Cahair O’Kane: Full houses in smaller venues help paint football in a better light

If the All-Ireland quarter-finals are right for Croke Park then put them there. But if they aren’t, then make the call and take them somewhere else for their own good. It is a sport in need of some positivity. Nothing will lend it quicker than the impact of a full house.

25 May 2024; Enda Smith of Roscommon in action against Niall Scully of Dublin during the GAA Football All-Ireland Senior Championship Round 1 match between Dublin and Roscommon at Croke Park in Dublin. Photo by Stephen Marken/Sportsfile
Dublin's Croke Park meeting with Roscommon was as dull as dishwater, affected by the paltry crowd of just under 11,000. Contrast that with how the Hyde vibrated during the Dubs' clash with Mayo on Sunday. Picture: Sportsfile (Stephen Marken / SPORTSFILE/SPORTSFILE)

VERY little about Hyde Park on Sunday looked familiar.

No diggers. No cordons. Not a fleck of grey concrete or railing visible on the terraces. No rain, even.

It looked resplendent, new, vibrant, busy.

Far too many GAA grounds are too big for their use.

Redevelopments that were either thought out or delivered during the boom banked on the huge attendances of the early noughties continuing to increase.

The opposite has happened, leaving behind a pile of grounds that are very seldom filled.

That has contributed to a bad look and feel for the sport.

It’s an illusion of the mind, but it does matter.

Nothing tells you people don’t care about a sporting event the way empty seats do.

A packed stadium, whether it’s 3,000 or 30,000, creates an entirely different feel that gets under the skin of a game and starts to affect its organs.

Would Mayo have given Dublin the same game in Croke Park? Perhaps they would have.

But there were just elements that felt different. Not least the performance of Aidan O’Shea.

Barring one fisted wide that he should have scored, he didn’t put a foot wrong.

Hill 16′s panto villain, freed from the psychological damage that place has imposed on him.

Coincidence that it was probably his best performance against Dublin in a championship game?

Also, when’s the last time Dublin went through 70 minutes against Mayo in Croke Park without creating a single proper goal chance?

Maybe it’s just where the two teams were at, the performance levels, the motivation and energy Mayo took from being written off for the summer.

I prefer to believe that it had something do with the immeasurable impact of a more compact venue.

There were just under 17,000 people in the Hyde. It would only have held a handful more.

The place crackled through the screen in those final 15 minutes as Mayo reeled top spot in, took hold of it and then released it back into the water.

In that moment when Ciaran Kilkenny rises to collect the last kickout, propelling Dublin to go and find the equaliser, the shake of the camera makes you almost reach out to stop your own TV from falling over.

Compare that to the sound of the birds cawing overhead as fewer than 11,000 filtered into Croke Park for the Dubs’ first group game against Roscommon.

The emptiness travels. It affects everything.

The life of the game is different.

The players immediately sense that the public doesn’t care, that they know the result before it starts, and that seeps in.

For an upset to happen, one of the key conditions is usually a raucous atmosphere that an underdog can feed off.

There’s no tiredness in an atmosphere like the one on Sunday.

Same in Markievicz Park.

Padraic Joyce had called weeks earlier for the GAA to consider putting Galway-Armagh into Croke Park.

It was a hopeful plea, that they might get a game in Headquarters before going there for real somewhere down the track. But it would have been total madness to put a group game there.

Instead, they took it to Sligo. Capacity, 18,000. It wasn’t quite full to the throat either but what that lent to the game undoubtedly contributed to the spectacle and the intensity of the last 15 minutes.

Maybe the two games take in an extra 5,000 people in Croke Park.

For what they were, a shootout for first and second place but with no exit on the line, that would have been the height of it.

The games gained so much from being played elsewhere.

This weekend, four summers will end. Mayo or Derry will be gone.

Their fate will be decided in Castlebar.

Structurally, there’s no right answer to the football championship.

Short of making Kerry and Dublin start games with 11 men, there’s no system that will stop those two ending up in the last four of almost every season.

The group stage is better than it’s being given credit for.

One of its biggest strengths is the home and away element.

We’re obsessed with neutrality at the expense of the kind of hostility that heats the air of our footballing summer.

The first thing I would do in Jarlath Burns’ shoes is make every championship game home or away barring the provincial finals and the All-Ireland semi-finals and final.

Part of why the group stages were brought in is because the All-Ireland quarter-finals had fallen to pieces.

There were damp squibs, hammerings all over the place, and lots of empty grey seats in Croke Park.

Next weekend, we’ll reach the last eight.

There’s a chance that two of the quarter-finals could be Mayo v Kerry and Dublin v Galway.

In that case, the GAA have to be bold. Put those two in Croke Park as a double header and sell every ticket.

But for argument’s sake, say that leaves Tyrone v Armagh and Donegal v Louth.

If you take those two games to Croke Park, you’d do really well to get 40,000.

But a knockout All-Ireland quarter-final between, say, Tyrone and Armagh in Clones? The place is rocking. It’s packed. It’s an occasion.

When the tickets go on sale, you fear you won’t get one, so you jump in with two feet. From there, you’re committed.

The novelty for Louth and the resurgence of Donegal would fill Breffni Park as well.

So do it.

Much of the life of these games are wrapped up in the grounds being somewhere close to capacity.

It feeds into the energy around the towns beforehand, the walk down to the stadium, the needing to be in early to get a good spot, all of which helps build a sense of occasion.

The football championship is warming up nicely but it’s not in a position to go over-using Croke Park right now.

The sight of its emptiness would only drain more energy from the sport.

If the All-Ireland quarter-finals are right for Croke Park then put them there.

But if they aren’t, then make the call and take them somewhere else for their own good.

It is a sport in need of some positivity.

Nothing will lend it quicker than the impact of a full house.