Sunday 20 October 2019

Ewan MacKenna: Dublin's Portlaoise trip shows Trumpian GAA despises its own poor and most hard up

Dublin's match with Wicklow has been moved from Aughrim to Portlaoise
Dublin's match with Wicklow has been moved from Aughrim to Portlaoise
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

There's a story Keith Barr once told, the sort that'd fall within the lazily low and all-encompassing claws of the word disgrace these days. Ignore such pigeon-holing though for the tale adds a steely backbone to the legend of yesteryear.

It was the mid-1990s; a hardened Dublin team refusing to loosen their grip; a young and green Kildare side frantically trying to rise up. Heading into the dressing rooms in Croke Park at half-time one championship game, Barr made it in first and was busy chewing on a sugared orange when he realised no one was joining him. So he popped his head out the door to see chaos in the corridor.

In the midst of a brawl, a Garda from the capital had whipped out a baton and was going after any and all flashes of white. "Well, the game was on in Dublin," laughed the always entertaining Barr.

That was a time before headquarters became home for Dublin's footballers - something that can be clearly dated to the shifting of their annual schedule to Croke Park in 2011 - but it made an important point.

Where you played mattered in GAA as in all sports, for reasons as crazy as Brian Clough the worse for wear one night before a European Cup tie with Benfica deciding to soften the Baseball Ground pitch only to fall asleep and awaken to see he'd created a swimming pool, to intimidation more native to these shores such as referees conscious of being locked in car boots.

However, even in a new and shiny era of both good and bad sanitisation, easier travel, and far fewer unknowns, hosting games still comes with perks. That much can be easily proven. Over the past 10 football championships (2008-2017) 58 per cent of the time the home team have won; over the last seven leagues since Dublin became the best county in the sport (2012-2018) that figure for home wins sits at 57 per cent. That's not to say venue will always change an outcome, but it will have an influence on the scoreline.

Wicklow manager John Evans with goalkeeper Mark Jackson after the final whistle of the Leinster SFC clash with Offaly on Sunday last. Photo by Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

Sadly and unacceptably, it brings us to the latest layer of bias caked onto an already thick wedge of GAA favoritism. Back in October when the draw for this summer was made, the winners of Offaly-Wicklow were penciled down for a home game with Dublin. Had Offaly won it would be in O'Connor Park; that Wicklow have won has seen the Leinster Council predictably tear up the script and say no to Aughrim. It's brutal and ruthless deja vu, and the danger is we accept such wrong based on commonality.

In 2016 for instance, when Dublin were to have all of one entire game that wasn't at home, it wasn't away either as Laois were told O'Moore Park, after a €1m upgrade, wasn't up to the travelling crowds. Although after it was moved to Nowlan Park just a smidgen over 16,000 showed. Yet last year when Carlow earned a home tie with Dublin, O'Moore Park was suddenly suitable.

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There's a great mask here of the GAA making it up as they go along, and this rouse of cluelessness is what they are hiding behind as it is better than the ugly alternative. But why else would every decision happen to benefit the county that makes them most. Coincidence?

The fixture issue, like most others, isn't the fault of Dublin in any shape or form and that's an unfortunate conflation and mistake. But it is on the GAA, again dribbling like a teenage boy in the presence of the class beauty, all in a shameless show of cash-hungry elitism. It's so bad that before an outing Wicklow are admitting defeat in, they are left publicly begging for their basic rights. Indeed their statement this week was a sign that football hasn't reached the cliff edge, it's long gone over the precipice.

"The gap between these two on the field is clearly massive but off the field Wicklow has many passionate followers and also a generation of young people who needed to see the best ever GAA team at first hand in Joule Park. Wicklow needs these youngsters to be inspired, to dream that they too some day may have a day like this in their careers. Wicklow needed a Dublin to come to Joule Park, the local economy would love it too... The Wicklow players of today also deserved the reward of home venue, being part of the first Wicklow team to face the reigning All Ireland champions in a championship game is an honour. They have worked hard under John Evans and his management team against all the odds to get some recognition for their efforts."

Someone should have reminded them this Trumpian GAA despises its own poor and most hard up.

Would Dublin still win if playing in Aughrim? Of course, but don't confuse a result with an advantage within that result. Given they haven't actually been asked to play an away game of summer football since 2006, we don't have an away record to compare their results against. But in the league we do and it's there, since 2012, that they've averaged 1.61 points per home game (28 wins and two draws in 36 matches) but away that drops to 1.22 points per game (12 wins and four draws, in 23 matches).

It's a trend that carries on into the average score category. During Croke Park league games in that time it's 19.9-14.2 in favour of Dublin, a 5.7-point win. When they play away it's reduced down to 14.6-13.4, just a 1.2-point win. In essence location has been worth 4.5 points.

This though goes beyond just who wins and loses, and on down some far more important avenues. Consider that just weeks back a host of problems came before the Wicklow County Board. Less than a dozen kids initially showed up for a meet and greet with the senior team before their championship opener; one club in a part of the country with a booming population folded; another two amalgamated; EGMs were held over clubs not being able to field full teams; an adult game was 14-a-side with no subs.

The place is perhaps the GAA's poorest relation, all the while having massive potential, and what playing at home does is give the next generation the chance to see what big-time is. It also pumps money into the local economy, increasing the likelihood of some of that money coming full circle and going back into supporting local games.

That has now been wrenched from an area that needs it most, but it's the hypocrisy of the GAA that's most galling. After all, their excuse for 15 seasons of pumping Dublin full of levels of money entire provinces weren't receiving was a need to up participation. Some are more equal than others and this is the clearest proof yet.

The association – this time via the Leinster Council – have said the game cannot be in Aughrim due to contractual obligations around Dublin season ticket holders. That may be the case now, but it's a scenario that ought to have been factored in when coming up with a concept that is for the most part a fine idea. Yet either overlooking or allowing an element that meant that the most powerful county with the most advantages would get one more, via rarely playing away, was either bias or idiocy. The GAA tells us these days it's a business – in a business neither is good enough.

Still, a Leinster Council spokesperson said this week: "The Slattery report puts the capacity in Aughrim at 7,000 and there were 13,500 at the Dublin-Carlow match in Portlaoise. Season ticket holders are also guaranteed a seat at matches and there are 3,000 in Dublin but only 2,000 seats in Aughrim. The overriding reason though is that last year the Leinster Management Committee decided that Dublin could realistically play championship in only four grounds in the province: Croke Park, O'Moore Park (Portlaoise), O'Connor Park (Tullamore) and Nowlan Park (Kilkenny)." What that means is only two of the 10 other Leinster counties can ever play Dublin at home.

Yet in what other sport would the ruling authorities punish the home team because the opposition has a certain amount of season ticket holders? Can you imagine the outrage in and credibility of the Premier League if Bournemouth's hosting of Manchester United was scratched? Can you imagine the outrage in and credibility of the Six Nations if Ireland's hosting of England was taken out of Lansdowne Road due to foreign demand and it being the smallest venue in the tournament?

The purpose of your home game isn't supposed to be around accommodating all the away team's supporters, nor should you be forced to forfeit home games due to another county having a large population. In this case, if Wicklow cannot fit the season ticket holders of Dublin in, tough. Should counties with tiny Croke Park handouts and without the opportunity to gain big sponsorship be forced to go into debt to build facilities they don't need so they can be allowed what was promised to them?

It's absurd but it would seem that way, and at this stage if the GAA won't take their blue-ribboned event seriously, neither should you. Boycott, for the only thing that grabs the attention of those that base all choices on money is to hit their wallets.

Over the last 10 Leinster campaigns, the number of home games versus games played works out like this. Westmeath 6/21; Offaly 5/12; Longford 4/14; Laois 4/17; Carlow 3/13; Wicklow 3/14;  Louth 2/19; Wexford 1/19; Meath 1/25; Kildare 0/23. Some will rightly argue that a major part of this is the number of neutral fixtures as they largely lack home-and-away agreements, but as a counter, we've omitted one statistic from the list.  Across the same time, without such agreements, Dublin have played 27 of their 29 matches at home, and none away, meaning they play 93 per cent of their games in their back yard. The average across the rest is a mere 16 per cent.

To help strengthen that contrast, while the best team in the province haven't been told to play an away game in 12 years and counting, arguably the second best, Kildare, haven't been home since 1995.

For now though the rest of the country don't care, as it's less bothersome to say the east is a foregone conclusion thus this doesn't matter. Fast forward a few months to the Super Eights and their tune will change. There, while all counties are due one home game, Dublin already are down for two and if they draw the right opposition as their away day, sources say it could be Croke Park too.

A piss-up in a brewery springs to mind but we're told not to concern ourselves. This is literally the GAA's bottom line.

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