Welcome to Croke Park on the third weekend of September. This northside cathedral of noise will be rocking tonight, and again tomorrow evening – but by Sunday it will have fallen ghostly silent again.
And some GAA people still can’t get their heads around this altered reality: Croker crammed twice over this weekend – for Garth Brooks – only to be deserted for the third Sunday of September. Plenty of Stetsons but not a crepe-paper hat in sight.
Bernard Brogan knows all about that iconic date and while he can see pros and cons to the split season, he believes pushing the All-Irelands back into July has made the schedule too tight, leaving a fallow postscript when people are “craving” sport.
“My ideal solution is bring it back to the end of August,” the retired Dublin star expands. “That gives you an extra three or four weeks, where rugby is only coming back, Premier League has just started.
“We all love watching a game on a Sunday afternoon or a Saturday afternoon . . . that’s part of an Irish summer, and that’s now being condensed.
“I was in at a lot of the games this year. I was going, ‘Jesus, I’m after doing four weeks in a row in Croke Park here’ – it’s too much, even to go to the games, no mind anything else.”
When it comes to September’s third Sunday, Brogan has been there, won that. It started with the 2011 breakthrough against Kerry. Curiously, his finest All-Ireland – when he bagged 2-3 against Mayo in 2013 – took place on the fourth Sunday. But the finals of 2015, the 2016 draw and 2017 reverted to traditional type before the GAA started squeezing their end date in 2018.
“It was a ritual, like Paddy’s Day. It was part of the calendar,” recalls the St Oliver Plunkett/Eoghan Ruadh clubman. “You ask somebody now when is All-Ireland final day and no one will be able to tell you . . . it has just lost that fixture in people’s minds that makes it special.”
Split-season advocates claim the ‘anti’ brigade are led by TV pundits fuelled by self-interest.
“I’m involved with Plunkett’s this year and I saw it first-hand,” Brogan responds. “I’m not a pundit. I’ve no commercial gain, albeit Legacy (his PR company) does some marketing around it, but we do that anyway. So it doesn’t make a difference to me. I’m just saying it from a player’s point of view, and from a fan’s point of view, watching in and thinking that the summer went so fast.”
Cue a fascinating snapshot of how the split season has impacted his own club. Everyone knew, well in advance, that their Dublin SFC2 campaign would start on the August bank holiday weekend. All very positive – but come the first round, Plunkett’s were still down four players mostly to do with holidays.
He reckons most clubs were similarly affected. “That was a real eye-opener for me,” he says. “Bringing club championship back to the start of August doesn’t alleviate the challenges of people playing amateur sport, even at the high level. A lot of people went to the States . . . that was another scatter of high-quality sportspeople that weren’t in town for the first two rounds of championship.”
Complaints about the media’s shrivelling access to players is a different debate – one commented on by Brogan ahead of this year’s Kerry/Dublin semi-final, when he tweeted: “Teams should be compelled by GAA to do media and promote the games, haven’t heard a sausage about what will be an amazing game on Sunday!”
But according to the seven-time All-Ireland medallist, a congested season only serves to make player access “more challenging”. “In fairness, there’s partners we work with, the brands don’t want to be annoying players in the week of games. But when you’ve game after game and there’s no let-up, you don’t have those opportunities, even in the counties that would talk to you.”
As a Dub of the Jim Gavin era who now works in marketing, he can appreciate if his views raise eyebrows.
“People say we started it,” he concedes. But that doesn’t lessen his conviction that Croke Park and the county boards “should be providing a voice for their sport in the national media”.
“No one is saying the people who are naturally quiet have to talk to the media, but in a room of 30 people there are personalities of all different shapes and sizes and plenty that are willing to give their opinion on different things in a protected way,” he reasons.
“We’re not hearing from the personalities because they’re afraid to – and obviously I was, at times, afraid to. But I did a bit of it and then we were curtailed in certain ways because . . . what’s the point? The players and managers are not motivated to promote the game.”
But with co-operation between all the stakeholders, media included, players might be more encouraged.
“We are competing against other sports, competing against computer games, mental-health issues, obesity. GAA is one of our most amazing games because of the value set is has, and how do we promote kids to look up to these heroes?”
He concludes: “There was no sport on TV for three weeks, I was waiting for the Premier League to start which is a bad sign! Rugby is gone. So the GAA held that energy for the month of August and, yeah, whether the third week of September was a bit too much … but definitely it just felt very condensed.”
Not alone will Brogan be absent from Croker this Sunday, he is set to miss Plunkett’s senior 2 quarter-final against St Mary’s of Saggart tomorrow, having damaged his knee against St Pat’s Donabate. The good news? He has avoided another cruciate injury. “I’m not finished yet!” he promises.