GAA Football

Brendan Crossan: Croke Park will always be the field of dreams

A statue of Michael Cusack founder of the Gaelic Athletic Association at the entrance to Croke Park Stadium in Dublin
Brendan Crossan - The Boot Room (brendancrossan@yahoo.com)

THERE was always a sense of wellness when we parked up on the serene acreage of Clonliffe College, a mere puck of a ball away from the magnificent concrete of Croke Park.

The stress of the angry Drumcondra traffic would leave your being like the summer rain.

Once you paid your €10 and were in the sprawling grounds, the capital was an altogether better place.

You’d fold the Sunday papers, shove them into your lap-top bag, open the car door and be immediately surrounded by a kaleidoscope of GAA colours.

Cramping limbs would be taking refuge in open car boots. Flasks and cups and sandwiches would be unfurled in sunny splendour.

This massive car-parking area has always been an oasis of calm on big Championship days, a happy place for families and friends.

As we sauntered to the exit gates, I always used to ask my erstwhile colleague Paddy Heaney about the exact nature and history of Clonliffe College.

I ended up googling it.

You’d weave through the happy hordes and reach the quiet media entrance at the side of Hogan. Breeze down a couple of steps, press seven in the elevator to reach the press tribune.

There’d be nods and smiles all around, accents would collide from every part of the country.

And there'd be endless tea, coffee and sandwiches. Soon enough, The Sunday Game pundits would appear on the back-to-back television screens.

You’d walk the small open-air corridor towards the playing area and your world would just open up.

From Hogan’s heavenly seventh floor, the panoramic splendour of Croke Park and it’s impossibly green, velvet grass below is a sight to behold.

It never fails to move you.

I’ve been coming to this GAA Mecca for 23 years. Each time the place conjures different memories and timeless mental images.

Given the weekend that’s in it, one memory that stands out is the 2005 Ulster final between Armagh and Tyrone.

The Red Hands are leading by a point deep into stoppage-time.

Kieran McGeeney wins a Tyrone kick-out he’d no right to win, off-loads to Paul McGrane in front of him and with incredible conviction, Armagh’s awesome midfielder laces the ball over the bar.

Two colossal acts the famous ground will never forget.

Staring down towards the Hill 16 end, the mind’s eye can still see the ‘Gooch’ surrounded by sky blue jerseys and dummy bouncing the ball and finding a way to score.

Craning your neck you can still see in the front of the daunting spectre of Hogan, Peter Canavan telling ‘Mugsy’ that he would be okay with the free.

Towards the Canal End, Davy Fitzgerald is down on his knees hacking the turf in frustration as the Clare hurlers bow out of the Championship.

It was the last defiant roar of the Banner from their golden era.

Look hard enough on this empty green baize and you’ll find them all. Ghosts that never leave the place.

Ciaran McDonald cutting across the ball with his wand of a left foot arcing into the arms of a green and red jersey.

Stevie McDonnell making an impossible catch over the shoulder of Niall McCready.

Just like Oisin, he was born for big days. And the scandalous accuracy of Stevie O’Neill. The tighter the angle, the better he became.

On a rainy Saturday night under the floodlights’ glare, a Kildare midfielder called Daryl Flynn deposited his indelible archive in headquarters with a granite-like display before Kevin Cassidy kicked a ridiculous winner.

Through the mists of time, you’ll find ‘Hub’ Hughes still harassing and hustling and stealing Kerry’s soul in the summer sun and never giving it back.

And there’s John Morrison, buoyant and flashing his best smile at ‘Pillar’ Caffrey - a barge that left the Garda Siochána tut-tutting at one of their own.

Conor McManus is a blur on the far side of the field, racing along the foot of the Cusack Stand. Barely touching the grass beneath him.

Untouchable.

Liam Watson owning the place against Coolderry in 2012.

Methodically flick through the years and you’ll find archives buried beneath other great days at Jones’s Road.

If I wrote this column tomorrow, I'd unearth an entirely different set of memories.

Joe Canning versus Henry Shefflin.

Cushendall’s Shane McNaughton playing like he does in his dreams against an awesome Na Piarsaigh side on St Patrick’s Day. You never lose when you play like that.

This place can make you king or dwarf you in the same game.

Scorching the north Dublin skyline, Croke Park will forever be an awesome sight.

Of course, as time ebbs and flows, the post-match experience has changed for the media. It’s more sanitised, controlled and restrictive.

Lap-top bags and wrists are tagged.

Journalists are herded into a dank, soulless lecture theatre afterwards, deprived of providing snapshots of life on the other side of the wall, of the victorious and the vanquished, where stories still had beating hearts in the next day's print.

The new way of doing things passes for ‘meaningful access’. And so the top table sound-bites come and go and leave no memory.

Once upon a time, journalists got a worm’s eye view of the famous Hogan tunnel where the sunlight emerges, famous silver is lifted and dreams are made.

I always remember Chris Lawn and Brian Dooher grabbing each other in the corridors, the moment captured forever by a ubiquitous photographer.

Some things in this profession fly away and never come back.

Media relations have changed and we’re all the poorer for it.

But your world still opens up when you walk those few steps on the seventh floor and look around this wondrous place.

We all grieved for the Hill, Cusack, Davin and Hogan during those bleak COVID days.

To see the kaleidoscope of colour and experience the noise at Croke this weekend, you’ll never feel more alive.

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