It is coming up on nine summers since the footballers of Mayo attempted an impromptu eviction of Dublin’s sense of comfort in Croke Park by running out towards Hill 16 and then refusing to leave when the city team duly appeared.
As it transpired, the insurrection was hastily masterminded by David Brady, the William Wallace to that generation of Mayo footballers. The plan was hatched in the dressing room minutes – if not mere seconds – before the Westerners took to the field. A discussion began as to whether they should turn right or left and do as all country teams do and leave the Hill to the Dubs. Reports are mixed as to whether Brady told his team mates, "Your heart is free. Have the courage to follow it." But witnesses and inadvertent participants of the so-called Mill at the Hill are in uniform agreement that he declared: "No, fuck it. Let's go down that side."
So they did. What followed was five minutes of the kind of outright anarchy capable of giving the GAA top brass hot sweats in a snowstorm and which is quickly condemned as “disgraceful” and “unacceptable” and which absolutely thrills and scandalises the rest of the country. The Dublin team made for their sacred patch linking arms and slow marching, as if they had just landed back from a civil rights march in segregation-era Alabama. And then both squads attempted to warm up into the same goal, with predictable confusion, buffeting, angry words, casualties and howls of outrage/uncontainable glee coming from the stands – particularly the affronted citizens of the Hill.
Order was restored, a great game broke out; the Dubs went nine points clear in the second half and Mayo engineered one of their very greatest escape acts which concluded in Kieran McDonald’s deathless, exquisite point into the same Hill where all the trouble had begun.
The episode was just that: one of those bizarre conflagrations which make the GAA – bless its passionate soul -– that bit different. And it also addressed a question taken up by
in a more reasoned way this week. The Offaly manager broke a gentleman’s agreement by actually coming out and speaking his mind at an official championship launch this week, mildly protesting at the fact that the Dubs get to play all of their games in Croke Park. He made the point that it is not a “fair competition” any more.
Over the past decade, the Dubs have made such a wasteland of the Leinster championship that the idea of them not winning a provincial championship match in Croke Park has become inconceivable. Jim Gavin, the current Dublin manager, has stated that he would be happy to bring his team to any venue to play a championship match. You can bet he means that. The Dubs have amply demonstrated in the league that they are well able to mix it and tap into their "A" game on away games and the Dubs' winter support is the crowd that makes the league: they show up, they make noise and they go home happy.
But the thought of Dublin arriving in a packed and hostile Mullingar or Navan or Newbridge for a Leinster championship knock-out makes what has become a lopsided competition much more appealing than if played in the neutral venue.
The issue as to whether Croke Park is a home venue for Dublin has gone beyond a joke. In theory, maybe not. But try convincing a Monaghan team or a Roscommon team, say, huddled in their dressing room minutes before an All-Ireland final and hearing the earth tremble above them with the roar that greets the arrival of the sky blue team onto the field. When any team plays Dublin in Croke Park, they are far from home. The only other county harbouring notions that Croke Park can be “theirs” when they play Dublin is Kerry. Mayo’s impromptu coup in 2006 was an attempt to disrupt that sense of place and belonging. If Croke Park is truly a neutral venue, then any team should have the right to warm up in front of the Hill – and supporters from other counties should have the same access to tickets to that area of the ground. It is daft to pretend that any Dublin football player or supporter doesn’t consider Croke Park to be his or her local stadium. No, Croke Park is as much a part of Dublin football lore as the Nou Camp is to Barcelona or the Hinkle Fieldhouse to Indiana basketball. They just belong together. Playing the Dubs in Croke Park is one of the definitive experiences in the lifespan of any inter-county footballer. It is special.
But must they play every championship game there? The argument is that they are such a big attraction that Croke Park is the obvious venue. From a financial perspective, the logic here is unimpeachable. The Dubs bring a crowd, even for games which they are heavily favoured to win.
Yet for how long more? It is not Dublin’s fault that the coaching work and strategic and financial investment at club level is now reflected in the return of nine out of the last 10 provincial championships, a staggering achievement. There is nothing to suggest that streak will end anytime soon. That domination is not good for the wellbeing of other counties – and for general interest in the game.
Next Sunday, Tyrone must go into Ballybofey to play Donegal in the first real heavyweight match of the All-Ireland championship. They would rather be playing in Omagh or Clones or Croke Park, but they have no choice because that is the draw. That principle should apply across the board.
So if Dublin are drawn away to play the winners of Offaly and Longford, the arbitrary nature of the draw should be honoured. It would serve to end the lingering sense of unfairness that exists. And it would give Dublin the chance to illustrate what is increasingly clear anyhow: that regardless of where they warm up or what town they play in, they are an exceptionally difficult team to beat.