This Saturday, Wexford take on Kilkenny in a Leister Championship match that is already a sell-out. Last Saturday, the Dublin supporters crowded the terraces of O’Moore Park in Portlaoise, while Parnell Park and Tullamore also hosted big games.
In previous years there has been an over-use of Croke Park for early-round games. This lack of atmosphere has often taken the life out of big games. Also, it is frustrating as a spectacle. Empty stands make a game look unimportant and it can be hard to convince yourself to watch a game, when the supporters of the teams involved can’t even half fill the stadium.
Meath’s win over Louth started their championship off on the right foot. The fact that they got a win in Leinster and got to play in a proper championship atmosphere made it all the better. Had the game been in Croke Park, there would have been no atmosphere, no buzz and, the play could have suffered as a result.
Players want to play on the big occasion – but they want it to feel like a big occasion too. Parnell Park has a rather small capacity of around 13,500 but it is suited to early-round games and qualifiers. Similarly, bringing the Dubs to the 27,000 capacity O’Moore Park turned what would normally be a nothing game against Carlow, into a memorable occasion. Particularly given the fact only 13,000 people attended the game. Imagine the atmosphere in Croker?
O’Connor Park with a capacity of 20,000 should also be in line to host more games after hosting Kidare v Laois last weekend.
It is also important to note that these games aren’t being sold out: there are plenty of tickets to go around. Anyone who wants to go to these games can still attend.
Staying out of Croke Park in June is proving to be a good thing for the games. It’s obvious really, given how great Ulster Championship match-days have been down through the years. The atmosphere (and competitive games) have made for some truly memorable days in the Northern province.
We saw it just last week in the Down-Armagh clash. Played in a smaller ground, we had as good a game as you will see at this time of year – and we had the atmosphere to match it.
It is only right that these games are shared around, particularly when the grounds are big enough to accommodate the crowd. There are very few games in the season that need to play at Croker as there are no other grounds big enough to host them.
Something the GAA often do is play games in bigger stadiums than is necessary. The Leinster Council at least are beginning to move games around the province with the aforementioned Wexford-Kilkenny game going to Wexford Park. In previous years, the prospect of the game being sold out, and people missing out on tickets, would have meant that the game would be moved to HQ.
Thankfully, the decision-makers have kept the game in the south-east and the occasion will be all the better because of it.
Yes, that means that a Leinster spokesman will have to field questions from angry Joe Duffy listeners who couldn’t get their hands on tickets, but unfortunately, sometimes, people have to miss out.
Hopefully Wexford’s clash with the Cats will live up to the hype and both sets of players give a performance worthy of the occasion.
More importantly, hopefully it’s the start of a trend of the GAA going to the regional grounds to host early-round matches.
Joel Slattery, Pundit Arena