Kicking Out: Antrim badly needs a new Casement - but half the size would do
THE Casement Park routine was always the same when it was a working day.
Arrive early. Dump the death-grey Peugeot 306 in Owenvarragh Park, turned facing to head home by Antrim. Convince the steward on the gate you were a member of the Fourth Estate.
Go to the back door of the clubhouse and rattle on the glass. Convince more stewards. Up around the back steps, along the back walkway and into a press box out so elevated you feared your laptop would fall out and kill someone beneath.
After the match, you made your way down with the rest of the crowd and, once you’d convinced some more stewards, it was into the damp, dark corridors to hunt for quotes.
If you stood back and looked in the crevices, you’d have wondered quite why we all loved Casement Park.
But we did.
Despite Armagh winning, taking a bus from the club to their 2005 Ulster semi-final with Derry was an outstanding memory of my impressionable teenage years.
We took advantage of a package deal and got in for a few quid each. Our seats were so low down towards the front of the uncovered stand that we were looking up at the grass.
John Toal scored the goal at the Andersonstown end. It was like the horrors, watching him cut on to the left foot and bury it into the roof of the net. Like Matthew Clancy all over again.
But the size of the crowd was the real abiding memory of the day. The terrace on the far side overflowed. I’d never seen as any people packed on top of each other. The haze made it hard to see how much was orange and how much was white and red.
The records say 27,633 were there but it seemed to me like every man, woman and child on the island had come to Belfast for the day.
A year later in the autumn, there were a couple of thousand dotted through the stand as Kevin Lynch’s took on Cushendall, looking for the Ulster title that had eluded them and Derry.
Most present that day will remember Geoffrey McGonigle’s equaliser from a 65’ that sent it to a replay, but my mind’s drawn to the Lynch's defence.
James Donaghy in goals, Barry Kelly, Rony ‘Harry’ McCloskey and Emmett McKeever in front of him. They hurled some storm.
They were our neighbours and the squad was, as always, heavily populated with Drum men, and we ached for them to win it.
Had it gone on another 90 seconds they would have, but they were cut short and it never came back.
But Casement, not a tenth full, rocked to the second half’s drama.
Anyone who played there always talked about how great the pitch was.
Speaking to Tomás McCann at the launch of the Ulster Club series, his eyes lit up as he described how bouncing a ball could be hazardous and helpful all at once.
How it would skip away in front of you, two or three yards, and you’d have to really sprint to catch it. If you got there, the pace would take you through almost any tackle.
But if you were half a second late catching up on the ball, you’d be eating dirt.
It was, for all its faults, an endearing place. Few ever complained about being sent there, and its absence has been lamented on many Saturday nights and Sunday afternoons since 2012.
There is no doubt that not having a home to call their own has been of huge detriment to Antrim.
They’ve no patch to know the bumps on, the way to use the wind blowing into the corner, the scoring goals. Scoff all you want, but any team loves its home comforts. Needs them.
Antrim absolutely needs Casement Park, as soon as possible.
But they do not need a 34,000-capacity stadium.
It would dwarf their needs as a county. No game involving their hurlers or footballers, barring the latter reaching a rare Ulster final, would come anywhere close to filling it.
The proposed redevelopment of what would become the home of Ulster finals is less of a stadium for Antrim and more one that just happens to be there.
Belfast’s reformation as a GAA stronghold is crucial in terms of Antrim ever fulfilling their potential. But there are many key pieces that need to fall into place for the whole puzzle to be solved.
The city does need big games on its doorstep. Ideally, they’ll involve Antrim. But there’s an element to the commentary around it that the only big game going is the Ulster final.
Healy Park, the Athletic Grounds, Kingspan Breffni and Clones itself have all hosted semi-finals in recent years. The 20,000 barrier has only been broken a couple of times this decade, and the highest semi-final attendance was 23,324 at Monaghan’s 2014 replay with Armagh.
A 20,000-capacity ground would accommodate almost any semi-final, and it would accommodate any Antrim game.
Perhaps the idea of folding the tent down after spending almost £10m without a sod being turned is too unpalatable for the GAA to swallow.
There are obvious complications to doing so, the most off-putting being that the £62m of public money promised was as part of a scheme for provincial grounds.
If the project was downgraded, the money might have to be rediscovered. But equally, there’d be less of it needed.
As it stands, nothing is happening. The absence of an executive at Stormont has led to the project’s continued standstill. That could be the case for a while yet.
And then there’s the process itself, which isn’t much closer to resolution.
The Mooreland and Owenvarragh Residents Association, which has been arguably the major stumbling block, has previously said it would accept a stadium with a capacity of “20,000 to 25,000”.
Killing two birds with one stone – giving Antrim a home and Ulster a shiny new stadium – was a good idea while it was feasible.
Ulster still has St Tiernach’s Park, where a few million euros would go a long way. It needs updating, but it’s hardly in ruin.
And the Casement Park project is now six years in, almost £10m down and reduced to moving at a snail’s pace.
A 34,000-capacity stadium is not a one-stop fix for Antrim’s problems, and it’s not a necessity for the county. Half that would do them.
They just need somewhere to call home.