Wednesday 23 October 2019

Ewan MacKenna: 'Soon there'll be nothing left to do but split Dublin into four and that will be a sorry and shameful day'

Con O'Callaghan of Dublin in action against Mick O'Grady of Kildare
Con O'Callaghan of Dublin in action against Mick O'Grady of Kildare
Ewan MacKenna

Ewan MacKenna

"Choose a county. Choose a team. Choose a passion. Choose Croke Park as your home. Choose no away days. Choose little travel to training. Choose huge GAA funding. Choose special and unique government grants. Choose a provincial population. Choose multinational sponsorship. Choose four-figure appearance fees. Choose free cars. Choose an official airline. Choose guaranteed wins. Choose Dublin... But why would I want to do a thing like that?"

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The first time I was ever in Croke Park was 21 April, 1991. I was six years old and Kildare were up first in a league semi-final double-header with Dublin still to come in the main event. It was awe-inspiring.

So big. So loud. So intimidating. So terrifying. So electrifying.

Late on in a one-point victory against Donegal, I stood up and waved my white flag for a tad too long and a gruff roar came from behind. A steward said he couldn't see the unfolding action and told me to put it down with both threatening tones and words. Two rows in front, a couple of Dublin fans asked if myself and my father wanted to swap to put some distance between us and a guy supposed to be on duty, but had ruined my day.

It was the start of a love-hate relationship with the place. That, like for most, has since ended as to have that sort of interaction with a stadium and a sport, you need to feel something. Anything.

Yesterday an unexpected 36,000 showed up for a Leinster semi-final double header, meaning the place barely broke even. At the end of the last decade when Kildare and Dublin ran into each other, there were 74,572 in attendance in what the Irish Times suggested was "a slightly disappointing" crowd. That's the scale of this freefall. We are constantly told of this Dublin being the greatest team ever and that may be true. And while there is constant defence locally of how they became the greatest team ever, those are just easy words. The difficult action that speaks far louder is staying away.

Yet still the GAA refuse to speak ill of the place they invested so heavily in to the point of obvious destruction of the rest, in the hope of turning them into their cash cow.

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With just 16,000 tickets shifted by Friday, Leinster chair Jim Bolger came out and guess who he blamed? "I think it reflects badly on Kildare really," he said. He added the much bigger crowd when the sides met in 2011 was due to them being in a better spot - only he was wrong. That year Kildare had come fifth in Division Two. This year they finished fourth, and are coming off a Super 8 appearance and an under-20 All Ireland. What he failed to - or purposely refused to - understand is none of this is about where the rest are in relation to their very best; it's about Dublin being so far ahead of even their very best.

Over and over we've been through the €15.5m they've received more than the number two biggest beneficiaries of games development funding in the last decade, and the millions before that going back to 2004, and the €5m in taxpayer grants and there's no point going there again. And we've been through the excuses that get more and more desperate and there's no point in going there either. The reality is we are seeing the effect. And we know the cause.

Isn't it strange that every decision for so long has gone their way? Even yesterday's neutral game was at home. In the past we were told their thriving crowds meant nowhere but their home ground could accommodate them; now when it could? It remains Croke Park and it's made to feel ever more comfortable. Before throw-in came a long video tribute to Stephen Cluxton and, while nothing to do with him as he's been a brilliant servant, how many neutral games in other sports would celebrate one side? By the finish Dublin's panel took to the pitch for a run around when others cannot get time out there.

On Saturday in these pages it was reported that their players can earn up to €6,000 in corporate appearances, further removing the myth of this being an amateur team. Fair play to them, and no one is saying it's in any way wrong. However on top of so much else it felt like seeing an innocent banker having a steak lunch through a restaurant window as you, fresh from the dole office, went around handing out CVs in cornershops and supermarkets.

None of this is to blame Dublin as that's a common misconception and allows for a pointless deflection away from the core issue which is with the GAA and their favoritism. Any county would have done what they did in accepting the endless cheques and handouts, however what that has done is terrifying. Had it not been for one famous ambush by Donegal, they'd now be 42 championship matches unbeaten and be on the way to their seventh All Ireland on the trot. As well as that, as winning margins per summer continue to increase the average age continues to come down.

That's not a special group. It's numerous special groups.

Bernard Brogan couldn't make the panel yesterday, playing club football on Saturday instead, and he's the latest in a long line that were supposed to signal the end and return to parity. Before him was his brother Alan and then Paul Flynn and then Diarmuid Connolly. The calibre hasn't changed in their absence though. The brilliance and dominance remains.

Yet for all this, a need for urgency is met with a repetition of that same old bluster. From the Leinster Council who blame Kildare for not handing out money for a neutral game in their opponent's back yard to see their identity humiliated with the majority of their fee going to the victors. From the GAA who are pointing a finger at the unwashed dishes in the sink while the living room goes up in flames. John Horan has talked about a B championship, as if the A championship wouldn't still be a one-horse race. And as much as some blame Leinster, no one else will get near Dublin and if they were in any other province they'd first destroy teams and then destroy their hope.

The crux of this is football is mostly fine, it's just not fine with Dublin for ask yourself this. If they weren't in the championship, how many counties could, at a push, say they've a slight chance of winning it all and not cause uproarious laughter. Eight maybe? Nine even? That's ignored though as others are told to get their houses in order and Kildare will be told in the coming days they played well and to stick at it and be patronised.

Meanwhile in Dublin, some will actually pretend to have enjoyed this rout. But with each win it's they that move closer to the greatest loss, as they tip toe towards the edge of the cliff, not even aware it exists. Soon there'll be nothing left to do but split them into four and that will be a sorry and shameful day and the GAA will be to blame.

Back in 1991 after the steward got mad, my father wrote to the association and they sent a six-year-old a neck tie as an apology and the love-hate relationship went on. Dublin beat Kildare in the final and it became the norm to go to Croke Park pregnant with hope, and meet the noise and colour of the city, and leave distraught after what always seemed epic.

These days there is no apology from the GAA.

These days there is no emotion left either.

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