To get a level playing field, proper facilities are paramount for every county
Arguments in the GAA are generally local. If a county besides your own decides to kick up a fuss about something, there's cheap entertainment to be had in peering over the fence to rubber-neck at the row before climbing back down, safe in the knowledge that this isn't your fight.
But this week was different with an unprecedented mass gravitation towards one county's cause.
No one could have foreseen that after the draw for the third round of the All-Ireland football qualifiers was made on Monday morning that the darlings of Gaelic football, Mayo, would go into today's game against a county now also known as 'The People's Team'.
Who needs a World Cup to bring us together when we've got Kildare and their fight for the right to play at home at St Conleth's Park, Newbridge? Cian O'Neill's decision to pitch up live on RTé's Six-One News on Monday evening using his best 'Braveheart' rhetoric was nothing short of a masterstroke. Around the same time Kildare GAA released a statement confirming they will not play their qualifier against Mayo at Croke Park as fixed that afternoon by the GAA's Central Competitions Control Committee (CCCC).
With O'Neill on RTé, we had a face to the cause. He was confident and articulate as he ticked all the boxes in his state of the nation address. O'Neill called the players the "most important stakeholders in this whole argument", he acknowledged the Kildare fans who travelled to Derry and Longford over the past few weekends, he spoke empathetically about Mayo's position in all of this and he asked the GAA "to stick to the rules that you've created".
What also made this the perfect storm was the language used by 'the establishment' in the other corner. The GAA's director of games administration Feargal McGill's quote that the game being fixed for Croke Park "is not going to change under any circumstance", that there "is no room for manoeuvre, not when it comes to health and safety" and "if Kildare don't show up in Croke Park on Saturday at 7pm the game will be awarded to Mayo" only helped to enhance an unforgiving perception of the association as if they were now wearing a high street coat with the words 'I really don't care do u?' written on the back.
What they didn't foresee was that we all did care. What further fuelled this mess was the comments of Ned Quinn, chairperson of the CCCC. One explanation he gave for the game being fixed for Croke Park was the fear there could be problems between fans if the game took place in Newbridge. "The risk would be that people would get involved with other spectators, that's the risk" Quinn said on Off the Ball's 'OTB AM' on Tuesday morning.
"I wouldn't call it crowd trouble but there could be animosity shown to people who had tickets and they couldn't get them, claiming they were regular supporters of Kildare".
It's not hard to imagine Quinn later regretting those comments but we were all implicated now. Is this how us, the little people, are viewed by those on high? That fans would lose the run of themselves so wildly before a third round qualifier that they would start haranguing or intimidating other supporters for tickets? Throw in an unseemly 30-degree heat and God knows what kind of anarchy could erupt.
When there isn't a culture of this kind of behaviour, thankfully, outside grounds in the GAA then why were we being fed this? When reasons like this are given, it makes it easy to question what's really at play here and add to existing frustrations about the lack of a level playing field for all teams. Because nothing breaks the image of transparency as easily as being given an illogical explanation which we're expected to swallow like fools.
It's no wonder the vacuum created by the decision to unfairly take home advantage away from Kildare led to all sorts of theories festering on social media. You can fully disagree with the GAA's decision to sell championship matches to a pay-per-view broadcaster yet still appreciate that Sky Sports (who denied having any influence in the fixture scheduling) were nothing but an easy target in this situation.
There are a myriad of things which this controversy threw up which need to be fleshed out following the GAA's decision to back down. Kildare got their right to a home venue which is the bottom line. But beyond that, only having 8,200 supporters there tonight doesn't fit with the kind of ground any county should have. In April, the planning application for the redevelopment of St Conleth's Park was lodged for approval which includes proposed construction of a new two-storey covered main stand building including various facilities like dressing-rooms and toilets etc.
It continues to amaze that in 2018 we have some provincial grounds which are so outdated. Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney was earlier this month granted planning permission to redevelop part of the ground. It badly needs it. It's a stadium which gets praised for the wonderful vista of the MacGillycuddy's Reeks. But go there as a fan to the terrace and the bathroom facilities are dire. There's currently no clock there either so you're left to resort to a stopwatch or guesswork to figure out how much time is left in a game.
The findings from World Rugby's technical review group into Ireland's ultimately failed bid for the 2023 Rugby World Cup last October showed the main fall-down to be stadium infrastructure. Fitzgerald Stadium and Pearse Stadium were two grounds singled out as needing a great deal of work to bring them up to World Cup standard and therefore became a "significant risk factor" in the bid.
We obviously now don't need these stadiums to be at World Cup standard, just brought up to a standard paying GAA fans should expect and players are comfortable in. Because to have a level playing field for all teams in the championship, having a proper playing field and facilities at home for counties is simply paramount.
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