Seán Moran: Fire and fury surrounding Dublin in Croke Park unfair to both sides
The champions' effective residency may be unfair but it's an understandable trade-off
Donegal’s queried having to play Dublin in Croke Park in Phase 1 of the quarter-finals last year. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
With each passing year, as interest in the run-up to the GAA’s annual congress wanes – the move from April to February has been a factor – its capacity to cause outrage on social media appears to grow exponentially.
The rancour triggered both by the debate on whether Dublin should have two matches in Croke Park during the quarter-finals and its aftermath has been disproportionate and unfair to both sides.
Donegal’s Motion 39 at last weekend’s congress in Wexford appeared to many to be a bit curious. Its suggested prohibition on “any county” nominating Croke Park as its home venue clearly but not explicitly referred to Dublin.
Why target Dublin’s home match in the All-Ireland football round-robin rather than the “Croke Park round”, which for all other counties is a neutral venue?
The answer goes back to last summer and Donegal’s decision to query having to play Dublin in Croke Park in Phase 1 of the quarter-finals. County officers met GAA officials to “clarify” the situation. This received a firm response pointing out that the venue for the first series of matches had been set in rule as Croke Park more than a year previously.
As soon as the review had been released last November Donegal chair Mick McGrath confirmed that the county would in all likelihood challenge Dublin’s use of Croke Park as a home venue at the 2019 congress
A communiqué issued afterwards did however spell out the nub of the argument: “While Donegal challenged how any team could nominate Croke Park as their home venue, it was acknowledged that there was nothing in Rule to prohibit this.”
An interim review of the championship structure was promised and duly took place but the only change advocated for the quarter-finals was the moving of the “Croke Park round” from Phase 1 to Phase 2. This was seen as part recognition of another Donegal grievance that provincial champions should have their first round-robin match at home.
As soon as the review had been released last November Donegal chair Mick McGrath confirmed that the county would in all likelihood challenge Dublin’s use of Croke Park as a home venue at the 2019 congress.
In essence they were responding to the GAA’s argument that there was no rule preventing Dublin from nominating the stadium as its home venue by trying to introduce one to that effect.
Yet there was validity in Dublin chief executive John Costello’s argument that the county’s support base requires high capacity in the All-Ireland stages – even last August’s dead rubber against Roscommon drew 33,269 to Croke Park, a crowd that couldn’t be accommodated for instance in any other Leinster venue.
He similarly had a point in referring to the 2000s – a decade when Dublin were the perfect combination of hopeful and ultimately hopeless at the top levels of the game – during which the county helped bring a fortune in gate receipts.
The zenith of the good times was 2007, the figures for which have only been exceeded once in the past 12 years, when Dublin’s matches averaged attendances of 80,000 in four of their five championship outings, as well as a guarantee they wouldn’t actually win the All-Ireland.
No-one, as Costello said, was complaining then.
There is a tendency to treat the GAA as if it were actually another professional sports body. This isn’t a reference to the association’s (frequently self-projected) status as a vital, community organisation but more to a public perception that its sole business is the organisation of elite sports events.
The All-Ireland championships and national leagues are the main vehicles for promotion and the engagement of public interest but when officials say that the GAA is primarily about the games, they don’t exclusively mean the high-profile inter-county competitions.
There is a huge infrastructure of recreational and participative sport to be organised and encouraged and the ongoing problems of facilitating clubs in something as basic as a reliable fixtures schedule is testament to those challenges.
There is more obvious scope in addressing the “Croke Park” round because the evidence is that it didn’t work on more levels than simply being unfairly advantageous to Dublin
It requires funding to maintain. It’s easy to excoriate administrators for trading off a traditional unfairness in the championship – and it is unfair to have one county with a residency in Croke Park – for better revenues but, as in Leinster, unless your county is drawn against Dublin it’s easy for your own requirements to take precedence over, say, Donegal’s.
For the delegates who voted down the county’s motion, that was the calculation, however people may feel about it.
There is more obvious scope in addressing the “Croke Park” round because the evidence is that it didn’t work on more levels than simply being unfairly advantageous to Dublin.
The venue had been used with very few exceptions for all of the football quarter-finals since they were introduced in 2001. That coincided with the completion of the Croke Park redevelopment and all the fascination with the new stadium as well as an economic boom, a perfectly positive storm that drove huge attendances in the middle of the last decade.
There were signs in last year’s quarter-finals that the same spell isn’t being cast and in a way it’s understandable. The type of counties who typically make the last eight are no strangers to Croke Park so it’s not of itself an attraction. Strip out the sudden death element of the quarter-finals and there’s even less reason to attend, especially with two potentially more convenient rounds still to come.
The total attendance at last year’s round-robin quarter-finals in Croke Park was 84,291, an average of just over 42,000 as opposed to 145,738 in 2017 – excluding the Mayo-Roscommon replay.
Add in that the most conspicuously successful element of the new format was the spreading of fixtures across provincial venues and the number of memorable events that created.
Maybe there’s a case for getting rid of the Croke Park round, altogether and replacing it with a neutral round.