GAA Football

Kicking Out: Athletic Grounds the perfect place to generate a game's electricity

19/12/2021 Kilcoos Ryan Johnston in action with Watty Grahams Ryan Dougan in yesterdays AIB Ulster Semi Final at the Athletic Grounds Picture Seamus Loughran.

GIVEN the contents you will read below, it feels pertinent to begin this column with a disclaimer: I did not wear a checked shirt, brown shoes, bootcut jeans or a Stetson.

I did, however, attend one of the five Garth Brooks concerts held in Croke Park earlier this year.

If it is possible, you may now think considerably less of me than you did before.

(If you’re from Monaghan, where one in three people attended across the marathon of gigs, your opinion might have gone the other way).

The fact that we were not dressed in full uniform of the American Honky-Tonk Bar Association made us somewhat stand out from the crowd.

A northern accent did not.

The ladies originally sat behind us at the back of the Canal End (before we brazened our way on to the pitch) were not untypical of the clientele.

They came from Killyclogher and were in their forties.

If there were younger faces in the crowd, they were hard to find.

It felt like everyone else there was old enough to remember the first Garth Brooks concerts from 1997.

And that’s grand. Once the day comes when you’re no longer able to tick the 18-30 box, everyone there with you kind of looks the same age anyway.

Yet when Garth Brooks eventually came on the stage, the entire lower tier of the Cusack Stand to our right became what you feared it would: a sea of phones.

Virtually every single person in the stadium videoed his entrance. What for? To upload on The ‘Gram grainy, miles-away footage that’s gone a day later, never looked at again, and at the cost of actually living the moment?

It was a slight surprise because the thing about older crowds is they still retain some of their greater natural attention span.

Whatever reservations you might have about me could be confirmed by attendance at a David Gray concert a while before that.

Same thing again, very few young ‘uns. The floor of The Odyssey, usually reserved for the wreckers, was all seated. It looked laid out for a Gone With The Wind matinee more than anything that would appeal to exceptionally limited rhythmic tendencies.

But the crowd ignored the seating and got into it. Phones were a rare fleeting sight up the banks towards the premium section.

What’s this got to do with the price of cheese, you might ask.

Phones are very dangerous for the future of live sport, both as something to be attended or to watch on television.

Gen Z gonna do what Gen Z gonna do.

If they want to sit on Sunday and announce on Facebook while half looking at the Ulster final that they now identify as a Pomeranian, there’s very little that will stop them.

Sport is nothing without atmosphere and atmosphere is nothing without engagement.

That’s a two-fold problem for the GAA.

The engagement, particularly with football, is not helped by long side-to-side passages of play.

But one of the most important aspects of creating atmosphere at a sporting event is to fill a venue up as best you can.

Croke Park is absolutely not the place for Leinster club finals.

Putting a couple of thousand people into such a monstrous venue creates a chicken and egg scenario.

The crowd is so spread out and sparse that it’s hard to generate a noise. If there’s no noise, there’s often very little physicality in the game. If there’s no physicality, no noise. So on and so forth.

Imagine how Portlaoise – one of the most atmospheric pitches in the land – would have been in the thick of Kilmacud’s comeback against Ballyhale last weekend.

Make no mistake about it, the brilliance of Slaughtneil’s game against the Kilkenny kingpins at the start of 2020 owed so much to the way Páirc Esler lent itself.

It’s why spectators of this weekend’s Ulster Club final will have very different experiences depending on how they decide to consume it.

On television, where commentary comes before crowd sounds, it might feel like an awful drag of a game. It will be tight and tense and physical and probably fairly low-scoring.

The Glen supporters will shriek and the Kilcoo fans will squeal and they’ll all berate Joe McQuillan for an hour.

It will come down to the last ten minutes and for those in the Athletic Grounds, the tension will be close to unbearable. The atmosphere will crackle. The game will feel far better than it is just for being there.

The redevelopment of the Athletic Grounds was one of the best things the GAA has done in a long time. Lough Neagh screws with the idea of a perfectly central venue but it’s as close as we could do.

More importantly it is perfectly sized. The pitch is almost always superb. So Armagh has become the home of Ulster Club games.

It is a place that has become loved by fans and a venue that has added so much to the games.

If and when Casement Park is redeveloped, it would be a catastrophic mistake to take Ulster Club games there instead of Armagh. They would be dwarfed by the place.

Nine thousand people in a massive 35,000 stadium gives a very different feel to nine thousand people in a compact venue like the Athletic Grounds.

To move those games out of Armagh would be to strip from them of a lot of what brings the best out in them.

And if you strip their life, you strip peoples’ need to go. Strip the need to go, you take away the life and the atmosphere. Another vicious cycle.

At club level, county boards have become obsessed with both streaming and centralising their funds.

So much club championship action is sent to the county ground, whether in Owenbeg, Omagh, Armagh, Ballybofey.

County boards get to properly monitor the takings at the gate, they get to keep the half-time draw and do the shop.

Yet so often, playing games in Slaughtneil or Carrickmore or Crossmaglen would add to the spectacle, the sense of occasion and the atmosphere.

Nobody apart from the men that played that night will remember a non-descript game between Bellaghy and Ballinascreen about a decade ago. Played in Slaughtneil, it ended something like 0-8 to 0-6.

But the atmosphere in the place that day was electric. The stand seemed to move closer to the tight pitch with each hit until the whole crowd was virtually playing left-half back.

Walking past the changing rooms, the doors happened to be open. It was like a scene from a war movie. Men slumped over, scared to draw breath because of what doing so meant to their ribcage.

It was the most unrelentingly physical game of football and the crowd bayed for more and more and more. It was just awesome.

It’s grand to say we need to take the phones out of people’s hands but you have to give them a reason to leave the phone down. You have to compel their eyes and convince them that life is out there in front of them and not in their thumbs.

So go to Armagh on Sunday. Don’t watch it on TV. If it’s cold, put on more clothes. Leave your phone in your pocket.

Allow yourself to be sucked into this vortex of energetic madness that Glen and Kilcoo will create.

Live the game.