GAA grounds grind into gear as football roadshow begins

Wherever you are, get ready for All-Ireland championship

 

On a bright May morning over a decade ago, your correspondent sat across a rickety table in the Paragon Bar in Clones town chewing the fat with the proprietor, one Paddy Freeman. The championship was around the corner and the spirits were high and the idea was to do a piece on people at the periphery of the whole show.

Freeman was a perfect candidate – loud, garrulous, full of chat and mad for the summer to get here. Ulster teams were winning All-Irelands at the time and somewhere along the way to doing so, they generally had to pass through Clones.

In the Paragon, all comers were made welcome. The walls were red, with murals drawn of players from all over, some of whom had never set foot in Clones in their lives. Cormac McAnallen wasn’t long gone and took pride of place on one wall, with Michael Donnellan an altogether more esoteric choice on the one adjacent. The point wasn’t subtle – this was a GAA bar. More to the point, this was a football bar. In a football town.

“This town has nothing,” Freeman piped up at one stage. “Clones isn’t a bad town but it has nothing. The jobs are gone, the young people are gone. If it wasn’t for that football field up over the hill there, there’d be nothing in the town at all. But the football field keeps us going. The summer is mighty.”

Unique

Paddy Freemans

Eleven weeks from now, everything moves to Croke Park for the various endgames. Most towns see a couple of games at most and the jamboree heads off somewhere else. Last year, for instance, 27 towns and cities hosted championship games (25 if we take out New York and London).

Dublin had 14 separate days of it between football and hurling, Thurles had seven, Portlaoise had six. Next on the list, maybe surprisingly, was Carlow with five. On down through Clones, Mullingar, Limerick and Ennis with four each and a multitude of twos and threes and ones. That’s 25 towns in 24 counties – the Waterford footballers played a Munster championship game in Dungarvan, the Waterford hurlers played a qualifier in Waterford.

Some towns are made for championship hosting. Some can take it or leave it. One Sunday the spotlight could fall on the sort of place where farmers have “PARKING €5” signs stuck to the gates of fields a good three miles from the ground. The next you could be lost on a side street somewhere asking for directions, only to be met with a grudging: “Is there a game on?”

Take Omagh, for instance. You will travel many miles across this fair land without encountering more fervent and committed supporters of their county than Tyrone people. They were long and loud in affirmation of their faith long before they won anything and the years of plenty haven’t diluted their appetite for worship. Yet it’s entirely possible to be on Market Street on a championship Sunday and only barely feel the pulse of it.

The reason is simple. Healy Park is a good mile-and-a-half out the road from the town centre. It’s up a hill and down a dale, out past a park and a school and a housing estate and the Silver Birch hotel. That holy grail of a summer Sunday – a pre-match pint out in the fresh air – isn’t impossible but it’s a big ask.

Something on

Last summer, Galway and Kilkenny met for a two-game mini-epic in Tullamore. From the Bridge House carvery up as far as O’Connor’s and Kelly’s on the bridge, the streets teemed with devotees. When Henry Shefflin and Joe Canning traded matching points from the ends of the earth to draw the first game, the traffic chugged for an hour afterwards as radio pundits broke it all down.

Second Captains

Proximity to the town attached to the ground is key to a good championship day out. The old reliables like Thurles, Clones, Killarney and Kilkenny don’t work solely for this reason but it’s a damn good start. The square in Thurles to the Town End in Semple Stadium is a 10-minute walk. Ditto Main Street in Killarney to the Lewis Road entrance of Fitzgerald Stadium.

It would be a lazy stroller who needed more than a quarter of an hour between leaving Langtons in Kilkenny and taking a seat in Nowlan Park. And generations of Ulstermen have refined the art of ordering a last one in the Creighton at the bottom of Fermanagh Street in Clones and still being on the Hill for the end of Amhrán na bhFiann.

Location, location, location. Pearse Stadium in Salthill is damned twice – too far out of the city to make it a focal point, far too open to the vagaries of the wind coming in off the Atlantic. O’Moore Park in Portlaoise has always felt a bit soulless, stuck to the side of the M7 with a vast bank of apartments overlooking the pitch.

In Mullingar, any potential majesty of a day in Cusack Park can’t but be undermined by the feeling the game is being played in the car park of the Dunnes Stores that backs onto the pitch.

Wexford Park is so far out of the town centre that you sometimes worry about a game getting too interesting, for fear that any over-eager boisterousness could wake sleeping kids in the quiet neighbourhood nearby.

Some grounds have character. Pearse Park in Longford is a handsome little music box of a stadium. Dr Cullen Park in Carlow is the only ground in the country where the players have to go through an underground tunnel to make it from the dressing rooms to the pitch. Celtic Park in Derry is dug into the side of a hill, Hillary Step-style, with the Brandywell below it and the city graveyard sprawling away up across the Lone Moor Road.

Some grounds do not have character. For all of Clones’s attributes as a hosting town, St Tiernach’s Park itself is a hotchpotch of half-carried-out ideas and well-intentioned plans.

Páirc Uí Chaoimh’s reputation as a desperate old kip should have been dealt with long ago, but it has taken until now for the diggers to move in. Cusack Park in Ennis has been rusting at the edges for years, its main distinguishing feature being the country’s most battered and tattered old scoreboard.

Scoreboards make for a fun case study, as it happens. This being the GAA, there is obviously no consistency from one ground to the next. The one in Ennis would shame the lowliest junior club – wooden slats that haven’t changed in decades, chalkboard-style numbers faded from the rain. Roscommon’s Hyde Park scoreboard is a huge green galvanised edifice that doubles as a shelter from the rain.

In Ballycastle, it’s a matter of two stakes in the ground, two stakes supporting them and a ladder up the back with a hassled scoreboard operator hoping to God that the free-takers are having an off day.

Elsewhere, modernity’s creeping advance reveals itself in different ways. In Castlebar, the digitised scoreboard is striped across the main security control centre. In forward-thinking Tullamore, they flash up the name of the scorer after every point – something not even the bells-and-whistles merchants in Croke Park have ever seen fit to match.

Some grounds have clocks. Some even have clocks that work. Some, like the one in Portlaoise, go up to 35:00 before being reset to 00:00 for the second half. If you see furrowed brows up in the press box there some days, it’s because cloth-brained hacks are trying to add 35 to 17 while noting down a sub and keeping an eye on the kick-out. We were never warned that a facility for numbers would be part of the job spec.

Yet for all the variations from ground to ground, certain things are the same no matter where you go. From MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey to Fraher Field in Dungarvan, you will still run afoul of yellow-bibbed stewards who guard the entrance to the Árd Comhairle with their lives. You will still pay €2 for your choice of warm Coke or cold tea and your chances of eating anything that isn’t a crisp or chocolate are slim to none.

Best fed ground

There might only be a crowd of around 3,000 through the gates, but it’s a proper day out when you get there. The guardians of London GAA throw up a couple of marquees and proceed to make merry. They sling burgers and fire out pints and bottles to beat the band. They stick the other game of the day up on the big screen in the clubhouse while the crowd flows in. It can feel like the one place anywhere all summer that the actual championship is being celebrated.

By the end of July, it all gets funnelled down into a series of weekends in Croke Park. Much and all as supporters and teams are desperate to make it to the All-Ireland series, there’s no doubt that a little of the character gets soaked up in the sponge of Dublin 3.

The various pubs of lore around Croke Park haven’t had a good recent run of it. Quinn’s in Drumcondra has fallen foul of the food safety laws. The Hideout on Campbell’s Row is sadly no longer with us. Gaffney’s in Fairview is still going strong but it’s a bit out of the way and in the wrong direction if you’re coming from or heading to the city.

For all that, Croke Park is still the solitary modern, well-appointed GAA ground in the country. The one place you can be assured that there are enough toilets (not to mention enough clean ones). The rare place you can grab a beer. The only ground with a functioning corporate element, where you can eat properly and comfortably and at your leisure.

Everything ends in Croke Park. For an 83,000-ish seater stadium, there’s barely a bad vantage point. The lower-stand corners where the Hogan and Cusack meet the Canal End aren’t great and if you get stuck right at the end line at pitch level, you’re sometimes better watching on the big screen.

If that ever happens, here’s a tip. On all but the very biggest days in Croke Park, there is always room on the upper level. And there isn’t a single bad seat up there either, assuming you don’t suffer from vertigo.

The key is to walk to your seat like you personally bought it and donated it to Michael Cusack himself. Stroll into the Upper Cusack – making sure to breeze past the security lads without catching their eye – pick a seat a few rows away and go and plonk yourself down. Nobody will question you.

Microclimates

Most of all, though, make sure you go. Go anywhere. Go to Thurles or Longford or Castlebar. Go to Killarney for the Munster final and pick out the Reeks in the distance. Go to Breffni Park in a couple of weeks and watch Cavan and Monaghan wrestle away down in the bowl. Go to Limerick next month and use the match programme to shield your eyes from the sun.

And whether your team is there or not, go to Croke Park sometime in August. Take your seat high up on the upper level and feel the place shake as the anthem finishes and the ball is thrown in. For an hour-and-a- half, you are where something matters. The summer is mighty, as Paddy Freeman said.

Where else would you be?

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