Friday 23 March 2018

Invading the pitch makes GAA unique

A sense of belonging is our trump card and to separate a team from its people is foolish in the extreme

THE decision to fence in Hill 16 is based on sound logic. It's hard to argue against the health and safety issues that were mooted last week. That everyone gets home in one piece is, of course, the priority.

But we're unwittingly eroding what it is that sets the GAA apart. That people can invade the pitch and meet the people they are cheering for, and celebrate with them, is unique.

That sense of belonging is the GAA's trump card and it's why the association is as strong as it is today. To jeopardise that would be foolish in the extreme and separating a team from its people is the first step in that.

You start out in the stands watching as a youngster, a lucky few get to play, and when your playing days are over you return to the stands to watch. We're not soccer players; our loyalty and sense of place is real.

I know plenty of players have come out in favour of ending pitch invasions but I don't think they will know what they'll miss until it's gone. They told stories of how things could have gone badly wrong as people rushed onto the pitch, but that hasn't been my experience.

What happened to Martin Sludden at the end of the Leinster final was appalling but that's the exception rather than the rule and they were extraordinary circumstances.

Charlie Harrison told me a story about how a Roscommon woman ran into him at the end of the Connacht final this year, shouting "Take that, ya f**ker" as she went. That stuff just makes you laugh really when you look back and they really are rare incidents.

On the same day, I was walking off the field and some Roscommon people shook my hand, others commiserated but all of them were respectful before going off to celebrate with their team.

Thankfully, that's the way it has been all through my career and I have yet to have a nasty incident on the back of pitch invasions.

Another reason the GAA put forward last week was that players should be allowed celebrate victory or contemplate their defeat with dignity. I was obviously gutted after the Connacht final but there's no way I would want to see Roscommon people stopped from coming on the pitch to celebrate.

It was the same for us in 2007. Sligo people had waited long enough for that and they wanted to support their team and the team wanted to enjoy the moment with them.


A lap of honour is the touted replacement for the pitch invasion. Waving to the crowd from behind a fence just isn't the same thing and, being honest, I think they will find it hard to enforce it, particularly at provincial venues.

When we beat Mayo at Markievicz Park this year, it took me around half an hour to get off the field. When you've been around long enough, you get to realise that you have to drink in the good days and I enjoyed every minute of that. In the end, Kevin Walsh came out of the dressing-room and escorted me off the pitch because he wanted to talk to the team.

But when you're coming off a pitch, people congratulate you and want to shake your hand. They're after paying good money to watch you play, so it's the least you can do to stop for a moment and give them a minute of your time or get in a photograph with a kid.

That's the stuff we'll miss out on. It's the accessibility to the big stars that sees the GAA more than compete with international sports like soccer and rugby and we should do everything we can to protect it.

The Hill will soon be fenced off but if Dublin win the All-Ireland title this year, I don't see them breaking into a polite round of applause before turning on their heels and leaving.

Likewise, if Kilkenny win their fifth title in a row, it's hard to see anything but a pitch invasion, which will lead to the famous calls from the stadium announcer for 'Plan B' to be put in place.

Maybe Plan B should actually be Plan A.

Irish Independent

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