GAA Football

Kicking Out: Disabled fans being let down by GAA

Cargin diehard Stephen McCoy watching a stream of the Antrim football final at home on a phone after he was refused entry to Corrigan Park for the game because there was "no room" and he had arrived after the cut-off point for the entry of cars to the ground.

AS a teenager, I worked briefly in the local bar. The Dolphin is now thriving, but back then it was in the throes of being rebuilt. The bar was actually two portable buildings pushed together.

Shifts were often long and dull. It was a country pub four miles off the nearest town, in an era when the idea of skulling a few pints after work started to dwindle.

A night’s work would have consisted of eating packets of prawn cocktail crisps in greater quantity than pouring drinks.

One of the first lessons you were taught was to trust your own judgement.

It was meant in the context of not letting customers take the hand, particularly when it came to money. There’s always a chancer who’d get his change of a tenner back and say: “I gave you a 20”.

My inclination has always been to see the best in people. So on the one occasion it happened, I took the customer at his word that I’d made a mistake and duly handed him an extra £10 in his change.

He told me to keep it. That told me that he’d been genuine in the first place.

It’s a bit like refereeing.

The difference in a good referee and a bad one is defined by the strength of their judgement and their reading of what’s happening around them.

If you actually apply the laws as they’re written, everybody thinks you’re a useless clown. It’s a great paradox.

Life is full of small judgement calls, and in turning disabled Cargin fan Stephen McCoy away from the gates of Corrigan Park on Saturday, there was a real misjudgement made.

City Councils impose all sorts of health and safety rules on sporting events. And the thing about such rules is that the application of them is often the very opposite of human.

The stewards on the gate at Corrigan Park when Stephen McCoy pulled up had, according to Antrim chairman Ciaran McCavana, been instructed by Belfast City Council that the cut-off point for access to the ground by cars was 2pm.

So they sent the Cargin fan away, telling him there was “no room” when he arrived at the Whiterock Road ground.

McCavana told yesterday’s Irish News that he’d come out to the gate to get McCoy in but that he’d already gone home, and that he spoke to the Cargin chairman to get in touch to come back and that he would get in.

It was the right response from McCavana but it was an easy call for the stewards in the first place, and one they got horrendously wrong.

Corrigan Park’s facilities would have been a terrible struggle for him given that they only have two grass banks or a view out the window of the clubhouse in the corner of the ground.

Given that it’s a club ground being used for Antrim’s major games, it’s hard to be critical of St John’s for the lack of disabled facilities, or even Antrim county board for that matter, given that they’ve been waiting half a decade on Casement Park’s redevelopment.

But there’s a difference in facility and attitude. As a Cargin diehard, Stephen McCoy wanted to be there regardless.

To see him reduced to sitting alone in his living room in his club jumper, watching on his mobile phone as his club claimed the county title, is an image that ought to shame the GAA.

But it would be nothing new for a disabled fan to have a miserable experience at a GAA ground.

At Croke Park, the disabled seats are at the very back concourse of the Davin and Canal Ends of the stadium. Any time a goal is scored, disabled fans see absolutely nothing because everyone stands up in front of them.

In Clones, there’s space for eight wheelchair supporters in the very corner of the terracing opposite the main stand, with no cover from the elements. There’s one toilet, and as with most grounds, it’s often occupied by able-bodied fans.

In Brewster Park, supporters in wheelchairs are shunted into a corner of the John Vesey stand or down at the very front, where their eye level is below the ground.

Same in Celtic Park, where they’re off into the very corner of the stand and where the only access to the toilets is by going down a hill that they require assistance to get back up.

Go around the GAA grounds of Ireland and you’ll find it’s the same story almost everywhere.

The GAA’s policy is that it does not charge disabled fans for entry, but it does charge their carer for a full-price ticket.

Avid GAA supporter, former Ulster GAA steward and wheelchair user Noel McCaffrey told Kicking Out that the only good experience he’d ever had in a GAA ground was in O’Connor Park in Tullamore.

When the ground was redeveloped in 2006, their layout was designed with the legendary Matt Connor very much in mind.

Two years after guiding Offaly to an All-Ireland football title in 1982, the on-duty Garda suffered injuries in a Christmas Day accident that left him wheelchair bound.

A GAA fanatic, Connor is resident in O’Connor Park for 90 per cent of the games played there. From underage club finals to big days for Offaly, he’s there.

Disabled access was at the forefront of Offaly’s minds when they rebuilt the ground.

Fans can drive up to within eight metres of a specially-modified turnstile, from where they’re taken by lift to a seat right in the middle of the stand, just in front of the press corps.

Supporters are protected from the elements by a metre-high clear plastic screen, which doesn’t restrict their view.

It’s a pity that grounds developed more recently than O’Connor Park didn’t think enough of disabled supporters to do the same.

It wasn’t an awkward or restrictive or difficult thing for Offaly to do, but it required foresight and planning and a commitment to do their best for men like Matt Connor.

Even had Stephen McCoy got into Corrigan Park on Saturday, it wouldn’t have been a great experience. But he’d have known that going there.

Antrim is arguably the one county that gets a bye-ball on its facilities given it has no actual county ground at the minute, but there’s no excusing the decision made to turn him away from Corrigan’s gates.

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