Sunday 20 October 2019

Comment: It is way past time that Dublin and their supporters were taken out of their Croke Park comfort zone

Dublin footballer Ciarán Kilkenny. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Dublin footballer Ciarán Kilkenny. Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

The party line coming out of Dublin over the last ten days is that they "rent" Croke Park whenever they want to play there, and therefore it is not actually their home venue.

If that's the case, then they surely have a legal claim to squatters' rights there by now. The Dubs have looked so comfortable there for so long it's a wonder they don't boil the kettle, turn on the TV and slip into their AIG onesies whenever they fetch up there of an afternoon. They certainly give every impression of owning the place.

But no, they are merely tenants, apparently. "Essentially, we rent it out during the National League," said Ciarán Kilkenny last week. His team-mate Philly McMahon had obviously been similarly briefed the week before. "When Dublin use Croke Park as a home venue, they rent it."

Obviously there's a bit of topspin at work here. Trying to argue that Croke Park is not Dublin's home venue is akin to arguing that St James's Gate is not Guinness's home brewery because they only have a lease on the place. Guinness are "renting" too. Said lease has another 8,741 years to run, give or take.

Dublin, meanwhile, are building an empire that will last at least as long, the way things are going. Which may be one reason why their perennial home comforts are starting to become an issue. Clearly the birth of the Super 8 has had a triggering effect too. If seven teams can only play at home once, how come the eighth can play at home twice? Plus, of course, they'll have the All-Ireland semi-final and final there too, as they've pretty much always had.

But nobody minded back in the days when Dublin were often a joke, pre the Kevin Heffernan era, and frequently enough in the years after him too, when they'd swagger around Croker looking like kingpins, only to then be ransacked in their own house by visiting teams who weren't one bit intimidated by the surroundings.

Nobody's laughing now, though; nobody outside Dublin anyhow. In fact the Dubs might say that people are only currently crying about the issue, now that the stadium has become a fortress. And crying over spilled milk at that, because the Croke Park arrangement was established a lifetime ago.

But it's not concrete and steel that has turned it into a fortress. It's the players and their management who have done that, backed up by the permanent secretariat within the Dublin county board who have helped transform the culture over a decade and more.

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The transformation of Dublin into the pre-eminent powerhouse in Gaelic football, and its ongoing resurrection in hurling too, was also driven by massive cash injections from the GAA. Nobody was complaining about this project either when it was first launched by the Strategic Review Committee in 2002. Again, it was only when it became a resounding success that alarm bells started ringing elsewhere. In passing it should be acknowledged that this strategy, from conception to execution, has become one of the greatest feats in the history of Irish sports administration. Irrespective of the consequences, it is a landmark achievement.

The headline consequence has been five All-Ireland titles in the last seven seasons. To everyone else with skin in the game, this is now starting to look a bit like climate change: profoundly alarming and seemingly irreversible. Dublin have the money, the population and the coaching infrastructure to become a mass-production medal machine. They have had the GAA's top brass treating them like the golden child, or the golden goose, or both. Somewhere along the way everything has become stacked in their favour.

And now with the new-era Super 8 upon us, the GAA is giving them two games at home as well? Suddenly it is not so much looking stacked as rigged.

Nah. This cannot continue. Donegal were well within their rights to raise the issue formally last week. It is way past time that the Dubs were forced to go on the road like every other team. And we're not just talking about Leinster games or the quarter-final group stages. We're talking about All-Ireland semi-finals too.

The cabinet in Croke Park has become obsessed with Croke Park the stadium. Everything big has to happen there. But it doesn't. If, for example, Kerry have to face Dublin in a semi-final next year or the year after, why not bring it to Páirc Uí Chaoimh or Semple Stadium; Tyrone or Donegal, Clones; Mayo or Galway, Salthill or Castlebar. Come to think of it, why bother with neutral venues at all? If only to atone for all the semi-finals that Dublin have played at home over the years, let's make it Killarney if it's Kerry, Castlebar if it's Mayo, and so on. Maybe then the Dubs might appreciate the privilege they've been enjoying for so long.

It is way past time that Dublin supporters were taken out of their comfort zone too. Why should all the other supporters have to endure the long drives and the hefty expenses and the tired children after another day trip to the capital?

Apart from anything else, there is no show in GAA like a Dublin roadshow. They would travel in their thousands and bring the proverbial carnival atmosphere with them to any provincial venue. And the players? They can beat any team any time anywhere. But they have been in their comfort zone for far too long. When you are winning All-Ireland finals by a single point, who's to say that home advantage wasn't worth that point or two to them? If finals have to be played there, then the GAA has to remove that inbuilt advantage for as many other games as possible. It is a basic issue of fairness.

They say that every man's home is his castle. But it's a lot easier to be king when your castle is Croke Park.

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