Saturday 20 October 2018

Martin Breheny: Lilies right on venue row but wrong to take self-punishing boycott route

Players will be the biggest losers if they spurn strong chance to remain in the championship

Kildare’s players will be the losers if qualifier venue row is not resolved. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Kildare’s players will be the losers if qualifier venue row is not resolved. Photo: Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile
Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

It was inevitable that something like this would happen. The day was always going to come when the unbridgeable gap between public demand and a low-capacity stadium sparked a major row over a particular game.

Now that it has happened, there's a danger that common sense will be crushed under a stampede of emotions and entrenchment, fuelled by misinformation. First things first. I cannot believe that Kildare will boycott the clash with Mayo unless it's played in Newbridge.

They have every reason to be angry with the decision to fix the game for Croke Park, but writing off the chance to reach the top 12 in the All-Ireland race is a ridiculously extreme means of expressing it, since they themselves will be the only real losers.

So what happens if it's not played? Mayo will be delighted that instead of facing a tough challenge, they can rest up for the weekend and start gearing for Round 4.

Kildare will get lots of support for their principled stand but, by this time next week, the GAA public will have moved on, leaving this controversy as a mere footnote in the 2018 championship story.

The Kildare squad will see their season end with a defiant gesture over a venue when, instead, they could be preparing for a Round 4 game against Laois, Fermanagh, Cork or Roscommon.

Unlike Kildare, none of them were in Division 1 this year, so it's quite possible the Lilywhites could qualify for the 'Super 8s'.

That's what their ambitions are all about so why wreck them over a venue? It would be the ultimate folly, quickly leading to regrets once the 'martyrs to a noble cause' sentiment subsided.

As for the row itself, it has important implications, not just for the Mayo-Kildare game but across the GAA's fixture-making systems.

Under rule, home advantage applies in Round 3 of the qualifiers, a right that Kildare are trying to assert. However, the rule also states that the GAA's Central Competitions Control Committee must be satisfied that a ground "shall meet the criteria set down by the National Facilities/Health and Safety Committee."

Croke Park contend that even by making the game all-ticket, problems could arise outside St. Conleth's Park if a large number of supporters from both counties turned up without tickets.

Frankly, it's difficult to envisage many Mayo supporters travelling such a long distance (Castlebar to Newbridge is 140 miles) without a ticket. Indeed, it's hard to see hordes of ticketless Kildare fans heading for Newbridge either. And even if they did, it's much more probable that they would head for local pubs and hotels to watch the game rather than attempt to knock down the gates.

Besides, it's relatively easy to block the access routes to the ground, in which case there would be no threat to the gates.

Perhaps, the CCCC believed that precedent justified their decision to take Kildare out of Newbridge, having fixed their qualifier clash with Limerick for Portlaoise in 2012. It attracted a crowd of 12,000.

However, a year later Kildare hosted Tyrone in St Conleth's Park, watched by a crowd of 7,369, an event that generated a great atmosphere inside and outside the ground. The ground can now cope with 8,300 for an all-ticket game.

The implications of the Kildare-Croke Park row are enormous, not least for the new Super 8 All-Ireland quarter-finals, which start in a few weeks' time.

If Kildare (provided some compromise is reached and they fulfil the Mayo fixture) were to reach that stage, presumably Newbridge would be again deemed unsuitable. Under the round robin rota, each team has one outing in Croke Park (two in Dublin's case) one at home and one away.

So would Kildare miss out on their home game? And if they were in the same group as Dublin, a truly bizarre situation could arise whereby the All-Ireland champions had two games in Croke Park and one at a neutral venue.

It would leave Dublin in a far more advantageous position than any of the other seven counties, but that applies in any case. All four provincial winners play in Croke Park in the opening round (Dublin v Donegal; Galway v Kerry), followed by 'away' games against qualifiers before finishing the series with a 'home' game.

Since almost all of Dublin's championship action is in Croke Park, it means that, effectively, they have two home games, whereas all their rivals have only one each.

That anomaly attracted very little attention when the introduction of the Super 8s was being discussed but it will become a real issue once counties see the practical impact of handing Dublin, the top team in the country for five of the last seven years, such a sizeable advantage.

Even the GPA, who have rowed in behind Kildare, didn't complain about the venue imbalance. They opposed the Super 8, but not because it guaranteed Dublin, who have missed the last eight only once since the system changed in 2001, a clear advantage.

If Newbridge is to be deemed unsuitable for attractive games, presumably the same applies to many others smaller-capacity venues, including Mullingar, Longford, Navan and Carlow.

Does it means that despite the Super 8 concept being sold on the basis of all counties having one home game, Westmeath, Longford, Meath and Carlow could never avail of it?

Waterford hurlers missed out on staging two home games in this year's Munster Championship, a disadvantage which may have ruined their prospects of finishing in the top three.

Whether it's Munster hurling or the football qualifiers, home advantage either applies or it doesn't. It should not be available to some counties only, with others forced elsewhere because of ground capacity issues.

So, if any good is come from the Newbridge mess, it may be that it leads to a formal policy on a county's right to host a game, irrespective of ground capacity.

As ever with a controversy, misinformation spreads rapidly, gathering momentum as it goes.

Claims that the GAA's decision on Newbridge was linked to a desire to fix an attractive double-header (Kildare v Mayo and Cavan v Tyrone) for Croke Park to facilitate Sky Sports are just plain daft.

If Kildare had opted for Portlaoise, the possibility of a Croke Park double-header could not have arisen in the first place so that kills the Sky-GAA conspiracy theory.

Interestingly, the Sky angle has been pushed by a few contributors on RTé, even if it has no basis whatsoever.

It really is time that Planet Montrose got over the GAA-Sky Sports deal or, at the very least, don't use it erroneously to peddle unsustainable theories about the Newbridge row.

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