Let’s get this doomed show on the road

We’re stuck with the Super 8 so the least we can do is take the games out of Croke Park

Rory Beggan of Monaghan kicks a free in front of a deserted Hill 16 at Croke Park last Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile
Rory Beggan of Monaghan kicks a free in front of a deserted Hill 16 at Croke Park last Sunday. Photo: Sportsfile

The Super 8 is not a good idea. It is a flawed format concocted to fix a problem which didn’t exist. It was sold to counties as something it could never be and this was laid bare in Croke Park last weekend.

Still, the complete lack of atmosphere and intensity in both games last Sunday was a surprise, even if the poor attendance was not. No matter what the background, a championship clash between Kerry and Galway in Croke Park should always be something to look forward to, so the GAA can hardly be blamed for what transpired in that match.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for how the opening weekend of the Super 8 panned out. Neither of the games on Saturday night were proper contests. Dublin played within themselves and still looked comfortable in beating Donegal, while Roscommon offered scant resistance to Tyrone’s relentless onslaught.

There are many reasons for what happened last weekend, and the warning signs have been there for some time, but it seems this was the perfect storm. The flaws in the championship and, worse still, in the game of football itself were brutally exposed. Two games, four teams (supposedly four of the best in the country) and a great stadium, all hyped in the build-up, and it fell terribly flat. This happened largely because football is in a dire state and getting worse, and because people simply didn’t buy into what they were sold.

The latter point exposes the raw truth about the Super 8 – that it is doomed to fail and has been from the start. What is the point in having a knock-out competition (with teams getting one life) which then funnels into a league at the end, with teams getting another life? All great sporting competitions operate the other way around. Imagine if the World Cup began with a series of knock-out games where the winners advanced to a mini-league and the losers got one extra shot at avoiding elimination before also advancing to a mini-league. How could anyone have thought this was a good idea?

The occasional good game will not redeem the football championship. The Super 8 is an Irish solution to an Irish problem. And the problem with the structure of the football championship had less to do with what had been happening at this time of the year and more to do with its opening months. This is the time of the year for action in the championship, not inaction. If there is to be a league element in the football championship – something I’m in favour of – then it should be in the early stages. Look at how this has enhanced the hurling championship this year. The problem in football, more so than in hurling, is the provincial championships and the restrictions caused by adhering to them. We can all see it, but there is a greater chance of turkeys voting for Christmas than GAA delegates at Congress voting to radically change – or even abolish – the provincial championships.

And so, in all likelihood, we are stuck with this mistake for at least another two years. But common sense will have to prevail and Croke Park must at least be taken out of the equation. Yes, there may be occasions when it will make sense to use the stadium but as we saw yesterday, the Super 8 belongs in county towns around the country.

There isn’t a town in the country with a half-decent venue which wouldn’t welcome a Super 8 game with open arms. It would be a boost to local economies, it would create far better atmospheres than we had to endure last weekend and, most importantly of all, it would reduce the burden on fans.

There is a huge cost involved in following your county team, especially for families. I heard a story last week about a man from Donegal who decided not to bring his children to Croke Park last Saturday night because he figured the earliest he would make it back home would be 1.30am. We never hear this side of the story, the real story; all we ever hear is the guff about ‘what you can do for your county’, and ‘it’s in us all’.

None of last weekend’s games should have been played in Croke Park. Dublin and Donegal could have been played in Omagh; Tyrone and Roscommon in Sligo; Galway and Kerry in Limerick’s Gaelic Grounds; and Kildare and Monaghan in Navan. Given the weather, there would have been carnival atmospheres in those towns, the games would have been more family friendly and maybe even more intense. I was in Killarney in 2009 when Longford played Kerry in the qualifiers and the atmosphere around the town that evening, and in the ground during the game, was unforgettable. And Longford rose to the occasion, playing above themselves.

And what of the damage being done to our image of Croke Park? It is a magnificent venue and, as far as I’m concerned, when there is excitement coursing through the stands and a genuine contest taking place on the pitch, there is nowhere better. But it’s starting to get a bad name. As I walked down Jones’s Road last Sunday evening I confess to feeling empty after what I had just seen. In any decent game, most neutrals will develop some form of emotional attachment to one of the teams, usually the underdog, but I’ve noticed that’s happening less and less when I go to Croke Park.

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It’s almost as if the GAA feels trapped by the stadium’s splendour – that it must fix games in Croke Park simply because it’s there. Build it and they will come, and all that. And they have come, more than 80,000 in total last weekend, which many sporting organisations would be rightly envious of, but there’s a limit to people’s willingness to go that extra mile, and we’re starting to see it. Croke Park can make a bad game look even worse. And a half-empty Croke Park compounds that. There are simply too many bad games there these days, games which feel like an insult to their surroundings.

Two years ago I was crammed into a bar on the North Circular Road watching Ireland take on France in the last 16 of the European Championships. For over an hour the atmosphere was electric, until Antoine Griezmann’s second goal gave France the lead and the puff slowly went out of Ireland.

After the game, it was just a short walk to Croke Park, where the first of the Leinster football semi-finals – between Westmeath and Kildare – had already started. From my seat high in the corner of the Hogan Stand, the stadium felt almost deserted although history shows that ultimately just over 40,000 people passed through the turnstiles that evening. History will also show that Westmeath won that game by a point, and that Dublin beat a hopeless Meath team by 10 points without breaking sweat in the second semi-final.

But what I remember most about that evening was how bored I was. It was a shock to the system that watching a Republic of Ireland game in a pub had provided more excitement and entertainment than a championship double-header in Croke Park.

It will be a shame if we fall out of love with Croke Park because of this. It is a stadium we, as a people, have every right to be proud of. But it needs to remain in our thoughts as a symbol of our spirit as a nation, and not as a monument to corporate bullshit, which it is in danger of becoming.

Maybe there is an element of greed involved in how it is being used, because there is more money to be made by getting bigger crowds into Croke Park than elsewhere. Except in this instance we’ve been told that the introduction of the Super 8 was not about making more money. Anyway, the 12 games in the Super 8 have replaced the four quarter-finals of previous years, so spreading the matches to neutral venues around the country shouldn’t affect the bottom line. Even if it did, so what? It’s all for the greater good.

The football championship clearly needs an overhaul. So too does the game itself. We can’t always rely on hurling to be the saviour, or days like some of the Dublin-Mayo encounters of recent years to paper over the cracks. All is not lost, however, because the essence of Gaelic football is still there. The will has to be there to take this on. It will mean challenging the vested interests – the biggest culprits being the provincial councils and county boards – but it’s time to start devising a championship that is fit for purpose, and a game that is fit for Croke Park.

Sunday Indo Sport

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