In the centre pages of last week’s County Derry Post, we ran a double page spread with a photo of Derry’s senior football team. Shoulder to shoulder, ready to do battle with North West rivals Donegal.
Ahead of Saturday’s game with Kildare, ‘let’s get behind out players,’ was the plea under the photograph. Just above a support message from Derry’s main sponsor H&A Mechanical Services.
Anyone who knows Hugh and Ann McWilliams, will know the volume of sponsorship they donate to various teams, charities and organisations. They are never shy about putting their hand in the pocket.
But it is more than that. It is the employment they bring to the locality. Fleets of vans flowing down the Five Mile Straight on any given morning. Full of locals heading to far flung corners of the country.
One of the unsung heroes of any successful club are the local companies that provide employment to help keep players at home. Everyone can relate to it.
Any time I glance at Croke Park, it fills me with pride. How a voluntary organisation can pull together to fund and build such an iconic venue.
No sooner had Henry Downey lifted Sam on that emotion charged September Sunday, 25 years ago, had the diggers began on former GAA President Peter Quinn’s vision for the refurb.
The All-Ireland finals in the intervening years were played with various sides of the venue out of use until it opened in its entirety in 2002. And it is now all paid off.
I remember watching on from Hill 16 as big Ruairi Convery blasted his goal to the net in the 2002 minor final that year. And the pride in Patsy Bradley and Jarlath Mulholland winning Celtic Crosses. Two club men.
The senior game that followed was one of the most enthralling I witnessed as Kerry and Armagh slugged it out in an epic.
‘Who would win’ me and Daddy kept asking each other. Nobody could really tell. Then Oisin McConville did what he did best. The bigger the occasion, the more he held his nerve to deliver the deciding goal to clinch Ulster minor and senior double. Derry and Armagh.
We were in my brother in law Patrick’s (Kennedy) packed people carrier that day. It was a brilliant day at HQ. Though the success certainly helped.
I also remember us stopping at the Glencairn Hotel in Castleblayney to watch the Sunday Game (on the way home) and chance a bite of grub that we didn’t have pre-booked.
Stepping into a packed lobby, the waitress asked us: “are you the boys who rang from Ardee to reserve a table?”
My other brother in law, Mickey Murray, answered without batting an eyelid - ‘that’s us’ and we followed him like a bunch of rogues. Hungry ones it must be said.
As we dug into a feed of steak, Patrick said: “don’t look up now, but I think the boys from Ardee have just walked in.”
I remember looking up and seeing an assortment of famished men, drooling, as we scuffed our feed and dissected our All-Ireland Sunday to smithereens.
The previous year, 2001, as Derry led Galway going into the closing stages, I told my wife Pauline we would need to ring the Burlington the next morning to book our All-Ireland weekend in case the Derry faithful had it all booked out.
Unfortunately, Matthew Clancy’s late goal, right under our noses in Hill 16, put an end to Derry’s journey through the back door and sunk our best chance of winning a second All-Ireland.
But when I think of going to county games these are the moments I cherish. Everyone will have their own tall tales. Sadly they are a distant memory.
Partly because Derry are not at the top table, but I feel the organisation’s top brass have forgotten what it is all about. We are a community-based organisation and need to get families back on board.
Our plea in this paper last week was to help get the Derry fan base mobilised again. To get them back on the road again but the extortionate prices makes it almost impossible.
It cost a family with two children £36 to buy tickets online for Saturday’s game in Owenbeg. And that’s just to get in the gate. The breakdown - £13 per adult and £5 for an U16. It was £9 for students or OAPs.
On Saturday night it was €20 in to see Kilkenny play Wexford. This type of money, to watch amateur players who get little more than mileage, is just bang out of order.
The GAA will argue that Derry fans got to see Monaghan and Donegal play in the Nicky Rackard Cup as part of the price, but that is a cheap excuse. That game didn’t interest anyone. A tenner a head would have been plenty, with kids allowed free admission.
The people setting the prices don’t ever have to pay in. Spare a thought for the club officials selling tickets to their members. Or worse still the stewards on the gate who will get bad manners from disgruntled supporters who need someone to vent their anger on.
If you bought a season ticket to watch German professional soccer club Borussia Dortmund’s 17 home games, it would cost you £37 per game for the dearest seat and £22 for the cheapest. A terrace ticket is £10, with £6 per game for children under 15 in the kids block.
The Westfalenstadion has a capacity of 81,360 and last season they have an average attendance of 79,496. I recall watching games on the box and the crowd were literally bouncing.
How special must it be for players to play in front of a crowd like that? Even children experiencing that type of cauldron will strive to play in the big stage.
I might sound like a broken record, but we are pricing ourselves out of the market. Would it not make more sense to drop the prices and do everything to maximise the attendances?
With every half-time draw ticket, there could be prizes geared at children and families. O’Neill’s to put up a few kits, with Supervalu handing out a free grocery voucher. At the end of each game, get the photo with the winner and bang it in the local paper. Hey presto, the GAA are seen to be giving something back.
The best PR possible. Begin to change that mindset away from the Grab All Association.
I know clubs and counties benefit from a portion of the gate receipts, but the average supporter won’t always see that. Getting something in their hand will mean a whole lot more.
Then there are the ladies finals, where TG4 hand out free flags to add to the colour of the occasion. There will be a cost, but it would be money well spent.
The GAA sit at a fork in the road. Getting their fan base back should be one of the top points on the agenda.
Fanatical sponsors like H&A are invaluable. In every corner of the game. And the corporate arm is important. Like when Peter Quinn made a decision to renovate Croker.
But they are no more important than the family who make a decision to go to a game or not. Can they afford it? Is it value for money?
Like everything in the GAA, changes are initiated the club committee table. We need to put the wheels in motion to bring everyone back. As many as possible, before the soul is lost.
Steak dinners in Castleblayney. Ham sandwiches out of the boot of a car. Hat, flags and headbands. That’s part of the match day experience. As is hollering for your team at the top of your voice.
The fiver for children was the final straw. A step too far.
Getting bums back on seats and feet on the terraces - it needs to happen.
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