Joanne O’Riordan: A collective sigh of relief around Jones’ Road

It wasn’t the usual packed 82,000, but it was enough to know normality was resuming

About 2,400 spectators attended  the Littlewoods Camogie League final on Sunday.  Photograph:  Ryan Byrne/ ©INPHO

About 2,400 spectators attended the Littlewoods Camogie League final on Sunday. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/ ©INPHO

 

Although limited in Croke Park, the Kilkenny and Galway fans made sure that their team knew they were in the stadium as if there were almost 80,000 of them. But that wasn’t the case.

Croke Park ran its first test events of 2021 over the weekend. On Saturday evening, the Derry footballers claimed a Division 3 league title by defeating Offaly in front of 2,400 spectators, and on Sunday evening, Kilkenny beat Galway in the Littlewoods Camogie League final in front of a similar size audience.

The atmosphere, despite it being a small crowd, felt like the crowd were on top of the players and added to the spice in an incredible league final that saw wonder goals, stunning displays of athleticism, and another Farrell sister lifting a title as Kilkenny captain, completing the three sisters who captained Kilkenny (Anna, Shelly and Meighan).

From about 6pm, the turnstiles began to open in a staggered way, with all fans being allowed into the Cusack Stand. The upper tier opened at 6pm, while the lower tier opened at about 6.30pm.

Children were standing by the sideline, posing for pictures with their family members, beaming with joy to be a part of history

Jerry Grogan, the voice of Croke Park, began reading welcome messages, followed by rules on how this new test event would work. No gathering permitted inside or outside, unless you’re in the same bubble, wear a mask and stay in your seat. Also, be mindful when celebrating. You don’t want to be spluttering on the person that’s at least five seats away from you.

The fans ambled in bit by bit, greeted by the friendliness of the stewards, but also reminded to wear their mask and not get overexcited during play or match-winning celebrations. The referees trotted out to check the surface and were greeted by their families in the stand, a long time since any wife, husband, child, family member or friend saw their hero take charge of an important game. Children were standing by the sideline, posing for pictures with their family members, beaming with joy to be a part of history.

Still, every 15 minutes, Jerry would come over the PA to let everyone know to wear their mask, although the announcement felt like he was telling a pal two metres away but forgot the microphone was on.

Fanfare

As Kilkenny emerged from the Hogan Stand at about seven minutes past seven, they were greeted with the pre-prepared fanfare from the Artane Band. But, this time, the cheers and roars from fans were added in, with a pop of colour from flags being waved and the odd fist pump here and there. It wasn’t the usual packed 82,000, but it was enough to know normality was resuming.

Ironically enough, the handball alley nearby, newly built by the GAA, was being prepared for another busy Monday of testing. At the same time, the old Elverys shop is now stripped and being used as a vaccination centre, with almost a thousand vaccinations admitted daily, with the odd straggler popping in at closing time asking if there are any vaccines “going” without an appointment.

While Nphet announced that 61.3 per cent of adults have received a first dose, they quickly followed up with statistics about the dreaded Delta variant

But still, while Croke Park was reminding everyone that Covid is still around, the public, stewards, players and management were just happy to be at a game, for normal service to return at a snail’s pace. Those in Croke Park ultimately left their fears and worries at the turnstiles and just submerged themselves for a few hours into an enthralling camogie game.

Those working behind the scenes were tense but relaxed that a long-time project was now coming to fruition, that sport was back, that fans could return safely and, more likely than not, people could actually behave when let loose in a bubble-esque environment.

Yet, in the subconscious, pushed all the way into a box to never be unlocked again, people are still uptight as to whether or not we can fully enjoy this or not. While Nphet announced that 61.3 per cent of adults have received a first dose, they quickly followed up with statistics about the dreaded Delta variant, a new variant that spreads faster and hits harder. Roughly 20 per cent of cases were identified as having the Delta strain in them. Leo Varadkar tried to console people saying there was no need to panic.

So, no panic, but be cautious. Croke Park staff are now set with the unenviable task of writing a health and safety report and giving it to Nphet and the Department of Health, showing them people may not take a mile if given an inch and that, somehow, if people are just asked to sit diligently and watch a match, nothing too drastic will happen. All eyes will be on future games, proposals for attendances of 10,000 at the Leinster hurling final in mid-July, and more than 25,000 at the All-Ireland finals in August.

Only time will tell what the future holds but, for now, the shoulders can relax, and a collective sigh of relief will be heard around Jones’ Road.

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