Brendan Crossan: We love you Clones - but it's time to say goodbye

A sea of red and white on the pitch after Derry beat Donegal in last year's Ulster final Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.
A sea of red and white on the pitch after Derry beat Donegal in last year's Ulster final Picture: Margaret McLaughlin.

ONCE you’re the last one to leave the press box, there’s no point in rushing anymore. You've lost.

There’s a race that takes place - probably only in my head - at the back of the main stand on Championship Sundays.

Nobody really jockeys for position in this imaginary race until several hours after the final whistle, when all life has been drained from a stadium that was earlier the most magnificent coliseum.

It’s a barely acknowledged competition as reporters tap at different rhythms and speeds on their laptops, heads buried, as they file their copy for online or tomorrow’s newspapers.

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Last Sunday evening as dusk fell, I was the last to leave St Tiernach’s Park.

The eerie silence of the place is only broken by the church bells, the angry squawk of crows or the wind-assisted tumbling of plastic bottles, cups and other litter on the concrete steps of the Gerry Arthurs Stand.

Sounds you’re completely oblivious to until you’re alone. There's a sense of liberation when you close your laptop and head for the exit.

But what's another five minutes as you look around the old ground and gaze at its lifeless goal-mouths.

When everything else in the modern world has fallen to progress, I like places that don't change.

In over 20 years reporting on GAA games, St Tiernach's Park hasn't changed one iota.

I could close my eyes at the back of the Gerry Arthurs Stand and reach the press box unattended.

The smooth concrete steps with thin strips of yellow paint, and the best seats in the house slap bang in the middle of the stand where the province's beautiful, coveted silver and its chosen coloured ribbons will be perched on Sunday May 14.

If a stadium could talk, St Tiernach's Park could regale us for a thousand years of epic battles and its undaunted gladiators who, in the mind's eye, remain in their perpetual youth.

There wasn't a sinner on Clones Hill at 9pm last Sunday but the remnants of unfinished beers, coke cans and chip papers provided, albeit an untidy reminder that something of significance took place in the old market town earlier today.

Creighton's Hotel sits on the corner still looking resplendent and inviting as ever, as the traffic lights turn to red and green again.

The road in and out of Clones is implausibly straight.

Several hours earlier there was bedlam on this stretch of road, cars virtually abandoned beside hedges and mucky fields, with every single member of the Garda Síochána looking frazzled and probably wishing they hadn't put their hand up for over-time on another anarchic Championship Sunday.

Money wouldn't pay you.

We all have a genuine affection for the place - the stadium, Clones Hill, the smell of burgers and fried onions, the colour, the 'hats, scarves or headbands' stalls and the overwhelming sense of optimism walking towards St Tiernach's Park.

But here's the truth: Clones is no longer fit to host big Championship matches.

The stadium's lack of modern facilities and the commute to get there would kill your spirit.

For whatever reason, it seems to take longer to reach Clones than it has ever done in the past two decades or more.

As the pubs, shop owners and burger stalls brace themselves for another bonanza in nine days' time, Ulster final day will be accompanied only by a sense of dread and wondering just how many hours you need to allow to get there on time.

It's a road that has caught out the best of us.

The Irish News sports team were infamously found out on the day of the 2017 Ulster final between Tyrone and Down.

We decided to give ourselves four hours to reach Clones. Loads of time, we thought.

We'd be in our seats before the minor team buses pulled into the car-park, reading the Sunday papers and charging up our laptops.

We met at McDonald's in Sprucefield and nonchalantly sucked on our strawberry milkshakes.

Little did we know the stress and mayhem that awaited us just after Middletown.

The traffic was a disaster. Car horns beep and two grown men confronted one another at a roundabout leaving Monaghan town.

We abandoned our cars a mile away from the ground and were seen running up Clones Hill as Amhrán na bhFiann was being played before the senior final.

We can chuckle to ourselves about it now, but it was a hellish few hours that you'd never want to re-live.

There isn't a worse commute in the world than driving to Clones on Ulster final day.

For last Sunday's Ulster semi-final between Armagh and Down, I left my home over four hours before throw-in.

But it shouldn't take the guts of that time to reach St Tiernach's Park for what is a 90-minute car journey at any other time.

Cars and buses moved at a snail's pace in Monaghan town and onwards to Clones.

Of course, when attending any big event, traffic congestion is part of the deal - but Clones takes the biscuit.

Furthermore, it is insane to think there are GAA people among us who would argue that tradition trumps everything, that the rebuild of Casement Park be ditched and Clones should host Ulster finals forever and a day.

Who wants to sit in their car for five hours to get to a game? I struggle to see the fun in that.

And I struggle to see the demerits in building a new Casement Park befitting of Ireland's second city status. It sits just off a motorway. The site is ready to be transformed.

Socially and economically, it would re-invigorate west Belfast. It would be a commercial village and employment hub.

In GAA terms, it would link Belfast to the rest of the island too. The Dublin to Belfast road has never been shorter.

Why shouldn't big football or hurling games not be hosted at a new Casement Park?

But we know all the reasons by now.

Of course, the delayed project has nurtured much cynicism because not a sod has been turned in 10 insufferable years of talk, because of many reasons, political inertia being one.

But you can imagine in 10 years time driving past Casement with its resplendent roof scorching the sky and telling your kids that once upon a time they weren't going to build it.

Sell it and they will come...

Okay, who's driving to Clones next Sunday?

Clones Hill last Sunday at 9pm
Clones Hill last Sunday at 9pm