Football coming home – but not for all
Lilies missing out as Leinster SFC games move outside Croke Park, writes Martin Breheny
AS Wicklow prepare to end a 13-year wait to host a Leinster SFC tie in Aughrim on Sunday, Kildare are now the only county in the country not in a position to enter into home-and-away arrangements for provincial games.
Kildare's large support base, combined with the restricted capacity in Newbridge, has left Lilywhite fans without provincial home games for many years, a situation that's likely to continue.
After centralising most of their action in Croke Park for more than a decade, Leinster have returned to an alternating home-and-away policy where feasible. However, that does not apply to Dublin, whose drawing power ensures that all of their games will be played in Croke Park.
With Croke Park having become Dublin's official ground since moving their home league games there as part of the 'Spring Series', it has created a huge imbalance between them and the rest of the country, where the home-away split is much more even.
Of the 51 championship games Dublin have played over the last decade, 47 were in Croke Park, with the others being played in Clones (v Derry in 2003), Carrick-on-Shannon and Portlaoise (v Leitrim and Longford respectively in 2004), and Pearse Park (v Longford in 2006).
The 2006 game was the last time Dublin played a Leinster championship game outside of Croke Park.
In contrast, Kildare and Meath have not had a home game in Leinster since 1995, Louth since 1998, Wicklow since 2000 or Carlow since 2004. Prior to last Sunday, when they beat Carlow in Mullingar, Westmeath's last provincial game in Cusack Park was in 1999.
Now, the plan is to use provincial grounds much more frequently as counties enter into home-and-away arrangements. That has facilitated Wicklow's return to Aughrim – against Longford – on Sunday. If Wicklow win, they will host Meath in Aughrim in the quarter-final on June 15, while if Longford win they will have home advantage in Pearse Park.
Louth's 15-year spell without hosting a Leinster game will also end if they beat Laois on Sunday, with the quarter-final tie against Wexford going to Drogheda.
"Where counties are in a position to enter into home-and away arrangements and have the necessary ground capacity to do so, we're happy to facilitate that," said Michael Delaney, Leinster Council CEO.
"A lot of our games were played in Croke Park over the last decade or so and, it will still be the venue for the bigger draws but there's definitely a feeling among counties that, where possible, they want to bring games to the provincial venues. You'll find some team managers who want to play all their games in Croke Park, but we want to facilitate county grounds too."
Dublin's close links with Croke Park have led to claims that it gives them a big advantage, especially against counties who are not used to playing in HQ. However, Dublin's games will remain there because of the big following they attract and the financial windfall generated.
Westmeath marked their return to Cusack Park for a Leinster game last Sunday with a comfortable win over Carlow in front of a crowd of 3,080.
"There was a good atmosphere there, certainly a lot better than if you had 3,000 people in a much bigger stadium. We'd expect Aughrim to pack in a good crowd next Sunday which will help the atmosphere," said Delaney.
Wicklow manager Harry Murphy is hoping that it can become 'Fortress Aughrim' as he attempts to plot a route to the quarter-final.
Aughrim has always been regarded as a difficult ground for visitors, a reputation which was enhanced in 2009 when it hosted All-Ireland qualifier wins over Fermanagh, Cavan and Down on successive Saturday evenings.
Mick O'Dwyer, Wicklow manager on that great run, has no doubt that the Aughrim ground was hugely helpful to the team and can be a big factor again this weekend.
"Playing there in front of a big crowd always gave the lads a huge lift. I'm glad to see Leinster championship matches going back to places like Aughrim," said O'Dwyer.
"It's all about promoting the game, and bringing big occasions into places like Aughrim, Mullingar and the rest of the county towns is the way to do it. I always regretted that Wicklow didn't get to play a Leinster championship game in Aughrim in my time there, especially when I experienced the atmosphere for the qualifier games in 2009.
"I met (soccer legend) Paul McGrath lately and he told me he was there was for them all and that they were among some of the most enjoyable events he'd been to."
Murphy is now hoping that the Wicklow public respond by generating a special atmosphere to help his squad in the battle against Longford, who were a division above them in the recent league. Longford were relegated from Division 2 while Wicklow dropped out of Division 3, but Murphy believes that the overall performances by his team were better than the results they produced.
"We did well for long periods in most of our games. We were short a few lads and we need everyone on board because we're drawing from a small enough pool. I don't think our final placing was a fair reflection of where we're at and we'll be hoping to show that on Sunday," he said.