GAA Football

Kicking Out: Nowhere on this earth matches a packed Croke Park

Friday week ago marked 1,000 days since the stadium was last full to its 82,300 capacity.... That all ends this weekend. And it will feel like the first time all over again. Because there's nothing and nowhere else on this island, even this earth, like a packed Croke Park."

Croke Park is on course to be at its busiest for three years this weekend, and how we've missed it. Picture: Seamus Loughran

YOU never forget your first time. The excitement, the nerves, the wondering if it’ll live up to expectations, the tremble in your hands as the moment nears.

More often than not, a crushing disappointment follows. Difficulty looking anyone in the eye for a few hours, fretting that it might never happen again.

Yes, the first time in Croke Park can do strange things to a body.

I was too young to have gone to the old stadium. My first trip was 2004 and Derry’s All-Ireland semi-final against Kerry.

And funnily, in the way of a teenage boy, the experience was a small bit underwhelming. I could still take you back to the exact seat in the lower Cusack, 15 rows up, right on the 20-metre line beside the Hill.

A lot of it was probably the fact at the time it was the lowest semi-final attendance for eight years, at just 35,457. Kerry came expecting to beat Derry and Derry, hand on heart, came expecting to get beaten.

For 12 first-half minutes, hope flickered. Enda Muldoon scuffed home a goal that drew Derry level. They kicked the next three points and Darragh Ó Sé was gone off injured before the half-hour. But by the interval Kerry had regained the lead and it was only going one way from then.

That’s just the way first times can be.

Yet the second time was exhilarating. Derry had reached the last eight again and in between day shifts labouring (aka carrying a wet sponge) to my Da and uncle Brian, I’d started a bit of writing for the Derry News. There wasn’t a penny in it but they had secured me a press pass for the game, in a packed 82,500 sellout, and that was better than any money.

That first step out through the doors, where the coliseum begins to widen into view beneath, is a tattoo on my mind’s eye.

With the game hanging in the balance, Eoin Bradley cut through off the left wing. He’d only been brought on at half-time – controversially for Paul Murphy, but we’ll not go there – and was at the heart of Derry’s assault on Stephen Cluxton’s goal.

This was his second big chance. He headed for goal and shot high at the near post. Cluxton pushed the shot into the sky and it hung like a Garryowen, dropping back down as arms flailed for the decisive touch. It fell to a blue shirt and when they won a free out, it was as if someone placed a giant hoover above the stadium. The way the roar was sucked from the soul of 70,000 Dubs made the place literally shake.

Croke Park is our coliseum. Sometimes we’re all guilty of being too cynical about it all.

For an amateur organisation to own a stadium this impressive, this enormous, this attractive, this unique, it is a signpost of all that we are.

The odd time that sign points in the wrong direction. Sometimes fans are overcharged. Sometimes games go there that shouldn’t and the shimmer doesn't sit right on empty seats. When it’s anything up to half-dressed, it doesn’t quite fill you up the same.

But Friday week ago marked 1,000 days since the stadium was last full to its 82,300 capacity.

September 14, 2019. The All-Ireland final replay between Kerry and Dublin held the last capacity crowd before Covid struck.

And even though last year’s Tyrone-Mayo and Limerick-Waterford attendances allowed for 40,000, there just wasn’t the same electricity in the air.

Quinn’s is gone now. The Big Tree has sold its soul for the value of some rooms upstairs. The air inside every northern reg car in Dublin this weekend will turn blue when they all realise that since they were last here, the big car park at Clonliffe College has been quietly laid off for development.

The price of tickets can be steep, the diesel definitely is and you’d want to be sharing a chicken wrap among four people at the price of them inside the ground - but these are days that the vast majority of counties spend their years looking in through the window at.

One of Armagh, Galway, Derry or Clare will be in an All-Ireland football final this year. On a very different July date, a very different hue will colour the streets of Dublin’s fair city, and they will bring that childish enthusiasm with them.

In a way, Armagh would maybe appreciate it best. If Mayo people are the undisputed champions when it comes to unconditional love, Armagh’s fanbase must be a fairly close second. Their commitment to every single person wearing a bright orange replica jersey brings an unsurpassed colour to the occasion.

They’ve taken their share and then some for Sunday. There isn’t a ticket left online. It might not be a complete sellout but you’ll have to look to find an empty seat in it.

Saturday will touch 60,000 as well. The excitement in west Clare is the same as it is in south Derry, south Armagh and north Galway.

Thousands upon thousands of young people will be experiencing for the first time what it is like at such an exhilarating height. For a few hours this weekend, thet will step into something that could wrap them up in this for life.

The parents will feel that all radiating back at them, knowing they’ve passed something unique down the line.

For 1,011 days now, the roar has been silenced. Football, hurling, camogie, they have given us something to pass the time with but it’s been hard to view them as the nation’s soul when the nation has been sat at home in empty living rooms, screaming from behind a surgical mask at people that can’t hear them.

That all ends this weekend. And it will feel like the first time all over again.

Because there’s nothing and nowhere else on this island, even this earth, like a packed Croke Park.

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