The GAA's decision to allow the Liam Miller benefit match to take place at Páirc Uí Chaoimh brings a brief but high-profile public relations nightmare for the sports organisation to an end.
The move opens the door to a historic occasion which will see the likes of Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand and Jaap Stam line out with locals Roy Keane and Denis Irwin in a soccer match at the newly renovated home of Cork Gaelic games.
Undoubtedly the GAA will be keen to move on from the matter, and the organisers of the game, including property developer Michael O’Flynn, seem intent to put the arrangements in place rather than raking over the coals.
Just a week after saying it was prohibited from hosting the event, and that any change to this stance would have to wait until its annual congress in February, the GAA completed its U-turn on Saturday under mounting political pressure.
A statement from Minister for Sport Shane Ross commending the news, and also noting that he had always viewed the 45,000-capacity stadium, into which the State recently invested €30 million, “as an asset for all of the people of Cork”, came within minutes of the news.
The joint announcement issued by the association and the match organisers followed a recommendation from the GAA’s senior management committee on Friday evening, which was ratified by its central council by noon on Saturday. Something that a week ago apparently could not happen until February, was done in less than a day.
The wind was firmly in the sails of the organisers, who made clear this was a once-off fundraising exercise to benefit the family of a well-known local figure, who died tragically at 36 after representing his country as well as Manchester Utd and Celtic, two of the best supported teams around.
The GAA had in the past made exceptions to its rules and hosted international soccer and rugby, while Lansdowne Road was being renovated, and some of its grounds were part of the unsuccessful 2023 Rugby World Cup bid. Precedent existed and a game supporting Miller's family should in no way have been considered a threat to the status of hurling or football on Leeside or beyond.
The idea for the game was first mooted by O'Flynn, Keane and Miller's close friend Graham Barrett, a former Arsenal player, shortly after his death in February from cancer. An encounter between O'Flynn and former Manchester Utd manager Sir Alex Ferguson, who brought Miller to the club, at the Cheltenham racing festival in March got the wheels in motion with Ferguson promising to put together a legends team.
O'Flynn then made an approach – through the Cork County Board – to GAA headquarters about hosting the game in Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The association at local level was reported to be receptive, but Croke Park pointed to the rule-book. The matter appeared dead in the water.
Then the Lord Mayor of Cork, Cllr Mick Finn, mentioned that the GAA had not been able to make Páirc Uí Chaoimh available when he spoke at the press launch of the benefit match on July 18th. The issue then steadily turned into a public relations problem for the GAA.
The following day All-Ireland winner and former Cork City player Dave Barry told RTÉ's Joe Duffy that he believed the game should go ahead at the stadium. Local GAA figures such as Billy Morgan and Dinny Allen soon followed.
Then, and arguably more significantly for the GAA, local politicians such as Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin and Fine Gael Senator Jerry Buttimer, regulars at Cork GAA matches, called for an exception. The Bishop of Cork and Ross, John Buckley, also a fixture at Cork GAA games, then weighed in.
They were followed by Minister of State for Sport Brendan Griffin, who reminded the GAA of the money the Government pitched into redeveloping Páirc Uí Chaoimh, not to metion the €17 million in grants it got last year.
It was time to consider the issue again.
One source said the Government really “put the boot in” while another said “the GAA was under savage pressure politically”. Something had to give. And it did.
While most of the commentary in the mainstream media and on social media has been positive about the game going ahead, there are no doubt some GAA members who will continue to point out that the GAA has rules, and for a reason – to protects its interests.
Albeit with some compromises, the game is going ahead. It is likely to be preceded by a charity hurling challenge. While the GAA has stressed it will not benefit in any way from Páirc Ui Chaoimh hosting the game, it is expected the match organisers will make some gesture to the GAA, perhaps donating some of the proceeds to a fund for seriously injured hurlers and footballers.
The finer points are yet to be finalised and the organisers will face some pressure to ensure the 7,300 ticket sell-out slated for September 25th at Turner’s Cross takes advantage of the move to Páirc Uí Chaoimh. After the success they’ve had in the past week, it’s a challenge they will relish.