‘Home’ comforts

By Niall Gartland

KICKING up stink about Dublin. It became a bit of a public sport for a few years there, but as they say, there’s no smoke without fire, right?

At least they aren’t winning All-Irelands all around them these days (come on, it got boring) but you’ll likely have clocked Glenn Ryan’s comments at the weekend.

In the wake of his side’s narrow Leinster Championship final defeat at Croke Park, the Kildare manager launched a scathing critique of the officiating during the game as well as yes, that old chestnut, the fact the game was played at GAA Headquarters. ‘It’s supposed to be played at a neutral venue, they say – it’s not’, argued the Kildare legend.

In the eyes of the powers-that-be, it is a neutral venue, but try telling that to people on the ground, particularly those from Leinster counties now accustomed to trimmings from the men from the capital.

Looking beyond the provincials, it seems likely that Dublin may benefit from playing at least two of their games at headquarters.

They can nominate Croke Park as their home venue with their neutral fixture likely to be at the Jones Road venue, a similar situation to the ‘Super Eights’ a few short years ago.

It’s a strange enough state of affairs but what do the players think? We spoke to former Derry footballer Gerard O’Kane, who came up against the Dubs quite a few teams during a lengthy playing career. Typically his experience was thus – when the games were played outside of Croker, they were generally competitive and even snaffed a few wins. At Croke Park, it was usually an altogether difference experience.

He even harkens back to a match between the two counties played in 2003 as evidence of just pernickety the Dubs can be about these matters.

O’Kane said: “Glenn Ryan’s comments were spot on. I know they irked a lot of people, but this row came up about five years ago when the Super Eights came in. Donegal tried to force the Association’s hand but they didn’t get anywhere with it.

“If you go back as far as 2003, Derry played Dublin in a qualifier game in Clones. It was a home draw for Derry and my father was county chairman at the time. I was still in school but I was training with Derry leading up to the game as we’d finished up with the MacRory and Hogan campaigns.

“Dublin blatantly refused to come to Derry, they dug their heels in, they said it couldn’t be played in Derry as there would be too many supporters. It ended up being played in Clones, Croke Park was unavailable due to the Special Olympics at the time.”

Over his career, O’Kane played against Dublin on five occasions. They fell narrowly short in an All-Ireland quarter-final in 2007 at Croke Park while two years later Derry came out on top of a league meeting in Parnell Park.

In 2010 the roles were reversed as Dublin won a league meeting in Parnell. In 2014 Derry claimed a surprise victory at Celtic Park before, just six weeks later, they were walloped at Croker in the Division One final.

O’Kane commented: “We were capable of beating them at Parnell and at Celtic Park but once Dublin were in Croke Park, they weren’t far away from being untouchable. If you look at 2014, there was a 23-point swing between the games in Celtic Park and Croke Park, not too dissimilar to what happened between Derry and Dublin this year.”

Asked if there was a feeling at the time that Croke Park was effectively Dublin’s home ground, O’Kane added: “Definitely. Dublin were used to being there. They’d their own changing rooms and logistically it was a lot easier for them to manage the day as well.

“For us we’d, stay in Castleknock the night before, it was taking up maybe 36 hours of your weekend. For the Dublin boys playing at Croke Park was second nature.”

Dublin were in their pomp when they dismantled the Oakleafers on a scoreline of 3-19 to 1-10 in the Division Two decider in 2014. More so than any other season under the venerable Jim Gavin, they really went out to punish their opponents with blistering attacking play. Donegal put paid to their adventurism in the All-Ireland semi-final later that year, not that it was much consolation to Derry.

“Even though they didn’t win the All-Ireland, that was probably the year Dublin played their best football,” said O’Kane.

“Until the Donegal game, they were shooting the lights out every day they went out. We’d beaten Mayo in a league semi-final and Dublin played Cork afterwards. We watched the first half of the Cork game and got ready to leave. Cork were still strong in that era and were well ahead and we thought we’d try to beat the traffic.

“By the time we got on the bus and found a radio station, Dublin were coming back and ended up winning by eight points. It was a 16-point swing inside 35 minutes and that said it all.

“We had them a couple of weeks later and they destroyed us. I remember that night, there was a 10k run in aid of charity. Michael Darragh Macauley played 70 minutes in the league final and ran the full 10k around Dublin. It just showed you where they were at in terms of their own headspace, that they won a league title and set it to one side right away.”

In relation to Dublin being able to name their home ground in the upcoming All-Ireland group stages, he said: “Derry could name our home ground as Owenbeg or Celtic Park. The GAA would probably force our hand to choose Celtic Park even if we wanted to play it at Owenbeg on grounds of capacity.

“During the Super Eights, Donegal took a case to Central Council to try to make a point in relation to a supposed ‘neutral’ game against Dublin, but it was thrown out.

“Yes it may be financially important to the GAA, and I don’t know if anyone sits down with a completely pro-Dublin agenda, but there isn’t a level playing field. Ultimately it’s a matter of principle.”

One of the points made in contradiction of Ryan’s argument is that county boards across Leinster haven’t done enough to stand their ground down the years, so it’s unfair to blame the Dubs for making the most out of things.

O’Kane said: “People use the expression, it’s like turkeys voting for Christmas. Financially on some level it might be better for those counties to play their games at Croke Park. Then the players themselves might want the chance to get playing there as well.

“Alright it might be great for Wexford or Offaly to play Dublin at a neutral venue but maybe the players would prefer to play at Croker as it’s a once in a blue moon event for them. The county boards in Leinster seem to be happy not to push the matter, but if you look at Ulster, Monaghan aren’t allowed to play provincial semi-finals at Clones and that’s probably the way it should be, and there’s no way other teams would agree to it, and that’s the way it should be.”

The Dubs are hot favourites to win yet another Leinster title in a week’s time when they take on Mickey Harte’s Louth, appearing in their first showdown since their infamous defeat to Meath in 2010.

Asked if he gives the men from the wee county any chance, he said: “Louth have done extremely well since Mickey Harte came in but I don’t think they’ve closed the gap enough to win the game. I don’t want to patronise them by saying ‘oh they’ll give it a go,’ though no doubt they will, and I’m sure Mickey Harte and Gavin Devlin will set them up to stay in the game. But it’s hard to see that happening at Croke Park where Dublin are in their element.”

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