Joanne O’Riordan: Lack of facilities ensures it’s far from a level playing pitch for all
GAA should address concerns of women players, fans and those who are disabled
The wheelchair stand in Páirc Uí Rinn is where the Camp Nou or Bernabeu put their away fans. Behind a fence and shoved into a corner. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
Westmeath women’s football manager Sean Finnegan went on an incredible rant about the state of pitches for women’s matches and has lambasted sporting bodies for forcing top inter-county teams to play on unsuitable pitches.
In case you missed it, Westmeath played All-Ireland champions Dublin in St Clares in DCU grounds.
His squad were forced to tog out in three separate changing rooms (not ideal for pre-match prep) and his substitutes, along with Dublin subs, were forced to stand on the freezing cold sideline during a powerful storm.
On top of that, the fans paid a tenner to stand in the cold.
The same contentious issue has reared its head again. Peter Leahy discussed the facilities at Donegal GAA’s home, Convoy.
From what I’ve heard about Convoy from the men’s football team who train there, you change in portacabins, there’s no stand, but there are four pitches all with floodlights. At least they’ve apparently turned the sod to build these new dressing rooms.
A part of me had to laugh.
A few years ago, when my brother thought he was a footballing star, my family and I went to see one of his games against Brosna in Kerry. I don’t stand with my mother and sister (they get the odd bit worked up), so my father and I went looking for a suitable place to stand.
A steward came over and began complimenting me on my work in a past life. Ironically, Munster Council had told Millstreet they couldn’t have the game as Millstreet’s GAA grounds didn’t have a stand.
I politely asked the steward where the best view was and he paused. And this pause went on to the point of where it got tremendously awkward and other fans that were wheelchair users gathered around with the same query. Eventually, an apologetic look crept across his face.
“I’m tremendously sorry, Joanne, but our new grandstand has no wheelchair access.”
My father and I broke down laughing. I told the steward that was fine and how Munster Council took the game off Millstreet for the lack of a stand, but completely disregarded the full meaning of access.
Again, that is not Brosna’s fault, I personally don’t blame them. Just like Peter Leahy and Sean Finnegan, I have seen some dire pitches in my time from a disability point of view. There was an infamous bust-up with Kieran McGeeney in Páirc Uí Rinn.
The wheelchair stand in Páirc Uí Rinn is where the Camp Nou or Bernabeu put their away fans. Behind a fence and shoved into a corner. I’ve spent many years studying drug addiction, and I’ve always joked with my father that from looking through fences my eyes begin to see patterns mimicking the fence.
Eventually, I got sick of standing behind that fence, and my dad’s friend was a steward. I must have pleaded some amount with him because one match against Armagh, I was sitting on the pitch (which I admit is not safe in any circumstance, but where else could I go? Back to my corner where companions don’t even have a chair?) when all hell broke loose.
A ball rolled out over the sideline by my chair, and a player came and picked it up. After the game, apparently, Armagh officials were unimpressed with that situation. So, like the hellraiser I am, I was banned from the sideline, and my father and I had to relocate to another area.
Eventually, we found our home, under the covered stand of Páirc Uí Rinn, where the walkway is so wide it could definitely be used as a wheelchair platform, with enough space for fans of all abilities to pass through safely.
Annoyingly, it doesn’t stop there. I’m obviously a wannabe journalist, but this wannabe sports reporter can’t sit in the press box due to accessibility issues. Imagine, the hub of sports reporting and it’s not accessible for all. Newly built Páirc Uí Chaoimh, the home of hurling Semple Stadium, Fitzgerald Stadium, Clones and I’m sure there are many more.
I’ve gone into stadiums abroad where they have facilities for the blind, deaf, autistic fans, Downs Syndrome and those who use a wheelchair. From pitch side commentary for blind fans to secluded, yet integrated, areas for fans with sensory issues.
I understand every facility cannot have these and unfortunately, the lack of precedent in this area in Ireland means there will have to be a trailblazer, but it’ll come at a cost. In the UK, over £100m in grants have been given to football clubs for the development of stadiums, both non-league and top Premier League clubs.
In America, it’s embedded into law and legally binding that all stadiums have access to the pitch, boxes, tunnels and everywhere in between. Along with that various criteria have to be met, such as one per cent of stadium capacity has to have a disabled section, while those accompanying those with a disability must have a seat next to their companion.
While Peter Leahy and Sean Finnegan look for subs benches, decent-sized dressing rooms and stands for supporters, all I want is equal access so I can attend matches at ease and also do my job if the call ever comes. Until change happens, I’ll be left in an awkward limbo and maybe become the only sports journalist to never see the inside of a press box.