Martin Breheny: Nowlan Park's grand day proves bigger is not always better
'WASN'T that a grand day all the same?" remarked Mick O'Neill as he prepared to lock up Nowlan Park shortly after 8.0 last Sunday evening.
We were walking from the press box towards an exit in a stadium whose only remaining occupants were a flock of crows, noisily scavenging amid the remnants left by the 21,447 people who had earlier enjoyed the Kilkenny-Tipperary Allianz League hurling final.
Mick, the man with the keys to Nowlan Park, knows a special occasion when he sees one.
Incidentally, he is also one of the most helpful of ground staff in the country when it comes to dealing with the media, always facilitating us, however late we may finish.
In some other venues, we're regularly faced the unhelpful situation of being asked to leave half way through our work on the basis that the ground has to be closed.
What other sports organisation in the world serves an early exclusion order on the media at the very time that they are working on bringing an account of the day's event to the public?
Good promotion of the game, it most certainly ain't!
Anyway, there's no such problem in Kilkenny under Mick's watch. He – and the many others who worked to make the day run smoothly – was busier than usual last Sunday as Nowlan Park hosted the league final for the first time in 47 years.
It made for a splendid occasion as the ground rocked to near full-capacity. And since this was the first time that it was so heavily populated since undergoing redevelopment, it created an atmosphere never previously experienced at the venue.
The hurling final, and, indeed, the Cork-Wexford camogie league final which preceded it, were wonderfully competitive affairs, made all the more enjoyable for the players by the inspiring feeling of performing in front of a packed ground.
I have no doubt that it drew a response from them and helped make for what O'Neill accurately described as "a grand day."
Now, if those games were played in Semple Stadium, Thurles, Croke Park or any other much larger stadium the atmosphere would be altogether more flat. A crowd of 21,447 is lost in Croke Park and less than half fills Semple Stadium, the Gaelic Grounds, Pairc Ui Chaoimh and Fitzgerald Stadium, Killarney.
Contrast the images flashed out by TG4 from Nowlan Park last Sunday and from the Gaelic Grounds the previous evening when the 50,000-capacity stadium had around 46,500 empty spaces for the Galway-Cork U-21 football final.
It was a very good game, but utterly devoid of atmosphere because of being played at such a large venue.
All of which leads to the question: why has the GAA so many big stadia where the capacity is rarely needed?
There's an obvious requirement to have Croke Park as large as possible, even if it means that many occasions attract nothing like full-capacity. Still, the flagship stadium has to be able to cater for 80,000-plus for the big All-Ireland championship dates.
It's when you move south that the madness kicks in. Between them, Semple Stadium, Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Fitzgerald Stadium and the Gaelic Grounds have a total capacity of 190,000.
And for what? Four Munster senior hurling championship games, where only the final comes anywhere close to filling the ground, plus the annual Cork v Kerry football clash. Now if ever there was economic lunacy it's in having four stadia with an average capacity of 47,500 each in such a small area.
Because of its location, Semple Stadium does best in terms of getting games beyond the Munster championship and, as a result, is the most comfortable of the grounds. However, it could be modernised much more if it were the only big stadium in Munster.
On a smaller scale, how does it make sense to have three 30,000-plus capacity stadia in Galway, Castlebar and Roscommon?
The GAA's stadium policy has always been based on local pride and ambition. That's all very praiseworthy when properly focused, but not when it involves having massive stadia, offering minimum comforts, which are rarely full.
It seems the madness is set to continue. As soon as the planning issues are sorted, the bulldozers will move in on Pairc Ui Chaoimh, flattening it to the ground in preparation for a brand new and equally large replacement which, like its predecessor, will rarely be full.
Now, there's there no chance of Cork not proceeding with the folly of building a stadium with a 40,000 capacity. After all, if Tipperary, Kerry and Limerick have one, so should Cork. Well not really, because there's no need for three, let alone four. Besides, the other three are already there whereas Pairc Ui Chaoimh is being rebuilt.
Smaller, more comfortable grounds are the way to go with one larger designated venue in each province taking care of its big events.
Apart from anything else, smaller grounds on full capacity make for a much better atmosphere than large half-empty caverns.
Nowlan Park proved that last Sunday.