The thrill has gone from days at Croke Park and it’s not all Dublin’s fault
As a child, in the late 1970s and early 80s, I was lucky enough to get to Croke Park regularly for big games. Sometimes I was lifted over a rattly old turnstile, other times I even had a ticket. Some days I’d be sitting on a knee, others I had my own seat. The big stadium wasn’t always full.
Memory plays tricks on us, and I’m sure not all the games I went to were classics. But here’s the point: I remember the thrill of being there, I remember being on the edge of my seat, straining to see the action. And I remember the drama and excitement of it all. This is not misty-eyed recollection, it’s a real feeling that endures to this day.
The whole experience of being in Croke Park had an impact on me as a child. That’s what sport is all about. So, all these years later it doesn’t matter if my memory of the games themselves is flawed, because what is indisputable is that – as the slogan goes – nothing could beat being there.
In Croke Park last Sunday, my son turned to me at half-time in the Dublin-Meath Leinster semi-final, and asked if he could go inside to watch the rest of the Munster hurling match between Limerick and Clare. He’s a Meath fan, and it was bad enough that they were losing by 15 points, but worse than that, he was plain bored. He needed the hurling to feel stimulated and interested again.
I was bored too – and so were thousands of others. Is there any more damning indictment of a sporting occasion than to say it was boring?
It was a double-header, which finished with a three-point hammering for Westmeath, and a 13-point one for Meath. Leinster semi-final double-headers have become a painful experience – in fact, they’ve been that way for some time. The venue doesn’t help on days like this, because it is half-empty, although in fairness there’s not a venue in the country that could have redeemed the Dublin-Meath game.
This sense of Gaelic football’s failure as a spectacle is not exclusive to Leinster, but it is particularly pronounced there. Meath’s decline as a force in football has been startling, with one Leinster title since 2001 (and that, in 2010, has an asterisk after it). The rot set in a long time ago, yet last week’s latest capitulation to Dublin felt like a real nadir. Last year’s effort in losing the provincial semi-final to Dublin by just six points can be seen now for what it was – a blip, and more indicative of where the Dubs were than where Meath were.
Meath look to have lost their fight. The celebrated stubborn resistance and never-say-die attitude has given way to a hesitant vulnerability which has been evident all year at league and championship games. Once it started to go wrong last Sunday – as it did after only a few minutes – any sense of optimism in fans quickly fizzled out. There was disillusionment and, worse, indifference all around.
Six years ago, on the same day Ireland lost a thrilling Euro 2016 round of 16 game to hosts France, Dublin beat Meath by 10 points and Westmeath overcame Kildare in the Leinster semi-finals. It was another dispiriting evening in Croke Park, in stark contrast to the drama and excitement of the Ireland match most of us had watched beforehand.
The idea that a soccer game could have all you could wish for from a sporting contest (bar the result, obviously) compared to a football championship double-header in Croke Park was a real eye-opener, an indication decline had already set in.
Since 2015, Meath have lost to Dublin in Leinster five times, by an average of just over 13 points. Meath have also lost to Kildare, Westmeath and Longford in that time. Dublin’s dominance of football, and of Leinster in particular as they prepare for a crack at winning a 17th title in 18 years, has been a controversy in itself. But how does that excuse other big, traditional football powers in Leinster (and elsewhere) for a lack of ambition, vision and knowhow. Counties like Meath and Kildare have known for some time they are not good enough to put it up to Dublin, the question is: What have they been doing about it?
When Ciaran Whelan said on The Sunday Game last week that a Dublin A v B game would have been more competitive, it sent a shudder through a lot of Meath football people – presumably because they knew he was right.
Whelan didn’t hold back, and correctly sought to have the spotlight on Meath’s failures on the day rather than Dublin’s successes. Because that was the real story.
We sat through the second half in the end. It was death by a thousand cuts. Sadly, the same could be said about Gaelic football.
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