Sunday 22 April 2018

It's been emotional

Martin Breheny

Martin Breheny

ONE of the highest-performing cash-cows Ireland has ever produced is getting ready to leave the temporary milking shed. Between February 11, 2007 and March 20, 2010, she will have returned remarkable yields worth €223,602 every week for three years and five weeks.

After that she will swish her tail, moo for the last time in Croke Park and stride across the Liffey en route to Lansdowne Road. Her record-breaking days will be behind her because she won't have anything like the same amount of grass to feed off in the much smaller field in Dublin 4.

Meanwhile, back in Croke Park, the pigeons will bemoan the departure of a part-time lodger they had grown to know and like. Up at administrative level, the GAA's financial people will miss her even more.

The opposition to renting out Croke Park for occasional grazing was so prolonged and intense among sections of the GAA that it looked as if it might never be accepted. But, as the compelling case for making profit from grass that would otherwise go to waste became apparent, all changed in April 2005 when the GAA agreed to open Croke Park to rugby and soccer.

Less than two years later, history was made when Ireland played France in the Six Nations to begin a new phase in the dramatic history of the ground. Soccer followed and so did the money.

At around €1.5m rent per game, Croke Park developed into a massive income generator for the GAA. However, it's now in its final run and will end after Ireland play Scotland.

By then, the deal with the IRFU/FAI will have returned €36m in clear profit for the GAA. Each county has already received €250,000 to be directed towards local projects, leaving a further €28m awaiting allocation.

That will be spent on initiatives which won't require further funding at a later stage, because when the ¿28m is spent, there's no more to come from this particular source. The IRFU and FAI have made it very clear that they will be quite happy to remain in the newly-developed Aviva Stadium, even for events where the 50,000-capacity will be hopelessly inadequate.

Still, that's their decision and can't be influenced in any way by the GAA.

However, it would be wise for the GAA to declare at Congress in April that their headquarters continues to be available for rent in order to avoid taking the blame when, inevitably, there's a public outcry once the capacity differential between Croke Park and Lansdowne Road impacts on the many people who won't be able to attend rugby and soccer internationals from next autumn on.

As it stands, however, Croke Park's days as an international rugby and soccer venue are over. That will be welcomed by those in the GAA who so stridently opposed abolishing Rule 42 but, for the majority, opening the stadium was one of the most sensible decisions ever taken by the association.

Grim warnings that it would present the FAI, in particular, with an opportunity to market itself by selling cheap tickets for games which didn't require Croke Park's full capacity proved to be more than scare-mongering. As for fears of protests and bitterness over the playing of 'God Save The Queen' prior to the first rugby international with England there in 2007, they never materialised.

Indeed, the atmosphere before, during and after the England game spoke very much of a new, confident Ireland which had rid itself of an inferiority complex, certainly in terms of its nearest neighbour. Of course, Ireland's thumping victory added greatly to the spirit of what was a wonderful occasion.

The fact that an 82,300-capacity stadium was available for rugby at a time when Ireland were reaching such remarkable heights was another major plus. Croke Park opened up international rugby to over 30,000 people who wouldn't otherwise have been able to share in the joy of great international occasions which had a successful Ireland at their centre.

It was as if the heavens aligned in a special way too last year when Leinster and Munster were drawn against each other for a Heineken Cup semi-final which packed Croke Park on a glorious Saturday afternoon. Soccer also had its good days and nights in Croke Park, although there were also times when Croke Park's capacity wasn't required.

Now as the final Croke Park countdown begins (the rugby games with Italy, Wales and Scotland will be the last big international occasions -- for the foreseeable future at least), it's very much the end of a short, but remarkable era in Irish sport.

As for the ordinary GAA membership who read the mood of the country just right in 2005, they did the sporting state a considerable service by voting to open Croke Park. It's now about to lose its high-profile temporary tenants, but the GAA have a whole lot more than pleasant memories to reflect on. There's still €28m on bank deposit waiting to be spent on much-needed projects which would not have been possible without opening Croke Park.


In a broader context, losing the Croke Park rent revenue will be a serious hit for the GAA, who have become accustomed to taking in around €9m per annum from the IRFU and FAI in a no-risk venture. That's a huge take and provided a level of comfort which will no longer be fitted to the GAA's financial undercarriage.

The €28m available for various projects will suffice for a few years, but after that, the GAA will be back to working off its own resources. They survived without IRFU/FAI money in the past and will do so again, but it was comforting for the past few years to realise that €9m per annum was sloshing its way into their accounts from rival organisations.

Of course the IRFU and FAI did well too. They had to pay big rent money to the GAA, but Croke Park's large capacity more than compensated in terms of gross gates. In the end then, a win-win-win for all three organisations.

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