A truism: the GAA does not like being criticised. The instinct is to circle the wagons, ignore everything that comes at it, then lash out in a strop. It particularly resents the critical opinions of outsiders – people at a remove from the association, but free and easy with their opinions on where the GAA is going wrong. Often, its prickly response to the pantomime pundits who pollute the airwaves is justified. The GAA is right to ignore the nonsense spouted at it from quarters as diverse as the Dublin Chamber of Commerce and talk-radio self-publicists.
The criticism that matters in the GAA is the criticism that comes from within. The GAA generally listens to its own, though only when the noise is loud enough. And the noise is growing within the association on a number of different matters, all of which relate to money in general, and to Croke Park in particular.
Criticism of ticket prices is nothing new – it is not a recent phenomenon to characterise the GAA as the Grab-All Association. This was largely unfair. Like any progressive organisation, the GAA has to raise finance if it is to prosper. The story of the modern GAA is the story of the practical marriage of volunteerism and commercialism. One without the other would leave the GAA unbalanced and ill-placed to succeed.
Yet the feeling persists that the price of attending matches now is too much, especially matches played at Croke Park. Charging people €25 to sit in Croke Park, Sunday after Sunday, is too much, not least because the players (rightly) don't get paid. Amateur sport just shouldn't cost this much. And comparisons between the cost of watching Irish internationals in rugby and soccer are odious. Particularly since the GAA often states that the affairs of both those codes are an irrelevant sideshow to the workings of the GAA.
Equally, the GAA can argue that those who are unable to pay the €25 for the Hogan or the Cusack can instead pay €15 and stand on the Hill. Brilliant – the poor people can go to the terraces, the rich to the stands. The logic sustaining that argument is precisely the logic which the GAA is supposed to oppose, supposed even to have been founded to demolish. The GAA has made much play in the past on the egalitarian nature of the organisation, especially the manner in which it placed its games at the disposal of the ordinary person or family. With ticket prices to reach €60 for this year's All-Ireland finals, can this truly be considered to be still the case? How can a normal couple or family of modest means afford to support their county through a championship campaign?
The GAA is, of course, justly proud of the development of Croke Park. But it has got carried away with the notion of its role in modern Ireland. Shiny, dynamic, young, innovative. And very expensive. Many of the people who have not reaped the rewards of the Celtic Tiger are the very ones who formed the core of the GAA for generations. The GAA would do well to remember its roots. When Michael Cusack founded the GAA, he wrote that his motivation was to "open athletics to the ordinary citizen". That ordinary citizen – for whom €25 is still a lot of money – is being excluded from the stand which carries his name. And that €25 is only the start of it. Kids, travel, parking, food, drink – it all adds up to a very expensive day out for any family.
Further, the use of the stadium is profoundly altering the nature of the championship. Too many matches are now played at Croke Park. Rather than being simply an asset at the disposal of the association, the stadium has gathered a momentum of its own, just by its very presence. This momentum is most clearly observed in respect of the Leinster championship. Only one football match and one hurling match in Leinster were played outside Croke Park. Every other match was a double-bill at Croke Park. Why were the grounds at Navan and Portlaoise and Mullingar and Kilkenny developed at such great cost if they were going to get no matches? Why are the Offaly County Board spending more than €10 million on the redevelopment of their grounds in Tullamore when they will be used only occasionally?
Most importantly, the championship has lost a lot because of this concentration on Croke Park – and, ultimately, the GAA is supposed to be all about the games. A lot of what is unique about the GAA is the atmosphere in provincial towns on the days of big matches. Visiting the usual pubs, seeing the same old faces, abusing the local pipe band. And the best thing of all is the atmosphere in a tight ground. Ten thousand people is a huge crowd in Cusack Park, Mullingar. But, it's a terrible crowd in Croke Park. And this matters.
Offaly against Laois is a prime example. Two years ago, the drawn game in Portlaoise and the replay in Tullamore were brilliant entertainment. Big crowds filled out both towns, there was a genuine sense of occasion, a local rivalry played out in the locality, with local people standing beside each other on a grassy bank, getting burned in the sun and exchanging sneers. This year's match, played as part of a double-header in a two-thirds empty Croke Park, was devoid of soul. The football may have been of the same quality as two years ago, but it seemed an awful lot less intense from high up in the stands.
Everybody loses from this. Croke Park is well able to sustain itself through the conferences and corporate events that dominate its working week for it not to have to hoover up all matches played in Leinster (and the odd Ulster Final or two). Croke Park is better kept for the big days, all the better to give a visit there more meaning.
For the GAA, even the argument that double-headers are better value and that €25 is a fair price for them does not hold water. It depends entirely on the double-header. For example, it was also €25 into Pearse Stadium in Salthill to see Galway play Leitrim in the Connacht football semi-final. Mayo played Carlow in the Christy Ring Cup (the new second-tier championship for hurling counties) as a curtain-raiser to the main match. Not exactly the greatest undercard in living memory.
Not to mention the fact that it undermines the very purpose of the Chisty Ring Cup to stage its matches in this manner. How exactly did this exercise help promote hurling in the weaker counties? Carlow supporters, having been in Croke Park the previous Sunday, were now expected to drive to Galway to see their hurlers play in a secondary competition, shortly after noon – and be charged €25 for the privilege.
Even the qualifiers offer no respite – it will cost €25 to sit in the stands of provincial grounds for the supporters of any counties who get a run in the qualifiers (the first two rounds are priced at €20 apiece).