Roars set to return as GAA fans click through the turnstiles again
Tyrone’s Niall Morgan looking forward to feeling pressure from the crowd once again
Armagh supporters will return to watch their team for the first time in over a year on Saturday. Photo: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Thursday morning and Armagh chairman Mickey Savage has time for a call. He doesn’t have a lot of time but he has time. You’re busier this week than you were last week, Mickey? “I’m busier this week than I have been this last six months!” he laughs. The beauty of a small bud of the old ways sprouting above ground again.
They were expecting the news that came on Tuesday but that didn’t make it any less welcome. For tonight’s game against Tyrone in the Athletic Grounds, they will be allowed to welcome 500 people through the gates. It marks 476 days since they played Kildare in the 2020 league, the last time there was a crowd at an intercounty match in Armagh.
The same will happen in Enniskillen this afternoon when Fermanagh play Longford, tonight in Omagh when Tyrone take on Monaghan and tomorrow in Belfast when Antrim welcome Leitrim. They will be the first intercounty crowds since March 8th, 2020 and the first football crowds since the week before that. Understandably enough, demand has engulfed supply.
“I’ve had to take a lot more calls,” Savage says. “We have 400 tickets to divide out among 10,000 people. The way we decided it was, we’re going to give the clubs five each and let them take it from there. After that, sponsors and players and that will eat up the rest. But sure you know yourself – you have men ringing you who have been supporting Armagh for 50 years. I had a wee man in the office here who refereed for 42 years. You hear it all, you know?”
For the players involved, it will be the end of the longest twilight zone any of them will hopefully ever experience. Niall Morgan will be between the posts tonight, his first intercounty game in front of a crowd since Tyrone beat Dublin on February 29th. Yes, it will only be a few hundred. But he is certain it will make a difference. There was never a Tyrone crowd that felt it didn’t.
“Obviously the games do matter,” Morgan says. “But when there’s no crowd there, there’s a wee bit of a friendly-type atmosphere about it. I wouldn’t say you’re not held accountable but we’ll see it now on Saturday night – the people won’t be long getting on your back. That keeps you on your toes. And when there’s a crowd there from the opposition, they’d be getting on your back so all of that keeps you focused. When it’s not there, there can sometimes be a bit of a drift in concentration.
“The crowds would have been even one of the reasons I concentrated on playing for Tyrone and stopped playing soccer. There were bigger crowds at the Gaelic. So to go from that to absolutely nobody being at the games has been surreal. You want to play in an atmosphere. That’s what separates it from playing for the club. You want to feel like you’re representing a big body of people. And when there’s nobody there, that’s harder to do.”
It hasn’t all been downside. From a playing point of view, it has been easier for teams to communicate on the pitch, easier for management to get their orders in from off it too. Although, as Morgan points out, “It means you can’t pretend not to hear somebody telling you off from the sideline anymore.”
“If you’re hitting free-kicks, it does feel like there’s a wee bit less pressure on them. If you’re taking kick-outs, there’s nobody behind the goals giving you grief. Not that that would happen to me, of course! Definitely not. And obviously, the communication side of things is big because even if you’re playing in front of what we would have considered a small crowd before – something like 10,000 or that – even in that case it’s hard to get your voice projected as far as you want.
“Whereas without a crowd now, it’s been a lot easier to get messages across and to hear calls. If you’re changing your system of play or if you’re calling a kick-out play, it’s easier for everyone to get that message. Or if you’re lining up a kick-out and you’re scanning the field, it’s a lot easier to hear your name being called.”
The lack of crowds has even led to some rules changes. Throughout the silent championship of 2020, it became more obvious than ever that opposition players were going to great lengths to put goalkeepers and free-takers off by standing in front of them waving their arms and shouting and yahooing. It meant that one of the small rules changes that were stolen through Congress back in early spring was a stipulation that referees weren’t going to stand for it any more. Mind you, it has so far had, shall we say, limited impact.
“Seán Hurson is our referee in Tyrone,” Morgan says, “and he came in and gave us a talk on the new rules and this was one of them. Forwards weren’t going to be allowed to shout and roar at kick-outs. They couldn’t wave their hands, they couldn’t shout his name, they couldn’t be going, ‘How long is he taking ref?’ All that stuff.
“Well, we’ve played two games and both teams have done it to me already and there hasn’t been a hint of a referee contemplating moving the ball up. So your guess is as good as mine!”
Maybe in time. For now, it’s a small grumble. The crowds are coming back and the direction of travel is obviously positive for everyone. That said, there has even been room for a bit of shaping as a result of the GAA’s determination that for now, tickets aren’t being allocated to counties travelling from the South. Gaelic Life reported on Thursday that Donegal and Monaghan had both lodged objections with Croke Park on the issue.
As it happens, although both Morgan and Savage come from counties that will benefit this weekend, they both feel it would have been preferable for the association to make the leap as one. Savage got a call from his Donegal counterpart Mick McGrath earlier in the week inquiring after an allocation and would have been only delighted to accommodate him. But that’s not how the top brass are playing it for now.
“We were expecting we would split the tickets, you know?” the Armagh chairman says. “But I suppose with Covid, they’re still being a bit careful in the South and they decided they didn’t want any travel. It’s a shame, in fairness. I would have hoped they’d have made it an equal split.
“It feels not right, really. If Croke Park had said to us we’re getting 200 tickets and Donegal are getting 200, we’d nearly be more happy with the whole thing. We’re a 32-county organisation at the end of the day. I know the pandemic has taken over and things are tricky. But I was a bit surprised really that this is the way it went. I suppose when you see people at soccer matches and rugby matches, you couldn’t not have them at GAA matches as well.
“It’s great to have people coming. There’s a lot of work in the stands, taping off seats and stuff like that. The club championship last year gave us a good prep for that. People sort of know by now what to do and what not to do. With the tighter crowd and no concessions as well, it means there aren’t really many young children running about the place, if any at all. So I’m expecting that part of it to go pretty well and run smooth. And as you can guess, there’ll be no scarcity of stewards!”
Ultimately, it’s the first step back along the road. Or a series of first steps. The first low singing of the anthem. The first sharp shout at the throw-in. The first ripple of applause. The first groan. The first bit of invective roared at the referee. All the firsts, after so long without them.
“This is a bit of a milestone, you can definitely feel that,” Morgan says. “It’s a shame that it’s just in the six counties – it would have been great if we could have all moved together, north and south from the start. But I’m glad that the GAA took the opportunity when it was there. It will boost morale for everybody.”