Ireland Correspondent: Hurling fans the winners as Plan B swings into action after All-Ireland final

By Peter Lenaghan

They asked politely. They gave everyone plenty of notice. They explained why it was necessary. They even promised a fireworks display. They were wise enough to have a back-up plan.

The first breach of the orange-clad security barrier seemed to come at the bottom of Hill 16, soon after Sunday’s All-Ireland hurling final drew to a close. Initially, it was a trickle, then a torrent of black and amber shirts, hats and flags streaming across the green, waterlogged and bloodied turf of Croke Park. Even though many had previously crossed the pitch in recent years, the fans would not be denied.

The post-All-Ireland final pitch invasion appears to be a much-loved component of an Irish sporting celebration, a rite of passage. But the Gaelic Athletic Association announced last week that it wanted to make the Croke Park pitch the preserve of players and officials, and confine the supporters to the stands. The trophy presentation, traditionally held in the Hogan Stand, would now take place on a podium set up on the pitch. The players would be directed to take the silverware on a lap of honour. The GAA reckoned the new plans – which mimic those used by major sporting codes around the world, including the AFL – would make celebrating victory safer for player and fan alike.

The announcement got a lukewarm response. Tommy Conlon argued in the Sunday Independent that the move risked damaging the relationship between the GAA’s senior administrators and the public.

“It is not a platitude to say that the GAA is an organisation of the people, by the people, for the people,” Conlon wrote. “[The new plans] may drive a wedge, create a sense of separation, leave supporters feeling less like citizens, more like mere consumers.”

In the Irish Times, Keith Duggan sat on the proverbial fence. “Ultimately, the GAA are probably right. Ending it may be safer for everyone. But where is the fun in that?”

Another September tradition apparently under threat this year was a Kilkenny victory in the All-Ireland hurling final. The Cats were lining up for what could be a fourth title in a row – a feat only achieved once before, by Cork in the 1940s – and their seventh for the decade. Leading up to Sunday’s fixture, Brian Cody’s team was already being feted as the equal or better of any that had gone before it. Cody and four of the current crop of players – Eddie Brennan, Michael Kavanagh, Noel Hickey and Henry Shefflin – had been a part of each of the six All-Ireland victories notched in the last nine years.

But Tipperary emerged this year as a legitimate threat to the regular champion. The Premier County’s young team stormed in to the final when it comprehensively dismissed Limerick last month. Tipp’s strength lies in its formidable defence, led by Conor O’Mahony, and its potent full-forward line. The county is a traditional hurling powerhouse. The GAA was formed in Tipperary, at Thurles, in 1884. Tipp dominated the hurling championship in the 1950s and 60s, but its most recent All-Ireland triumph was back in 2001.

Emily and I are in Belfast again. The rain is falling and we have sought refuge in the Kitchen Bar. Across the Lagan River is the dock where the Titanic was built. The hurling is on the telly in the pub, but the game is competing for attention with a fella playing contemporary pop and rock covers on his guitar at the other end of the bar. As the players parade around the pitch, the marching band appears to be playing a Coldplay song. The fans inside the stadium look happy enough and roar encouragement at the players. Ireland’s national anthem follows, but it closely resembles a Snow Patrol number.

A little more fittingly, given the recent bust-up, an Oasis tune accompanies a bruising opening few minutes on the field. Tipperary’s Seamus Callanan is temporarily left writhing on the ground after a jolting bump to the breastbone.

The game is scrappy, the pace is dizzying. Players from either team post spectacular scores. Eoin Kelly knocks eight shots over the bar for Tipp before half-time, but Kilkenny leads by two points.

A thrilling, combative, skilful match turns on a handful of decisive moments. The Cats’ goalkeeper, P.J. Ryan, is a pivotal figure and he makes a series of crucial saves.  A stunning, diving block just after half-time stops a Callanan shot from arrowing into the top corner of the net.

The teams continue to trade points, but Tipperary wins most of the battles around the pitch. After 54 minutes the scores are level at 0-17 (meaning no goals and 17 overs). More and more people are crowding around the telly in our Belfast pub. Four young women sitting on barstools stamp their feet and urge Kilkenny on. The guitarist, who is now being ignored by most people in the pub, moves on to a U2 ballad.

On the Croke Park wing, a Tipp substitute, Benny Dunne, duels with Kilkenny’s Tommy Walsh. As the ball flies towards them, Dunne lashes out with his hurley and strikes Walsh in the face. The referee, Diarmud Kirwan, shows the substitute a red card.

Rather than causing a stutter, the loss of a colleague emboldens Tipperary’s 14 remaining men. Eoin Kelly scores another two points to take his tally to 12. In the space of five minutes, Tipp opens up a three-point gap. But Kilkenny’s physical and mental fortitude is renowned. The champions steady themselves. A brilliant score by Shefflin reduces the margin to one point.

With less than 10 minutes to play, Kilkenny’s Richie Power collects the sliotar and tries to barge through Tipp’s defence. He is tackled close to the goal. The referee blows his whistle. Foul. Penalty. Kilkenny celebrates while Tipperary’s players protest that the foul was committed outside of the penalty area. It is a controversial decision.

The responsibility of taking the penalty shot falls on Henry Shefflin, who is widely regarded as one of the sport’s all-time greats. The Kilkenny man scoops the ball into the air with his hurley and blasts the shot high into the net. It is the game’s first goal. Kilkenny leads by two points.

It is a staggering blow to Tipp. So staggering, that within a minute Kilkenny has the ball in the net again. Eoin Larkin feeds a pass to Martin Comerford and the second-half substitute thumps a shot beneath Tipp’s goalkeeper, Brendan Cummins. The Premier County’s hopes are dashed. Kilkenny wins, 2-22 to 0-23.

At the final whistle, Kilkenny’s players and officials embrace while some of Tipp’s men lie in crumpled heaps, weeping. Fans clad in the black and amber stripes of Kilkenny are eager to join the celebrations for the fourth year running and they can be seen jostling with the police, known as gardai, and stewards lined up in front of Hill 16. When the dam bursts and dancing supporters start sprinting towards the players, a directive, “Plan B”, flashes up on the electronic scoreboards. The security cordon relaxes and thousands of people swarm on to the Croke Park pitch, waving flags and cheering wildly. The trophy presentation is hastily relocated to its traditional home in the Hogan Stand. The post-match fireworks display is cancelled.

As Kilkenny’s players each lift the trophy, the television pundit Ger Loughnane tells us that, “We were all privileged to be here today”. Tom Humphries writes in the Irish Times that the match was “spangled by wonder and genius”. In the Irish Independent, Vincent Hogan reports that Kilkenny’s victory was founded on pure willpower and an unbending faith that it will prevail, no matter the opposition: “They make the Dalai Lama look a reactionary.”

Perhaps taking a leaf out of Kilkenny’s book, the GAA is doggedly pressing ahead with its attempt to rid the Gaelic games of the celebratory pitch invasion. In a statement released on Monday, the association’s president, Christy Cooney, said that Sunday’s post-match scenes were extremely disappointing.

“Even allowing for all the exuberance and joy of supporters on the day, it was disappointing to see the disregard for the safety of others amongst fans intent on getting on the pitch and ignoring safety appeals,” Cooney said.

The Independent reported yesterday that fencing could be erected in front of Hill 16 to prevent a repeat invasion.

“That will really take from the vista,” Croke Park’s stadium director, Peter McKenna, was quoted as saying. “It will make the place Ceausescu-esque. It gets rid of the whole family interactivity between fans. All of that goes when you put up fences.”

It seems something a lot more substantial will be lost if the invasion is stopped altogether.

Sunday 20 September 2009 @ Croke Park
Cork v Kerry


  1. Great piece, Peter. Well-crafted, too.

    Hurling and Gaelic footy are amateur sports. I think everything possible should be done to maintain the close link between players and fans. It’s what the GAA is all about.

    I don’t like the fact that my kids will never be able to slap the backs of the AFL players as they leave the ground. Well done to the Kilkenny and Tipp fans for their joyous jumping of the fence.

    Everything in Ireland does seem to have a funny side. I imagine everyone would have giggled themselves silly when they saw Plan B blinking up on the scoreboard.

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