Friday 23 February 2018

Feel-good factor to sweep through every county with the mighty felled

Yesterday's results will galvanise fans up and down Ireland, writes John O'Brien

YOU know it is just the unfathomable way of the GAA. Yesterday a crowd in excess of 62,000 was deemed to have passed through the Croke Park turnstiles. And not that you would doubt their word for a second, but never at any stage of the afternoon did it seem like a 62,000 kind of crowd. The gaps in the stands were as numerous as those that appeared in the Kerry defence anytime Down came running at them. Blue wasn't just the dominant colour on the Hill.

In a sense these things are easily explained. It never fails to intrigue on big-match days at Croke Park when, with so little time to kick-off, you cast a glance at Hill 16 and wonder if any of the hordes that regularly populate the place are going to show at all. And then, almost by magic, the teams filter out and, all of a sudden, the Railway End is a cauldron of noise and a riot of colour.

So if the stadium looked a little on the empty side, then it was unquestionably true that there were never 62,000 people inside it at any one point. When Down and Kerry began their highly engrossing encounter at two o'clock, there were probably in the region of 30,000 there to witness it. If Dublin supporters have seemed less than enthused by their own team this summer, then it's hardly shocking if the prospect of watching two rival teams in action should fail to stir their bones.

Some of the small attendances witnessed during this year's hurling and football championships have perplexed many, but the mystery shouldn't be that deep. If it is clear that the staging of one major game on an afternoon ticket is already cutting into people's leisure and drinking time, then the addition of an extra fixture becomes a major imposition. It was only a little after four when David Coldrick threw in the ball for yesterday's second game. When Dublin are involved, that is usually an achievement worth mentioning.

And looking at the knots of supporters massed around the ground, you could hazard a few snap judgments. The winners were, by some distance, the better-supported county. That, of course, is inevitable when Dublin are playing in their home town but the support Down brought with them from the North, while not of staggering proportions, was seriously impressive nonetheless. It spoke of a genuine enthusiasm for the work that James McCartan has been doing and for the fine team they have been building. A sense of hope that it just might be their day.

And Kerry? Somewhere during the day a press release dropped on desks from Croke Park identifying a lady from Moyvane as the championship's one millionth spectator this year. The only surprise wasn't that they were able to pinpoint such a customer but that they managed to find a Kerry supporter in Dublin at all. If they were there they were so subdued as to be virtually invisible.

And some will say this is merely the Kerry way, that the cute Kerry fan doesn't distract himself with bothersome trips to Dublin until the third week in September when he sets out on his annual weekend pilgrimage to the capital. But yesterday you sensed a deeper meaning to their chronic lack of numbers. Even with a Munster crown in the bag, it has been a long and fractious season for them and the fears that yesterday might find them out were real and deep-rooted.

After the game you could even find Kerry natives who weren't all that downcast at this latest setback: even if it meant that they wouldn't be gracing an All-Ireland semi-final for the first time since 1999. Anyway, it would give them the chance to head back south and see where they stood. A chance too for the club scene in the county to grab some space and get a bit of wind on its sails. And no doubt, you sense, they will emerge again somewhere down the line, all the stronger for it.

Strangely, though, it is to the GAA's gain that two big teams were so crudely felled. The sense of novelty is enhanced now. We are mercifully spared the prospect of a repeat Cork-Kerry final. Cork will believe the title is theirs to lose now. The Dubs will be empowered again by yesterday's swashbuckling performance. Kildare or Meath won't fear them. Down will always be Down. The feel-good factor will sweep through every county and galvanise supporters. It is win-win on every front.

And that is the ceaseless wonder about sport. Somewhere down the line it always releases you from the grim certainties. A Kerry-Tyrone final, say, would have been compelling on a number of different fronts but football, as much as hurling, needed liberating from its big-three tyranny (big two essentially) and yesterday was a shot in the arm the championship so badly needed.

So for the rest of the summer bumper crowds and a crooning capital again. No blue gaps at Croke Park. No eerie echoes bouncing around an eerily quiet stadium. Suddenly the football championship feels vividly, breathlessly alive.

Sunday Independent

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