Kildare v Derry

Croke Park, Dublin

4pm Sat Jul 23


By David Bruce


For just about the first time since we arrived in Ireland a week ago it’s not raining.  In fact, it’s a gorgeous morning, almost warm, as the kids and I make our way via playgrounds and a series of minor falls to Croke Park, Dublin, hoping for tickets to this afternoon’s 4th round qualifiers for the Gaelic Athletic Association’s All Ireland football.

We get there faster than I expected, and have half an hour to kill.  On a whim I decide on a circumnavigation, though to be fair there are not many other choices.  Croke Park is one of those sporting venues that exists in a space in my mind along with places like Sabina Park, Glenferrie, and Bally Bunion – places I’ve heard about forever, but have not the slightest actual imagery to go along with.  Croke Park, therefore, is inevitably not what I was expecting.  It is a fully modern sports stadium plonked down in a Georgian residential area of Dublin.  My first impression is that it is what you would get by making a rectangular pitch version of the Gabba, but with Adelaide Oval’s shade sail stands on the top.

Our circumnavigation reveals that while one side of the stadium fronts onto a major road, the other is down a kind of dodgy-looking alley.  A security guard obligingly, but given that it only covers half the road width, rather unnecessarily lifts a barricade to allow us in, and I wonder why.  It turns out there is a large Sporting Museum back there which is packed with people, who I guess came from a more obviously welcoming direction.  Ignoring the museum, we nip up some stairs, hoping to get a view of the ground itself.  This is easier than I expect, and we come out right on the halfway line of a gloriously empty stadium.

Croke Park is, as they say, bathed in sunshine, vast tiered empty stands wrap around three sides as groundsmen prepare the surface for the afternoon’s double-header.  The mowers are cutting in formation, like at the Masters, and the grass looks just about as perfect.

Dragging myself away, or rather being dragged away by the kids, who find the whole spectacle decidedly less interesting, we do indeed secure tickets, and vow to return in five short hours for the game.

I manage to get some time to myself at lunch, a rare luxury on a four-week family holiday, and I find a pub in Temple Bar which does an excellent Guinness and Beef pie, and enjoy (another) pint of Smithwicks.  Timewise, the pub was founded after Perth but before Adelaide if am getting the dates right, but whatever, they have had plenty of time to get the food right.

When we emerge from our hotel we discover that the randomly convenient location doesn’t just suit us, but it’s actually on a main conduit from Central Dublin to the ground.  We join a typical Footy Crowd wending its way to a game.  Fans in (presumably) team colours are always the most boisterous, and more of them stop at Gills, a block from the ground and obviously the pre-game watering hole.  I presume with a double-header it does even better business, and the place is packed well beyond the gills as we pass.

We find our seats, behind the goals in what would pass as the pocket for an Aussie Rules ground, and watching through a full height net behind the goals.  Looking around I realise that I have no idea about some fairly fundamental aspects of what is about to happen.  In no particular order, that includes: the rules, the scoring system, the teams who are playing, how long and how many periods of play there are, whether they have an umpire or a referee, or whether they line up in position (AFL style) or in their own half (soccer style).  I go back outside to get a Record, hoping that it might answer some of these questions, but it really only tells me who is playing the early game – Kildare vs Derry for a spot in the Semi’s as near as I can tell, with the experts tipping Kildare six to zip.

The crowd is mainly dressed in white, which is odd because the two teams are in dark green and red respectively.  The Record suggests that Kildare usually play in white, but I think they are playing in the green today.  I can’t see why they need to wear the green, as there is no obvious clash, so just add that to the list of things I don’t know.

For a variety of lame reasons ranging from misremembering the name of a cute town we drove through two days ago, to simply conforming with the majority of those around us, we all settle on Kildare to support, though my 8-year old son Aidan makes it very clear that he will switch any time that Derry is in front.  He is here for a good time, and he is not going to let any misguided preference get in the way of his having a winning afternoon!

The game starts, and several questions are quickly answered.  They line up AFL style, but with goalkeepers giving a numerical advantage to the defenders; and the game starts with something like a boundary throw-in in the centre of the ground, the official lobbing the ball obliquely to the rucks.  From the opening contest the red team, which we believe is Derry, get a quick clearance to what I think of as the right half forward flank.  Attacking the ball one of their forwards gathers, turns, evades, does some odd little bounce and kick-it-to-yourself moves, and eventually kicks what would be regarded as the goal of the year in the AFL most years.  The lack of support from the crowd reaffirms that the green team is the white team and the scoreboard confirms that the red team is in fact Derry.

The goals are like a rugby post, but with a soccer net in the lower section.  I believe that ‘goals’ are scored in the soccer net and ‘overs’ are scored in the rugby goals.  Overs seem to be worth 1 point, but exactly how much a goal is worth is not made clear in any of the material I have.  Presumably this is such a fundamental piece of information as to not be worth including, but it leaves a hole in my already woeful understanding.  As precisely no goals are scored for the game (which I gather happens in about 1/4 of games), I never did find out.

After an over, rather than return the ball to the centre, the goalie kicks it out like a soccer goal kick.  Free kicks are also taken off the ground, and with a remarkable accuracy.

The game doesn’t involve tackling, though some level of scragging seems allowable.  This means that players attack the ball and are rewarded with relatively uncontested possession once they have it.  I didn’t see anyone kick the ball off the ground soccer style, so I am guessing that it is not allowed.  Heavy bumps also seem not allowed, and those that happen draw the ire of the crowd.  Because of the lack of tackling, it looks a skilful game – though to those of us used the physicality of AFL, it looks disconcertingly like a training session a lot of the time.  Just because it doesn’t have tackling though, it doesn’t mean there is not a physical side to the game – but it is more the off-the-ball niggle and flying elbows which the AFL has spent a generation trying to eradicate.  Most players would have a mid-week engagement, if you get my drift, and even here there were several yellow cards handed out.

I think there are 15 players per team, including the goalie, and the game looks more open than AFL.   Rather than interchanges, announced substitutions take place throughout the game, and I gather that in total there are something like 22 players available to each coach.

In front of us is a middle aged man with thinning hair and a not so thinning daughter, who looked to be about 14 or so.  He speaks little to her, but a great deal to the official, whom I gather he does not greatly like, and it is from this vitriolic monologue that I ascertain that the official is a ‘referee’ and not an umpire.  It’s lucky the kids can’t decipher his accent, or we’d have to move.

While I figure this much out, the two teams trade ‘overs’ for most of the first half, with Derry scoring through a kind of mobile franticness, while Kildare attack less often but more efficiently.  Throughout the first period though, Kildare slowly get on top, opening the first two-goal margin for the game after about half an hour.  When after about 35 minutes the ground announcer says there will be one minute of added time, they are leading 0-11 to 0-8.  Scanning recent results suggests that this sort of score is probably a half time score, so it looks like they play two 35 minute periods with injury time.

The crowd seem largely to support Kildare, and so despite the marching band the half time mood is pretty buoyant.  Kildare attacked the goal at our end in what I am now thinking of as the first half, and I have a suspicion that we might not see much of the ball in the next period.  On cue, they score early, and about a quarter hour later they are up 15-10 and starting to look for goals rather than just poaching overs.  This brings the Derry goalie into the game, which is nice because to that point the goalies hadn’t done much more than stand futilely below nicely potted overs and then kick the ball back into play.

I haven’t been able to figure out too much of the strategy, it seems to be more like modern AFL than the old-fashioned positional game, but by now the Kildare mid-fielders are tearing it up, with #13 in particular making a mockery of any contested play.  Derry attacks are getting more and more speculative, and as a result they are cleaned up with almost laughable ease most of the time.

Nonetheless, they stay within 4-5 points, maybe Kildare’s push for a goal slowing their scoring of overs enough for the margin to stabilise. Depending on how much a goal is worth, Derry might still be in this.  For those who have this information, maybe they know Kildare are safe.  For those of us who don’t, the tension remains.  I am assuming that the game is coming to its last few minutes – though the slight possibility remains that it is just before half time.

At 67 minutes, we think 3 minutes plus added time to go, and 6 points down, Derry get a free kick about 8m out, right in front of us.  The bloke in front is nearly apoplectic, his scalp through his thinning hair the Sydney Swans-red of his evidently much-hated Derry.  This has to be their last chance – a goal here, however much it is worth, might just give them a chance. The Kildare keeper and his defenders form a 6-man wall on the line as the Derry player taking the kick places it on the spot and then withdraws a few steps.  He has to hit it high and to the right I think, there is a slightly wider gap and a slightly shorter defender on that side, though unlike soccer they can all use their hands, so maybe that doesn’t count for much.

He pauses at the top of his mark and glances up, Johnny Wilkinson style – and then lamely chips an over.

What??? I can’t believe it.  Maybe a goal wouldn’t get them back into the game, but surely if you are about to be eliminated you may as well blast it at them and see what happens?  Even if you don’t score, it might at least serve to express some of the frustration of the loss.  I decide that Derry deserve what they are getting if that is all they have.

That is indeed their last hurrah, and the last score of the game.  Kildare, in the time-honoured way, run the clock down in possession and emerge victorious 0-18 to 0-13.  The crowd erupt at full time in a way that reminds me that it is a quarter final, and I get the sense that Kildare could be a realistic contender.  The system seems convoluted, but I gather that this was a playoff between teams that had finished 3rd and 4th in regional sections, and that they play a higher ranked loser in the semi, much as a Preliminary Final would be sorted out in the AFL.

As we join a decent proportion of the crowd leaving, but oddly with just as many coming in for Cork v Down at 6pm, we all feel vindicated in our various half-arsed reasons for supporting Kildare.  It is still gloriously sunny, as the sun doesn’t set for hours yet at this latitude, and as we pass Gills it is again bursting, but this time with the celebrations of the winning fans.

It was a fascinating game to watch – almost a perfect hybrid of soccer, rugby and Aussie rules; and you never quite knew which one was going to come into play at any given time.  It is probably the only other football code I could ever come to love – maybe for the fact that it has no off-side rule.  I hate arbitrary rules in sport, and love the advantage that players and coaches can make for themselves in games not hampered by off-side considerations.

My wife and I then leave the kids with my Mum to go out for dinner.  It was our 12th wedding anniversary last week, so we take the opportunity to go sampling the pubs and restaurants of Temple Bar for the evening.  Getting back to our hotel I hear that Cork absolutely flogged Down, but still don’t find out how much a goal is worth as they only show the score as 3-11 to 0-9 or whatever it was, but no totals.  Oh well, maybe next time.  In the street below our room Kildare and (presumably) Cork supporters sporadically revel well past midnight, and I am pretty sure some of them nick a BMW parked across the street.

The next day West Coast hang on to beat Freo by a point, so ALL my teams are on the winner’s sheet this week.


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