated and replicated.

Back in 2005, the GAA did a marketing study regarding Croke Park's longer-term impact. “The scale of the achievement of the stadium may become disconnected from the association that created it,” it read. “The former brand may grow in stature at the explicit expense of the latter.”

It's of course about a far greater disconnect than just the physical one, but that's a part of it and that's an element that's fixable. Only they still haven't listened to their own advice. It's high time now though. Otherwise, what visionaries saw as a jewel in the crown will continue to be a pain in the arse.

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