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MacKenna On Monday: All We Wanted Was Fairness, But Even That Seems Too Much

The jig is up. The mask has slipped. The illusion is over.

And even with that, the GAA continued right on, in plain sight. For those who protested their innocence up to this point, there is no debate to be had anymore.

On Friday evening, before Congress had managed to get into top gear – albeit still a fairly low and rusty gear – one of the early motions up for decision was around the use of stadia for big games. It was down on the programme as a decision to clarify the importance of safety for the CCCC in determining venues for matches. In essence, however, after Kildare had their moment around the Newbridge-or-nowhere incident, and stood up for their rights as well as the integrity of the competition, this was a plan to put manners.

Despite this – and despite the same wording being used now as then via suggestions around all-ticket games that customers cannot be trusted to keep order to the point of endangering themselves – a whopping 80 per cent of delegates voted it through. Fair enough you might say, even if our view is counties should host their own games and if opposition fans miss out so be it. But if this is the future, then where’s the consistency?

What the association had agreed upon was that counties who don’t spend enough of their time bringing in money, and then don’t spend enough of that money on their stadium, will lose what is a proven advantage of playing at home as well as a chance to grow the game and the local economy. The problem is this doesn’t apply to one county.

Guess who?

On Saturday came another motion and it got right to the heart of what the GAA is about today. There are double-standards when there’s cash to be had, and because of Dublin’s perceived following and actual size, that’s where the cash is at. At the end of a relatively uneventful couple of days, the last vote put before Congress was that Dublin would have to play their home Super 8 game in Parnell Park. This was crushed, meaning it was the first time we’ve had an open acceptance that Croke Park is actually their home turf.
You couldn’t make it up.

While on one hand other counties will be punished for not building fit-for-purpose arenas, Dublin will be rewarded not once but twice. Here we had them officially being given Croke Park as their stadium, saving them huge reserves in construction and upkeep costs, and as an extra bonus, they get two Super 8 games there for their freeloading. They’re starting to remind of a millionaire that skips on buying a ticket for the Luas, gets his mate to pay the bill in Chapter One, and spends the entire dinner moaning about those on social welfare. But if there’s one thing worse than that, it’s the enabling of it.

There’s a common theme with Dublin. Take and moan. Their defence over this was that it would be a waste of their money to have to build a ground. To a point, they are right as if they don’t do anything, the GAA at large have always taken care of them and solved their problems for them. It’s why they can afford to be hugely lazy. When Dublin’s accounts for 2016 were leaked, in the category marked fundraising, the total brought in across 12 months was a tiny €57,336. That same year Mayo brought in nearly a million.

The why behind the what is obvious though. As an amateur organisation, the GAA believe Dublin are good for business but if it’s bad enough that this idea goes against the spirit of not-for-profit sport, it’s an idea based on a falsity. For their size, Dublin do not bring in that much around crowds. Before this weekend, their last seven neutral or home games dating back to the start of last summer, and excluding the All Ireland final which will always be a sell out regardless of who plays, read as follows;

– Versus Wicklow, 11,786.
– Versus Longford, and as part of a double-header, 39,028.
– Versus Laois for silverware, 41,728.
– Versus Donegal, and part of a double-header, 53,501.
– Versus Roscommon, 20,500.
– Versus Galway, 54,716.
– Versus Galway again, 14,502.

That’s before we go near hurling and consider the numbers strongholds bring versus Dublin for more perspective.

And still, Dublin are told well done and given a pat on the back. It raises a question – when last did a decision come up that would affect Dublin and it not go their way?

There’s nothing fanciful or complicated about this but given how those at Congress used their votes, we will keep this very simple and dumb it right down for them; by giving one team in a group two home games and the rest just one they are giving an artificial lead.

Home advantage is called that for a reason and it applies in every sport. In the history of home-and-away qualifiers in football, since 2001, 51 per cent of victors have been the team playing in their own patch. However, given repeat games and similar levels, the league is a better measure of what location means. Over the last three years (2016-2018) in the secondary competition, 59.9 per cent of wins have been for the hosts. Break it down further, and venue works out as an advantage of 1.31 points per game.

With Dublin however, this is even more pronounced. In the campaigns that Jim Gavin has presided over and completed, from 2013 to last season, the average score when playing in Croke Park was 21-13 or an eight-point victory for his side. When away the average score is 14-11, again in favour of his team. This shows venue has been worth five points. There are those who say they win regardless, but results don’t change partiality.

Knowing this, Congress still decided to give Dublin that leg up. Beforehand, this was not a level playing field based on the finance Dublin get for the population of a province fielding one team, but so skewed is it by now, and with everything being done to accommodate the capital, that it’s amazing betting companies are allowed put up odds.

Let’s call a spade a spade. So much is done in their favour that it’s close to a fix.

Dublin will say it’s not their fault but the reality is that it is theirs and the fault of a whole lot more who voted for a quick buck over equality. That includes Dublin who had John Costello take the mic at Congress and give some real insight into the smug arrogance.

The CEO of Dublin had the audacity to suggest Donegal’s efforts to have everyone given the same shot come the business end of the season was the most “divisive and mean-spirited” motion he’d seen in 50 years of the annual meeting. That’s how far Dublin have gone from reality, that an idea of fairness is now seen by them as those two terms.

So ridiculous are Costello’s opinions of late that the idea of him being lauded as some sort of great sporting administrator is troublesome. In fact, if Costello does have a skill, it’s tricking fools with cheap lies.

That wasn’t the only nonsense that Costello would spew as he wowed the idiocy. He noted that it would be “a public relations disaster” if they had to turn away supporters from the county’s championship matches. No one tried to tell him that sell-outs in an era of falling crowds are actually good for public relations and the only real comment over a sell-out in recent seasons saw Kildare widely praised rather than criticised last summer. He then added that,

“Croke Park is the headquarters of the GAA. It is the ground every child in the country aspires to play in. It is the county board’s view that Croke Park should be used more, not less”.

On this, no one tried to tell him most intercounty players you speak to would rather a chance to win rather than give the opposition a headstart.

Yet this was lapped up by a room so out of touch with a crumbling empire, that they are speeding up that collapse. Seán Kelly, a man so insightful usually, was disingenuous in his attempts to convince.

“It’s a very negative motion and deserves a negative response. Anyone who wants to beat the Dubs should aspire to do so in Croke Park. That’s certainly what we aspire to do in Kerry as we bid to stop the drive for five.”

Can you imagine that logic in other sports?  If Accrington Stanley draws Manchester United in the FA Cup at home, they should play in Old Trafford as winning there matters more. Should Ireland give up Six Nations home advantage and always play in Twickenham?

And then there were the words of Tony Dempsey from Wexford who cut through the chase and let us all in on what this is all really about.

“We oppose the motion for a couple of reasons,” he belted out. “At a very basic level we’ve talked about a loss of income and attendance. Croke Park adds to both because of the facility it is. Croke Park doesn’t belong to Dublin. It belongs to every other county as much as it does Dublin.”

You’d never guess he was a Fianna Fail politician that blew the bubble to bursting point.

There were a couple of problems with this, of course. Tony was talking about a motion that essentially made if official that the ground in their midst where Dublin have played all their home games for the ninth straight year is Dublin’s home. And while the money might seem good now, he forgot that he was turning his back on fans in his own county and those across the country who have had enough.

Still, he was joined in support by the Meath delegation, people from a proud county that created one of the great rivalries with Dublin but now suckle meekly at their teet. Granted at least they’d the courage to say how they were voting, as the rest hid behind a 2018 decision to shelve transparency.

Meath right now are one of the counties trying to do up their own grounds so they can play at home. To pay for this, they are currently getting clubs across the county to go to the same well, flogging €100 tickets for a draw. Elsewhere it’s no different. In Kildare, they are trying to find a way to budget for doing up Newbridge. Mayo are saddled with huge debt due to MacHale Park. Offaly built O’Connor Park in tranches as they went to their people’s pockets.

All of that is money that could have been used in other areas. In Dublin, it is money that is being used in other areas.

Given the cash they’ve been given by the government, given the millions upon millions more than anyone else they’ve been given by the GAA, and given they’ve been allowed operate what amounts to a province as a single team, there ought to be fewer excuses for Dublin not to have a fit-for-purpose arena. Except the capital have invested neither the time nor the money in redeveloping Parnell Park or constructing another project. Instead of being pulled up though, 64 per cent voted to reward Dublin for their failures.

We now know there’s only one show in town. And it’s about time to boycott it.

All we were asking for was some small semblance of fairness, but even that appears to be too much.

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Author: Ewan MacKenna

One of the country's top sports journalists, and a recipient of Irish Sports Journalist of the Year.