By Brendan Boylan,
The Munster Hurling Final is rightly regarded by many as the greatest sporting occasion that occurs in this country every year. For a multiplicity of reasons too, from the enthralling action that transpires on the pitch, to the electrifying atmosphere that tends to ensue within the ground and the unbeatable buzz that tends to take hold wherever the match is. Most especially so in Thurles however. Maybe therein lies the reason for Lar Corbett’s ‘retirement’ – you’d have to wonder how things manage to keep going in his hostelry with him out on the pitch!
Seriously though, outside of the All Ireland Finals, surely there is no greater GAA occasion than the Munster SHC Final. Perhaps the latter is even greater however, as the former tends to be preserved – in part at least – for the ‘prawn sandwich eating brigade’ at the greatest expense to ordinary diehard fans. This can be vouched for due to a very painful personal memory in 1991!
All that was mentioned as a point of comparison point for the paltry, pitiful attendances and complete lack of atmosphere that characterised the latter stages of this year’s National Leagues. The four teams contesting the football league semi finals only brought 11,000 to Croke Park. 15,000 went to Thurles for what was an attractive looking double header and the eight teams that made up football finals weekend could only muster 29,000 between them. Or at least that was the official figure.
When one considers that the trotted out line always was that an attendance of 30,000 was needed to make opening Croke Park financially viable, there seemed little sense in opening HQ in recent weeks. And the argument about players wanting to play there doesn’t stack up this time. There can be very little thrill or excitement derived from playing at a venue housing more seagulls and pigeons than humans. Indeed, eerie and surreal were only two of words used by players recently.
If there was a case for opening the Jones’ Road venue for any action at this time of year surely it should’ve been the hurling. Which raises serious questions in itself. No, that is not meant as a dig at the small ball code. Rather, it makes you wonder why there seems to be such apathy towards and disinterest in Gaelic Football.
Sadly, the answer may be all too obvious. Gaelic football as it is now played by most teams is unattractive. I will refrain from using the term the association’s newly installed Uachtaran, Liam O’Neill, did because it couldn’t, or at least shouldn’t, bore people given the amount of skilful players there are on teams all over the country.
The thing is, teams are now, it seems, being coached to stifle the skilful players within the opponents rather than express their own talents. Very obviously, too, fans do not approve of it and are staying away. When one considers the costs involved in trekking from anywhere outside of Leinster to Croker, it’s no wonder people stayed away given the sort of thing that has been on show. It’s time the GAA began to acknowledge the malaise football is now in and do something about it. Do they not realise or appreciate what they have? There is an untold amount of interest in Gaelic games, but, in some ways, there has been a discernible drift away from the big ball code in particular.
It wouldn’t take a whole lot to remedy things though. Firstly, with most country grounds having been upgraded, they need to be utilised more. While this does not sit well with the occupant of this seat, it would have to be admitted that it’s now obvious that, outside of the September showpieces, Dublin are the only ones capable of bringing a decent crowd to Croke Park during the year.
So, with that in mind, one wonders why, for example, the Wicklow/Fermanagh and Wexford/Longford games weren’t staged together in Navan, while Breffni Park could’ve amply accommodated the meeting of Kildare and Tyrone. And the same comments could apply to Cusack Park in Ennis regarding the clash of Cork and Mayo. Both counties have met at that venue in underage games in the past and it’s most likely that the four games would’ve accumulated a bigger combined attendance than the 29,000 that went to Dublin over that weekend.
More fundamental, however, than anything regarding where games are played, it is becoming ever more obvious that action must be taken in terms of the rulebook to make football attractive to fans again. They might be old chestnuts, but if they’re worth repeating so be it. The mark needs to be reintroduced to encourage a bit of high fielding and discourage the constant crowding and spoiling that’s so commonplace. A rule limiting the hand pass needs to be fast-tracked too. Something prohibiting the passing of the ball backwards might help also.
Whatever it is, steps must be taken to make Gaelic football attractive again. Otherwise there’ll be a lot of fine stadia half empty this summer.