Kicking Out: Time for Derry to sell Celtic Park
FOR the first time in 16 years, the Derry football final will this weekend be held outside Celtic Park.
Because of the increase in infection rates around the Derry city and Strabane area, the decision was made to pull the weekend past’s semi-finals out from the city and move them both to Bellaghy.
That is where the final will also be held, largely for the same reason.
Not that it really matters a pile at the minute, with the lack of spectators being permitted into games making it such that it wouldn’t matter if games were played on the moon, as long as there’s Wi-Fi there to stream it.
Celtic Park has always been a bone of contention within the county.
Redeveloped in 2008, it is a fine stadium, capable of holding 18,000 people.
The pitch was as good a surface as you could find up until this year, when it’s been bobbly and uneven. Bringing the surface back to its former glory shouldn’t be a major issue.
Last year’s county final was held in the city and was one of the best occasions Derry GAA has seen in a long time.
By throw-in for the intermediate final, the stand was packed to capacity. 10,000 people came through the gates and created an atmosphere that added magnificently to an historic day for Magherafelt.
How far away all that will seem on Sunday, when the sprawling terrace in Bellaghy could be empty if, as expected, the NI executive puts in place measures that will push sporting events in the north back completely behind closed doors.
The Celtic Park debate has been reignited by these big games being taken back to south Derry.
The longer it has raged, the more barricades are put up on each side.
Within the city, some now believe there is an anti-city agenda. In more southerly parts of the county, they simply ask the question: why?
Why, after all this time, is Derry still persisting with the idea of Celtic Park?
Examine the facts.
Of the last 20 finalists in senior club football, 18 have been from south Derry.
Coleraine have been the only exception, appearing twice.
Just eight of the last 40 semi-finalists have been from north Derry, namely Coleraine (4), Dungiven (2) and Banagher (2).
For years, north Derry teams were sent down the mountain to play, to Glen or Bellaghy or Ballinascreen.
Then Owenbeg happened.
Equidistant from the extremities of city, loughshore and north coast, it has provided a home that was seen to compromise.
It is a perfect location.
There have been issues there too. The main pitch has never been great since it was opened in 2013 and it is currently closed for badly needed remedial work.
It also holds just over 6,000 people at capacity. That is big enough for most games but, as with last year, not for the county final.
Celtic Park is too big and Owenbeg is too small.
But that does not justify owning the two of them
Aside from the inconvenience of its location, you have to question after almost a century of ownership, and more than a decade since its redevelopment, what Celtic Park is actually doing for Derry GAA.
Harnessing the city’s population has always been upheld as the primary reason for Celtic Park’s existence.
For the city clubs themselves, what does it actually do?
On Sunday, Steelstown are in their third intermediate final. The first was 10 years ago. It would be unfair to say they have stood still, having been briefly up in senior and back down since, but they have not yet shown signs of becoming a footballing superpower.
The rest of the clubs in the city continue to tread water at either junior or the bottom end of intermediate.
They are all doing good work to improve their underage but it’s getting it through to adult level that has always been the issue.
With each club having their own pitch now, the need for Celtic Park as simply a playing surface for games in the city has been negated.
You don’t see county finals or Derry games being flooded by hundreds of schoolchildren from the Creggan or Ballyarnett.
Big games in Celtic Park will only be big games to the city’s youth if they have an engagement with them in the form of their own club being involved.
In recent years, the venue has been held primarily for two games - a home Ulster championship game (if Derry get one), and the county football final.
A lot of money has been ploughed into it for two games a year.
Any games sent there beyond that are usually an attempt to justify its existence.
Celtic Park also has a very limited economic impact for the city itself. Its relative distance from the main shops and bars is such that, barring perhaps a Saturday night league game, few people travelling to a game would actually go near the city.
And then there is the county team.
Taking their games to Celtic Park has broken the primary support base's sense of ownership of the team.
There is a hardcore of support from Derry city, but the reality is that the GAA is at its strongest from Dungiven down to Ballinderry.
It’s why there are barely 500 people at National League games in Celtic Park, yet over 3,500 at a schools game between Maghera and Magherafelt.
The interest in GAA in rural Derry is absolutely phenomenal. Few counties in Ireland can match it.
The trick for the county team is to harness it. Doing that has long been troublesome, but taking games 40 or 50 miles away from the primary support base does not help.
Celtic Park has been filled just once for a championship game since 1994. On big days, Derry are very often outnumbered by the away support.
Crowds will improve if the team improves, but the team finds it hard to improve when there’s such a feeling of apathy towards them.
If there is evidence that Celtic Park is having a significant impact in the project of developing GAA in the city, I have yet to see it.
The site at Celtic Park would be worth a handy few million.
The money would be of more value to Derry GAA now than the stadium.
Invest some in expanding Owenbeg to create a 10,000 capacity stadium there, and put the rest into coaching and developing the clubs from every corner of the county.
Derry does not need, and cannot afford to have, two stadiums.
Keeping Celtic Park is becoming ever harder to justify.
Time to sell up.