Provincial grounds better neutral venues than Croke Park’s surreal Super-8 atmosphere

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Since last weekend, a few comments have been passed in articles and on social media regarding the atmosphere at Croke Park for the two double-headers played there in the Super 8s groups, writes Peter McNamara.

Photo by Seb Daly/Sportsfile

One tweet, for example, referred to how GAA headquarters has become a “sterile” environment on match-days.

I was sitting in the Lower Hogan last Saturday for the Tyrone-Cork and Dublin-Roscommon games and, it must be said, those complaining about a lack of atmosphere in the ground have a fair argument.

Obviously, what never helps are small details like the fact the national anthem is played before the second match in a double-header.

Some might see that as irrelevant to the atmosphere, but it is a little factor in relation to those that have travelled specifically for the opening encounter in a two-game programme.

Now, I am not suggesting that the national anthem be played before the first game instead as I see the logic for it sounding out around the ground before the second match. I am simply making the point it is a factor in there being practically no buzz prior to the throw-in of the first contest on such days.

People land in their seats and next, without much in the way of a build-up, the referee is throwing in the ball to start the match.

However, on a much more basic level, Croke Park is simply too big to host these games.

Up until a few years back, Dublin supporters alone could probably fill 80% of the stadium on match-days, if not more.

Yet, the attendance was uninspiring last Saturday.

A figure just shy of 37,000 rocked up at headquarters.

Maybe there are understandable reasons for the GAA hierarchy dictating that these matches are contested in Croke Park. For instance, the GAA has to ensure there are enough seats for season ticket-holders to attend the matches, even aside from those that purchase their tickets game-by-game.

So, in the fixture-planners’ defence, they are possibly damned if they select Croke Park and potentially damned if they don’t.

And this is the case because it is close to impossible to judge how many supporters will decide to head to Croke Park on the day of a match itself, especially in the case of the Dublin fans who can decide early afternoon whether they will head over to the ground and pick up a ticket or not.

Yet, if there is a way in which the GAA can play the Super 8s fixtures that are designated for a neutral venue outside of headquarters, then they should do exactly that, to protect the occasions, if for nothing else.

Maybe it was not possible, but how much better would the atmosphere have been for the Dublin-Roscommon encounter if it had been played in, say, Thurles?

The Dubs would travel in huge numbers as they, contrary to popular opinion, actually do enjoy a day outside the Pale themselves to support Jim Gavin’s outfit.

And the Rossies, for novelty value alone, may also have bought into the concept of heading to Semple Stadium to watch their side tackle the Dubs. After all, a trip to Thurles would work out to be a close to a two-hour drive, roughly the same as it is for them to get on the road to Croke Park.

Also, and even though Thurles is obviously a hurling heartland, you might also get a number of locals that would attend the game to see the five-in-a-row-chasing Dubs in action.

In fact, you might even get people from other parts of Munster that would take a spin to Thurles for the game.

You could get very close to filling the place out. But even if you only got in the region of 25,000 to 30,000 at it, the atmosphere would still be better than if it was played at headquarters.

Of course, the sense of inevitability about the result when it comes to Dublin playing these days is a factor the GAA can do nothing about, really. This particular team is just too good.

Nevertheless, it does not change the fact you would get a better sense of occasion if the matches, detailed as being ones for the neutral venues, were played at provincial grounds.

The Tyrone-Cork game could have generated a decent atmosphere in and around Portlaoise, for example.

The same fixture was played at that venue last year and might have been the call again this year.

However, where the GAA should be credited is for their pricing strategy for those Super 8s double-headers at Croke Park.

Only charging €5 for kids is the right thing to do while €30 for adults is more than fair given the standard of quality on show.

Yet, €5 for kids and €15 for adults at a provincial venue for standalone fixtures would also go down a treat.

It will be interesting to note whether the GAA listen to people who have been banging the drum for utilising the provincial grounds for matches such as these, for some time.

I am late to the party in terms of also suggesting it should be done. However, I am primarily making the case based on the protection of the atmospheres around the fixtures, more than suggesting so because of the logistics surrounding the matches being pencilled in for Croke Park.

Very few people would mind heading to headquarters if it meant they could revel in a crackling atmosphere watching their team compete.

However, the Tyrone-Cork clash was another example of a game at Croke Park whereby you could hear players communicating with those on the sidelines. And nobody wants to attend matches, at that level, like that.

It is surreal and quite odd, frankly.

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