Posted by Ewan MacKenna
Wednesday 23 May 2012
Ewan MacKenna pores over the stats and argues that Dublin get too much of an advantage being allowed to play at Croke Park
Given the sporting weekend that has just rushed by like a torrent of fresh water, in many aspects the start of the football championship had no place trying to bump and grind its way into the conversation. That is, except for one area. In the build up to the Champions League final, a decent slice of the talk was about the venue and the advantage Bayern would have playing in Munich.
Venue cropped up to a lesser extent as two Irish provinces brought their entertainment and their supporters’ spending power to London for the Heineken Cup final at Twickenham. But it’s on this topic that Gaelic football can take its place in the discussion. Or, more precisely, Dublin can.
With so much chatter about where games are played, I rooted back through some quotes that I’d gotten over coffee with two All Star players late in 2010. Both are still playing and because of that fact, they afterwards asked that the quotes not be attributed to him, but their sentiment could be extracted and it was this. In the aftermath of Dublin being given Croke Park for their successful and well thought out ‘Spring Series’ in the league, both were concerned that a level-playing field was suddenly being tilted.
The players were adamant that familiarity breeds an advantage and that the move, while benefiting the game in the capital, would also benefit the capital’s team.
In European soccer, the away goal is being questioned because it comes from an era where playing abroad involved a trek that took from a team’s performance and we again saw how the relevance of where you play has diminished courtesy of Chelsea’s win. In rugby, home advantage is hugely pronounced thus the need for the neutral venue for a showpiece final.
But the importance of venue is often overlooked in football. Indeed, since sitting down with those two All Stars and since Dublin moved to Croke Park, in every league division the home team has won more games than the away team has each season.
This year 58 per cent of victories across all four divisions of the league were by the home team. Over the last two seasons, that figure rises to 59 per cent. And all the while, 66 per cent of Dublin’s wins have come at Croke Park while on 60 per cent of the occasions they didn’t win, it was on the road.
So here’s the problem as we tip-toe into another championship. Dublin haven’t played a game in league or championship in Parnell Park since March 2010 meaning Croke Park is their home stadium. And by extension, it means Dublin play every single championship game at home and as statistics shows, it gives them an advantage in an era of football where every inch is crucial.
In the last seven seasons Dublin have played 37 of their 38 championship games in Croke Park. Only one of their last 40 summer games have been outside of headquarters and that was way back in June 2006 when, interestingly, they escaped from Longford by two points, two years before they beat much the same team by 13 points in, you’ve guessed it, Croke Park.
In that period, when combining the 11 other Leinster counties, there have been eight instances of a team playing at home. At this stage it is farcical and no other sporting organisation of the size of the GAA, anywhere in the world, favours a team so obviously in what is a crucial area.
In fairness, we aren’t in support of neutral venues in the early stages of the championship either. Those supporting the team that aren’t at home are as likely to travel to an away game as they are to travel to a neutral venue while a home team will increase both attendance and atmosphere. We saw it as, between Breffni Park and Hyde Park, more than 25,000 showed up for two one-sided opening-round games at the weekend.Meanwhile Pearse Park was probably the best atmosphere of the day.
But regardless of what way the GAA see it - neutral or home and away - it cannot be one rule for one team, one rule for everyone else, based purely on demographics and accommodating the largest support base.
Fair enough, a Leinster final and an All Ireland final should never be moved from headquarters but why is it that every early-round match sees Dublin getting to have Hill 16 at their backs or in their faces? It’s not that we blame Dublin either as their fans have often talked about the monotony of only ever playing in one stadium.
They are the only group of supporters who have never gotten to travel the province and the country for big championship games and because of that, they've missed out on the essence of the championship.
But if Dublin getting cabin fever at home gives them an on-field advantage, it gives the city an off-field advantage too in terms of economics. It’s a secondary argument, but as a capital it naturally has higher employment and higher GDP.
Dublin supporters are rightly a prized asset in the GAA but they need to be distributed about more as there are many struggling towns across the country that could do with just a day of their spending.
There is no reason why their opening game this year against Louth shouldn’t be played outside of Croke Park while last year there was no reason why O’Moore Park couldn’t have been used when they played Laois in the first round. Indeed, while Dublin have benefited from being untouchable in Leinster, it’s not right that other sides that reach the last eight on merit forever have to travel.
Look at the stadia of the sides we have in the top eight of our latest rankings. Páirc Uí Chaoimh holds 43,500, Fitzgerald Stadium 43,000, McHale Park 42,000, Pearse Stadium 34,000. Even Healy Park at 18,500 isn’t exactly small and if Dublin drew any of those teams in the last eight, why not play in one of those grounds?
Only Kildare and Donegal can expect to be in a quarter-final and couldn’t host a game and outside of that, what of Thurles and Limerick which both hold over 50,000 and could at least make matters a little fairer.
Some will shrug off the argument and say Croke Park gives everyone the chance to see a game. But sport at its peak should be about packed houses, a desperation for tickets and there are always people that will sadly miss out. There is the argument too that there will be lost ticket revenue.
But running a sporting event the size of the championship cannot merely be about a bank balance. Instead, there should be fairness put before finance and right now that's not happening when it comes to the All Ireland champions.
If you have any opinions, contact Ewan @EwanMacKenna
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