Pitch battles

One of the small consolations about not being in this year’s All-Ireland final will be that we won’t have to face the dilemma, for the want of a less overwrought word, of whether to try and invade the pitch.

How important is the post-match pitch invasion? It’s hardly as integral to the victory experience as many of its supporters would argue. When Waterford won the Munster title in 2002 very few people got on the pitch but no one looks back and feels it wasn’t quite the same without it. Invoking ‘tradition’ is lame. How about bringing back in the all-in throw-in from the Archbishop of Cashel while we’re at it? And speaking of the Archbishop and tradition, the speechfying from the Minor captain and His Excellency is being abolished yet no one seems to be losing any sleep over the loss of this anachronism tradition. Clearly some traditions are more equal than others.

But that’s the thing – the pitch invasion is a good tradition, a positive one. When Waterford beat Galway in last year’s championship my wife’s brother and cousin were thrilled that they were permitted on the pitch after the game. It’s often said that other sports have eliminated the practice which a) isn’t entirely true – the practice is still common in college American football, and it is almost obligatory should the home team be promoted in any game in English soccer for the fans to invade the pitch – and b) why do we care what other sports get up to? So much of the opposition to the pitch invasions reeks of the ‘we’re the laughing stock of Europe / the world / the Milky Way’ school of argument so beloved of the community of self-loathing. The pitch invasion is a source of gaiety and joy for so many. You’d want to have a very good reason for abolishing it.

Over the course of the debate, which has been bubbling under for at least the ten years since the first All-Irelands where there was no pitch invasion, many reasons have been put forward to eradicate the practice – players getting jostled, compensation claims, damage to the pitch – but as matters come to a head the GAA have dismissed all those arguments and settled on the most powerful one: safety of players and supporters. There’s no doubt that has got to be the priority, but the problem is that their primary response – erecting a fence on Hill 16 – flies in the face of notions of safety. Blocking the easiest route of escape from a terrace should anything horrible occur up there is bats, akin to claiming that all possible precautions have been taken to preventing a fire in a building then installing bulletproof glass in the windows, but that’s where we find ourselves. As Paddy Heaney has noted:

It is now abundantly clear that the key objective is to stop fans coming onto the pitch. This has become such an obsession that the health and safety of supporters is now a secondary consideration.

This may seem like a dreadful calumny against Christy Cooney, Peter McKenna et al. That they would put the need to prevent pitch invasions ahead of the need to protect life and limb is a strong thing to say. And I’m willing to accept their protestations that they are certain that the danger from pitch invasions is so great that installing a fence will, all other things being equal, make Croke Park a safer place overall.

But the problem with that is there is a much better way of stopping the pitch invasions that they are studiously ignoring, one suggested by Bord na Mona Man over at the GAA Discussion Board, i.e. to announce that should there be any incursion on to the field at the final whistle, “there will be NO, repeat NO cup presentation”. Can you imagine the fallout should such a policy be put into action this Sunday? It wouldn’t be the year we won the five-in-a-row / stopped their five-in-a-row dream. It’d be the year we got the Liam McCarthy Cup in the Burlington Hotel that evening because some clowns couldn’t stay off the pitch like they were told. Quite the Plan B.

We are told that all avenues have been explored and the fence is the last resort. They have either not considered the above course of action, in which case they haven’t thought it through at all, or they have thought of it and rejected it. Why would they do this, rejecting a policy that would save the need for a fence and even cut down on the number of stewards required? To my mind, it is because the only scenario worse than a pitch invasion for the presentation is the prospect of no presentation at all. Put bluntly, and this is why I don’t think ‘all other things are equal’ with regard to the motivations of the top brass, no presentation = a lot of very angry sponsors deprived of all those eyeballs on their hoardings. If I thought they were willing to sacrifice that on the altar of safety, I’d happily believe their protestations. But they are not, and thus one must come to conclusion that preventing the pitch invasions is not a means to an end (safety) but the end in itself.

If I were at Croke Park this Sunday, nothing would induce me to invade the pitch. Clearly the authorities are determined to prevent it, and it would diminish any joy (and what joy it would have been!) to have to confront stewards caught between an irresistible force and an immovable object. And should disaster occur and someone gets hurt, the primary responsibility will rest with those who wouldn’t do what they were told. But that will not absolve the authorities for failing in their duty of care. The opportunity for them to nip this in the bud is there. Have they the courage to face down vested interests to do it?