Ciarán Murphy: Kildare show home advantage worth the fight
Within the GAA, why is the idea of selling out a match in a smaller venue a dirty concept?
Kildare’s Chris Healy celebrates scoring a late goal in their qualifier against Longford. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
You’re told that you should always negotiate from a position of strength, but it was actually the acute weakness of Cian O’Neill and the Kildare football team’s performance this year that ensured they were never going to back down in the imbroglio that started the second Kildare were drawn out first against Mayo in Round 3 of the All-Ireland senior football championship qualifiers.
Kildare have been terrible this year, losing eight games on the trot in Division 1 and in the Leinster championship to Carlow, before getting the show back on the road to some extent in the last two rounds of the qualifiers with wins away from home against Derry and Longford.
But they’re weak. They didn’t lead until the 69th minute against Longford last Saturday. They were scratching around for inspiration, and when given a chance to take a stand, they took it. It might feel a little as if this was a roll of the dice they could afford to take. The most likely alternative is for them to put it up to an injury-hit Mayo in Croke Park for 50 minutes, and then lose by four or five points. The season would have limped to a close.
Now they have their fan base riled up, and they have a cause. Whether that, and the febrile atmosphere that is now guaranteed in Newbridge on Saturday night, is enough to get them over the line, I sincerely doubt. Mayo, even with all their injuries, still look like a team almost uniquely capable of nullifying Kildare’s key strengths, and winning with a bit to spare.
So given that choice on Monday morning, Cian O’Neill was able to go on the 6.01 news on Monday evening, and speak with the confidence of a man absolutely 100 per cent certain he was in the right. And he was in the right, of course. They were drawn first, at home. The GAA themselves said that had Kildare drawn any of the other six teams at home, then Newbridge would have been the venue for the game.
It comes back to something I’ve written in these pages before: that the ideal crowd at a GAA game is one person short of capacity, so that they can be sure that everyone who wanted a ticket got in. The idea of a sell-out match is still a dirty concept.
Some 18,000-20,000 people might reasonably have been expected to show up for a match between Mayo and Kildare, but the concept of fair play is more important than the idea that everyone has a divine right to go to a football game. That is not something the GAA appears to agree with, but they’ve taken the hit this time.
The concept of home advantage being just that – an advantage – is proving a thorny little theory for the GAA to swallow. The advent of the round robins in the provincial hurling championship might have sharpened the mind a little, but it seems in many minds it’s still a bit of a moveable feast.
It was obviously the right choice to put Galway into the Leinster hurling championship, but was it the right choice to leave them without home advantage for nine years? Why haven’t Dublin played a game in the Leinster championship in their opponent’s home ground for donkeys’ years?
The Super-8s are a much fairer way of deciding who the best team in the country is, given the imbalances currently at play in a number of provinces, but why are Dublin playing two games at home, when everyone else only has one game in their home ground? Is the idea of a capacity crowd in the Super-8s in Thurles or Clones, rather than another game in Croke Park, that intolerable?
In all the reaction it became clear that people were using this farrago as a cipher for whatever it was that they felt was killing the GAA from the inside. It became a sort of GAA Brexit, where it was about whatever you wanted it to be about.
People (and there were many of them) tweeting that “Joe Brolly was right all along” might not even be sure what it is he was right about, but it feels right in the moment, and that’s all that matters. It wasn’t actually about Sky Sports, it wasn’t about “HQ” being hand in glove with big sponsors, but it struck a chord nevertheless.
Mayo fans and Dublin fans might not have agreed about much in the last few years but they do appear to agree on one thing: it is intolerable that anyone who wants to go to a game that isn’t the All-Ireland final be unable to go to that game. Unfortunately, that is not always conducive to fairness at its most elemental level.
When Liverpool travel to Bournemouth FC’s Vitality Stadium, with its capacity of 11,360, I’m sure they’d be able to bring a few more fans than their allocation. But that doesn’t start the clamour to bring it to Southampton. Home advantage is worth fighting for, and that’s what Kildare did this week.