Time Out: Croke Park can be the right place at the wrong time

Neil Loughran

Neil Loughran

Neil has worked as a sports reporter at The Irish News since 2008, with particular expertise in GAA and boxing coverage.

Glen got the better of Moycullen in the All-Ireland SFC semi-final earlier this month, and while the Derry side will barely have noticed, the game lost something for being held at a sparsely-populated Croke Park. Picture by Sportsfile
Glen got the better of Moycullen in the All-Ireland SFC semi-final earlier this month, and while the Derry side will barely have noticed, the game lost something for being held at a sparsely-populated Croke Park. Picture by Sportsfile

THERE’S nothing more alarming than believing yourself to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

A few Sundays back I found myself drifting down Drumcondra, not a care in the world. Parked up near the Skylon Hotel to avoid the ravenous clutches of the capital’s clampers, the mile dander offers a welcome opportunity to shake off the rust after two hours stuck in a car, loosening up the limbs just enough for the several hours of sitting down yet to come.

Unlike so many last-gasp dashes to the gate, there is no need for undue haste today. The first All-Ireland semi-final between Kilmacud Croke’s and Kerins O’Rahilly’s hasn’t even thrown in yet - Ulster champions Glen versus Galway’s Moycullen after that is but a dot on the horizon.

And so on you walk, taking in the surroundings on this unseasonably mild January afternoon, accepting the city’s invitation to breathe it in.

Look at those houses – wonder how much they’re worth? That’s some size of a Lidl – is it new? I’ll be seeing you later for a quick squint at the middle aisle’s wares, don’t worry about that. You wink discreetly as you pass this modern wonder, the unspoken, slightly sexy acknowledgement of a sealed deal.

On the other side of the road, just at the corner of Church Avenue, stands the Cat and Cage. This is the place, or at least one of them, that always broke up the long trek back to Griffith Avenue after games in years gone by. A couple of middle-aged ladies stand outside the door draining the flame from a feg, arms crossed in a vain attempt to conserve heat.

There’s Chilli Banana – always meant to go there, for the name if nothing else. Maybe next time.

You’re at the halfway point when the Tolka River is crossed, and for the first time the lack of life about the place raises a red flag. Walk on and the majestic Fagan’s pub further down the road, normally a hive of noise and colour, is deathly quiet.

Other than the occasional whirr of Marty McFly wannabes on electric scooters, the footpath is pretty much deserted.

Approaching the left turn for Clonliffe Road panic starts to set in, doubts suddenly swirling around a flustered head that, just a few hundred paces earlier, was loving life. Where… is everybody? Not one green and gold Glen headband to settle nerves, no green Maigh Cuilinn jerseys to guide the way.

The first game has started by now, yet not a sound seeps out of a stadium rising from the houses that surround it. Phone whipped from the pocket, eyes can barely bring themselves to look down at the screen, swear words already being uttered for being so bloody stupid, fully expecting to be told it’s the bright lights of Cavan you should be savouring.

But it isn’t. This is the right place - even if it isn’t really.

Welcome to All-Ireland club semi-final day at Croke Park, where a mixture of eerie emptiness and winter wind sucks at the soul. This is unlikely to be the view of the players or supporters of the two clubs – Glen and Kilmacud - who progressed to Sunday’s decider, their memories of January 8, 2023 forever wrapped up in that magical day in Dublin.

If they’re being totally honest, though, the occasion loses something as a consequence. Only so much of an atmosphere can be created inside a quarter or even a fifth full stadium, especially one as vast as Croke Park.

Compare this year’s offering with the raucous roar that flowed in off the stand in Portlaoise as Kilcoo and St Finbarr’s went toe-to-toe 12 months before, the momentum swinging back and forth until only after extra-time could they be separated.

Even in the depths of January it was hot and heavy - ugly, beautiful, brilliant, the buzz propelling intrepid visitors back down the road as miles whizzed by in milliseconds. I bumped into then Kilcoo assistant managers Conleith Gilligan and Richie Thornton in the Applegreen at Lusk on the way home, nearly two hours down the road, probably three hours after the game ended, and they were still trying to process what had happened.

The Super 8s, for all its failings, provided a practical test case for this ongoing debate. One of the best games I have been at was the draw between Donegal and Kerry in July 2019.

A few hours after everybody had left, a blast of thunder echoed around an empty Croke Park. With that noise - the rolling, rumbling threat that sent seagulls scattering - it felt as though the sodden stadium was finally allowing itself a breath following an exhilarating clash.

Yet, even though it formed part of a double-header with Mayo and Meath, the place wasn’t even half full. The right venue and that game would be remembered as a classic - instead it barely troubles the memory bank of most.

Contrast that with the previous year, August 2018, when Donegal welcomed Tyrone to Ballybofey for a do-or-die Super 8 clash. On a baking hot day, every shop, every bar, every hotel you went near was jammed to the rafters - the town was completely and utterly alive.

Inside Pairc MacCumhaill, these Ulster titans fed off that fervour to produce a battle for the ages, Harry Loughran’s game-changing goal eight minutes from the end helping send the Red Hands into the All-Ireland semi-final.

Anyone who was at Monaghan’s clash with Kerry that same summer will tell a similar story of electricity filling the air in Clones as the boy Clifford proved himself every bit the man.

By the same token, it just felt wrong seeing the Tyrone U20s crowned All-Ireland champions in Carrick-on-Shannon last year, while Ballinderry might always feel slightly short-changed by lifting the Andy Merrigan Cup in Thurles instead of the GAA’s promised land back in 2002.

That’s the balancing act the Association faces year on year.

Croke Park is, and should always be, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow - it is that prestige which somehow makes the biggest of days matter more.

The men from Glen, Kilmacud, Dunloy and Ballyhale will feel eight feet tall when they run out before hordes of familiar faces on Sunday, and so they should.

Sometimes, though, the most unforgettable, spine-tingling occasions are all the better for taking place far from the bright lights of Jones’s Road.