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Tue 04-May-2004 1:01
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Hurling League Final Fixture Fiasco
The fixing of the National Hurling League final for Limerick on May 9 demonstrates once again the cock-eyed incompetence which passes for decision-making in the GAA…
Take the date first of all. Fixing the league final for one week ahead of the Munster Championship first round game between Waterford and Clare does a disservice not only to both teams involved and their supporters, but also to the sponsors of both League and Championship. There was always a good chance that one or other, if not both, of these teams might make it to the final, and the league took on some of the flavour of a slow bicycle race as such a prospect hove increasingly into view as the competition progressed. It is unlikely that Allianz, the league sponsors, were doing cartwheels as media speculation focused on how serious both teams were taking the competition.
To give Waterford their due, they have given the League a lash right from the beginning, although even they pulled a few punches when they met the Bannermen in Ennis. Clare, for their part, clearly were ambivalent, as reflected by the second string team they put out against Limerick. Even then, they should have won that game, which would have put them in a right pickle for their final match against Cork. An Moltóir suspects that this year is the last hurrah for a lot of this Clare team, and that Anthony Daly’s entire focus is on the championship. By insisting that Waterford play a league final just seven days ahead of the Clare encounter, the GAA certainly seem to be easing the Banner’s passage to a semi-final clash with Tipperary on June 6.
There is a lot of pressure on Waterford to go all out for the League title which they have not won in forty-one years. This puts them in an impossible situation in relation to the Clare game. If they beat Galway, there will undoubtedly be a lot of euphoria on Suirside, which will hardly suit a team trying to refocus on the immediate task ahead. And if they lose, by the same token, there will be a sense of disappointment and deflation which could be even more unsettling. Either way, there is always the possibility that they could pick up some injuries which would weaken their hand for the Clare game. And if it should pass that a fired-up Banner team steamrolls through a jaded Waterford outfit, championship sponsors Guinness (and, indeed RTÉ) will hardly be best pleased, with what should have been the first showpiece fixture of the hurling championship season turning out to be a non-event.
Last year, the National Hurling League final between Kilkenny and Tipperary was played on the May bank holiday Monday, in order to give the Tipp men two weeks to prepare for their opening championship encounter against Clare. And even with two weeks to recover, Tipperary must have still been suffering the aftershocks of the late torrent of Kilkenny scores in the league final, as the Clare men absolutely blew them away in Cork. Why were Waterford not afforded the same concession this year? It is unlikely that there would have been a repeat of last year’s fiasco when only seventeen thousand people turned up for the Tipperary/Kilkenny game in Croke Park: Waterford alone would probably have brought that many to a league final on Monday.
Indeed, it probably would have made more sense to play the hurling league final as part of a treble-header with the football finals on the Sunday. As it was, the football finals on their own only attracted a crowd of 28,000 – below what the GAA themselves say is the minimum to make opening Croke Park economical. With Galway in both finals, and given the fanaticism of Waterford’s success-starved supporters, it is likely that a treble at headquarters would have produced an attendance in excess of 50,000, generating a great atmosphere and filling up the gaps in the stands which were so evident in the televised coverage of the football finals. There is, of course, a Division 2 hurling final also to be played, but how many people from Westmeath and Down are likely to travel to Limerick next Sunday for a game which has been even further downgraded by scheduling it for after the Division 1 final?
This brings us to the choice of venue for the National Hurling league final. Why Limerick? Why not Croke Park, giving the hurling final the same status as its football equivalent? Why not Thurles, the home of hurling, equally accessible to both Waterford and Galway, familiar to the fans and highly atmospheric on big match days? Well, the answer should be obvious, and it has nothing to do with facilitating spectators, the crazed fanatics who keep the GAA going and who are repeatedly treated like dirt by the same GAA. The fact is that the GAA not only condoned, but subsidised, the idiotic expenditure of millions of euros doing up the Gaelic Grounds in Limerick so that it can now hold an attendance of 45,000. So now they feel they have to give Limerick big games to help them pay off a debt that should never have been incurred in the first place.
The same thing happened when Páirc Uí Chaoimh was done up back in the 1970s, with numerous games being sent to the southern capital regardless of discomfort to spectators. Thus, for example, the 1976 All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Galway and Wexford (draw and replay) was sent down to Cork, despite its inaccessibility to both counties. So, as An Moltóir has pointed out many times before in this column, we end up with four big stadiums in Munster which are hardly ever used, rather than concentrating on putting proper facilities into Thurles and devoting the huge amounts of money wasted on the other white elephants to coaching and games development.
A lot of supporters are wary about travelling to Limerick at all because of the city’s reputation for violence and vandalism. Those deciding to travel to the game by train will be faced with a three mile walk to the stadium, compared with the hop, step and jump to Semple Stadium from the railway station in Thurles. With most Waterford supporters unfamiliar with Limerick and its watering holes, they will probably come straight for the match and leave immediately afterwards, thereby robbing the occasion of atmosphere. And when they get to the ground, those foolish enough to go to the Mackey Stand will find that, unless they are sitting in the front of the stand, they will spend most of the match jumping up and down to see what is happening in the corners of the pitch, so bad are the sight lines in this relatively new edifice.
An Moltóir has never heard of anyone in Limerick being taken to account for the architectural disaster which is the Mackey Stand. On its own it is a sufficient reason not to locate big games at this venue. So, if next Sunday is a wet day, spectators have the option of getting soaked and seeing the game, or staying dry and spending the whole game yelling “Would you ever sit down!” Such are the options provided by this great association of ours to its supporters, when they could be enjoying the marvels of Croke Park or watching Waterford and Galway vie for superiority on the best hurling pitch in the country. Why do we put up with it?
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