Darragh Ó Sé: Whether Newbridge is right or wrong, Croke Park have lost

People were just waiting for somebody to take a stand against the GAA and this is it

Will there be an away team at St Conleth’s Park in Newbridge this weekend? Photograph: Inpho

Will there be an away team at St Conleth’s Park in Newbridge this weekend? Photograph: Inpho

 

I was walking down the street in Tralee yesterday morning and five people stopped me to talk along the way. In every conversation, Kildare’s row over the venue for their game against Mayo came up and everyone I talked to said some version of the same thing - Kildare are dead right to stand their ground.

Regardless of the rights and wrongs of the situation, that’s bad news for Croke Park. It doesn’t matter where this all ends up, they have lost this fight. Among the general GAA public, there’s only one bad guy here. It’s the big bad wolf above in Croke Park.

This has been coming. Somewhere along the way, somebody was going to pick a fight with the GAA and the whole country was going to get behind them. There’s no point pretending that suddenly every GAA person in the land has Kildare blood coursing through their veins. Kildare could be anybody in this row. They’ve taken a stand but even the stand itself isn’t that important. It’s who the stand is against and what it represents.

I don’t doubt Cian O’Neill’s intentions are pure in all this. All the same, you’d have to say this has panned out pretty well for him. When Mayo came out of the hat on Monday morning, it was the worst draw they could have hoped for. Especially if the game was in Croke Park, where Mayo come to life every year. Their summer could have ended with a 10-point beating and O’Neill would finish the year with two wins to show for it all.

Instead, he’s The Man Who Shouted Stop. And every poor unfortunate who ever had to pay a fortune for tickets and grub and petrol to bring the kids to a game in Croke Park or got a grant application turned down for the club or whatever it is, everyone has latched onto him. They love to see somebody stick it to the establishment.

The can of worms is open now. For whatever reason, this hasn’t passed by and died down like a lot of GAA rows do

Especially in a situation like this, where he has two things going for him. First of all, he has right on his side. Secondly, he is very well-spoken. Everyone who saw him on the RTE news on Monday evening was impressed by what he had to say and how he said it. You could only come away from that feeling that the GAA hadn’t a leg to stand on.

It doesn’t matter whether they have or they haven’t. The lads in the CCCC know far more about the nooks and crannies of rules than I do, so I’m sure they’re well able to point to subsection this or index that or whatever. These men know their business and I’m certain they feel they’re on solid ground with whatever ruling they’ve made.

I don’t doubt Cian O’Neill’s intentions are pure in all this. All the same, you’d have to say this has panned out pretty well for him.
I don’t doubt Cian O’Neill’s intentions are pure in all this. All the same, you’d have to say this has panned out pretty well for him.

But on this one, that doesn’t matter. The can of worms is open now. For whatever reason, this hasn’t passed by and died down like a lot of GAA rows do. Everybody has jumped on the back of it and used it for their own end. When you think about it, that says a lot about the country, never mind just the GAA.

Conspiracy theory

There is a general resentment everywhere outside Dublin towards the fact that all the work and all the money and everything else seems to be in Dublin. It’s not a GAA thing, it’s how the country works. Or more to the point, it’s how people in rural Ireland presume the country works. They think it’s a two-tier country with the majority of the pie for the city slickers and scraps for everyone else. Right or wrong, this is just more of it.

One of the lads I met in Tralee was even adamant that this whole thing was rigged by the Dubs! His conspiracy theory was that as soon as it came to light that Mayo were going to get playing in Croke Park, that’s when the controversy kicked off. According to him, Kildare are doing the Dubs’ dirty work by keeping Mayo out of Croke Park and stopping them getting too used to the place too early in the summer.

It’s nonsense obviously but that’s what the GAA are up against. I’ve met plenty of the lads in suits who work in Croke Park and they’re genuine GAA men who are working for a paycheque like everyone else. Nobody is pocketing a heap of money off the back of the GAA. They’re just keeping the thing moving, day after day, week after week.

People take fairness very seriously when it goes against them

I have a good bit of sympathy for them too. I’m in business myself and I know the pressures involved. You have to keep pushing forward, keep coming up with new ways of bringing in the bucks. Everything you want to do costs money and that money has to come from somewhere.

The difference with the GAA is that they’re in charge of competitions that everyone has a stake in. Yes, they’re a business but that’s not the first thing people think of when they think of the GAA. They think of their county and their chances and will they make a run this year. They think of their clubman and will he get a fair shot at making the county panel. The championships are what drives everything else the GAA does.

All anyone involved in those competitions wants is fair play. Once they get a whiff of favourable treatment for somebody other than themselves, everyone plays the poor mouth. That’s why people still talk about Joe Sheridan’s goal that robbed Louth in 2010.

It was just so blatantly unfair. And when all came to all, the GAA did nothing to defend fairness. They left it to the Meath lads to offer a replay if they felt like it, even though there isn’t a group of players in the world in any sport that would do that if they weren’t made to. Once the GAA didn’t order a replay straight away, they left themselves open to all sort of accusations and conspiracies. People take fairness very seriously when it goes against them.

Big mistake

Once there’s money in the mix, people can start throwing numbers around to prove that the whole thing is a racket. This is at the heart of why this one fixture between Kildare and Mayo has blown up in the GAA’s face. They’ve allowed a situation to arise where everybody thinks there’s some sort of stroke being pulled.

Everything gets poured into this one issue. It comes from all the best teams being from the counties who bring in the biggest sponsorships and fund-raising. It comes from the Sky deal. It comes from the Dubs never having to play an away fixture in the home ground of their opposition.

Joe Sheridan scores his controversial goal for Meath in 2010. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
Joe Sheridan scores his controversial goal for Meath in 2010. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho

Take each of those things in isolation and they all make grand logical sense. But once people get an idea that there’s a level of unfairness attached, that’s when the GAA gets itself into trouble. That’s what has happened here. It’s blatantly unfair to deprive Kildare of a home game when they went into Monday morning expecting one if it was drawn out.

Kildare went into the draw under the impression that if their name came out first against a Division One team or a Division Two team, they would have a home game. The GAA’s big mistake was not making it clear ahead of time that there would have to be a move to Croke Park if they drew Mayo. Once Kildare had that on their side, they could dig in.

We’re in the middle of the World Cup and all anyone is interested in is the great injustice of the poor Kildare footballers

When something is unfair, people automatically presume the worst. So the GAA version is that they want to accommodate as many supporters as possible. But when it’s done like this, the version people hear is that the GAA are looking to make the biggest possible payday out of the game.

That’s why there is such big backing for Kildare over this. People have got the impression time after time of the bigwigs in Croke Park making the championships come second to the GAA being a money-making machine. Whether it was making Kerry and Mayo play in Limerick because the Yanks had Croke Park or the state of the pitch in Pearse Stadium after the Ed Sheeran gig. People were just waiting for a cause to back. Newbridge Or Nowhere came along at just the right time.

Especially in this of all years when the big selling point of the Super-8s is supposed to be about bringing football back to the people. When they passed the Super-8s in Congress, I don’t remember anyone standing up and saying that everyone who made it to the last eight would be guaranteed a home game except counties who only have a small ground.

All I remember is people making a big deal out of how great it will be for country towns that never get big matches to have the Dubs or Kerry coming to play in the championship in high summer. There was no mention anywhere of it being subject to having a big stadium to fit everyone into. I wonder would it have passed at all if somebody had said that from the stage when they were trying to get it through?

The one upside for the GAA is that it has the country talking. We’re in the middle of the World Cup and all anyone is interested in is the great injustice of the poor Kildare footballers. When it all gets sorted out, the GAA might think it wasn’t the worst controversy to pass a summer week with.

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