WHAT GETS you hooked is the amount of people. Everyone who loves a sport will be able to tell you about the first match they were at; the one that kidnapped the imagination and sowed the seed of a lifelong obsession.
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I’m different; I had already been to a fair few games when I took possession of the ticket that changed everything – the one to see Meath and Dublin play in the first round of the Leinster championship in 1991, four days before my 10th birthday.
I’m not from either county but even after Italia 90 had made a soccer fan of every child in Ireland, it was a game of obvious appeal. A Meath team of walking legends such as Mick Lyons and Liam Hayes and Colm O’Rourke, each with two All-Ireland medals, against a Dublin side who were no mugs but who had fallen narrowly to the Royals in three of the past four seasons.
To add to the novelty, it was the first year of the open draw, the first time the prize for victory in such a duel would be a Leinster quarter-final against Wicklow rather than an All-Ireland semi-final place.
As presents to mark a decade on the planet go it wouldn’t have been expensive, probably no more than £5, but there was an unforeseen catch; the cost would snowball, like a miniature unclaimed lottery jackpot, over the next six weeks. Dublin and Meath could not be separated and only a sadist would deny a 10-year-old boy further tickets as Dublin found imaginative ways to mislay a lead and the sides drew three times in a row.
Children are often likened to sponges and there was a lot to absorb, from PJ Gillic’s unlikely bouncing equaliser to Meath’s near-impossible comeback in the fateful fourth game.
What really stirred the psyche, however, was the people. The crowd, not inconsiderable for the first game, was at capacity before the epic had gone far; by the fourth they could have sold tickets for the roof of the Hogan Stand to people with vertigo.
Twenty-one summers on, I can still hear “Come on you boys in blue” spreading to all four sides of the ground when Dublin built a lead – and the roar from the citizens of the plains that grew from the second a Meath boot launched an inevitable point to begin or complete an inevitable recovery.
The drama induced emotion around me of an intensity I hadn’t realised was possible among so many thousands of people at the same time; even respectable-looking middle-aged women from the suburbs covered a great many of the seven words you aren’t allowed to say on radio.
We were heading for a fifth game when David Begey concluded the saga with the nonchalance that perhaps only a man with a nickname like ‘Jinksy’ can effect.
The last impression I took was again of the people; our path out from behind the Cusack merged with perhaps 15,000 Dubs alighting from Hill 16; some were inviting those still celebrating inside to “Shove your Royal County up your hole” but the majority looking shaken to the core and carried a deep air of mourning that I’ve rarely sensed after a football match since.
The games were epic but it was the crowds, stretching as far as the young eye could see, that made the experience and it was during that June and July that I knew that while I could still enjoy other sports, there was only one that ultimately mattered.
To the present; there were 12,296 in Semple Stadium on Sunday last for Clare and Waterford’s Munster SHC semi-final. It was an exciting game but I doubt too many children in attendance felt overawed by the occasion.
The problem is not confined to the south; highlights packages of many games reveal swathes of empty seats and terraces. It looks terrible. Even Dublin could only attract 31,530 punters for their championship opener – in the modern Croke Park of echoes and dull blue expanses, such a crowd produces an atmosphere more snooze-inducing than life-altering.
True, later this summer, multitudes will throng Croke Park but in 2012, life and sport afford children a much greater variety of pursuits.
Every time a game attracts a crowd that only quarter-fills a stadium, every time a kid watching a game on TV gets the impression that not that many people care about the outcome, great damage is done.
Price is the ultimate factor. It cost my elders not much more than £20 to get me into four of the most famous football matches in history. Today, it costs €25 per adult for a seat at a provincial semi-final. It is not exorbitant but in the midst of a savage economic collapse, in a year where up to 100,000 people are expected to leave the country, drastic measures are called for.
The IRFU and FAI are much more cold-blooded in pursuit of cash, but the nature of those organisations bears an inherent financial imperative; the GAA is supposed to stand for more than maintaining a bank balance.
Imagine the goodwill and the increase in crowds if they were to declare that from next year, tickets to all championship games up to provincial finals were subject to a €10 price cut, and that all children under 12 could attend for free.
We might be accused of naivety for such a proposal; but is this not an association supposed to be by and for the people, and did not its imaginative founders enact much more bold decisions than taking a financial hit to make sure that all Irish people could afford to enjoy their birthright?
Such a brave shift will not happen in the modern GAA, for the cost would run into seven figures. That is a pity, for the cost of doing nothing is incalculable.