Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 23 July 2014

Joe Kernan: Players right to have an exclusion zone

Donegal manager Jim McGuinness celebrates on the Croke Park pitch with his team at the end of the 2012 All Ireland final

The GAA rightly prides itself on being a family-orientated organisation. If clubs are viewed as representing the heartbeat of the country’s biggest sporting body, then families are the very blood that runs through its veins.

Quite often though the Association can ride roughshod over the needs and ambitions of clubs and families whether that be in relation to the provision of grants, ticket prices, coaching facilities or any of the myriad of elements that go to constitute its brief.

But last Sunday the GAA surpassed itself. We may have witnessed an All-Ireland football final between Donegal and Mayo that was full of honest endeavour although without the thread of genius that can manifest itself in such games but we nonetheless were treated to an occasion to savour.

When it was initially mooted some years ago that post-match pitch invasions at Headquarters by spectators was to be outlawed, there was an outcry.

Indeed, for a period it seemed that the GAA was in the dock for the cardinal sin of sacrilege.

But the GAA stuck resolutely to its guns, insisting that health and safety issues were its overriding concerns.

And on Sunday we saw the full wisdom of this policy when Donegal players were able to celebrate their success unfettered by enthusiastic but intrusive fans while Mayo players were left to grieve on the sward on which their efforts had just fallen short — again.

The cameos played out in the immediate aftermath of the game were a delight to behold.

Manager Jim McGuinness with his children by the hand, Martin McHugh and his son Mark locked in an emotional hug, skipper Michael Murphy rejoicing with his Mayo-born father, Colm McFadden being embraced by members of his family along the touchline.

For me these will be abiding memories of a game that saw the Sam Maguire Cup return to Ulster after an absence of four years.

And they would certainly not have been possible had a pitch invasion occurred. The dangers that fans, many of whom could potentially be fuelled by alcohol, present to themselves and the players are very real.

Instead of being transformed into a congested stampede, Croke Park remained very much the players’ territory and it was abundantly clear that they were thoroughly enjoying the ‘freedom’ which they had been accorded to celebrate the biggest day in their collective sporting lives.

The vicissitudes of the game — referee Maurice Deegan’s insistence on lifting the ball to carry it forward before frees were taken, Mayo’s spurning of a glorious goal chance two minutes from the end and unforced errors that on another day might have proved fatal — were forgotten as the magnitude of their triumph was absorbed.

And when it came to mounting the steps of the Hogan Stand to take delivery of football’s greatest prize, the Donegal players did so with comparative ease rather than have to endure the rather torturous route which some of their predecessors as winners have had to suffer.

Make no mistake about it, the first people that winning players wish to encounter immediately the final blows are members of their families.

That has not always been easy, I can assure you. When Armagh won the All-Ireland title in 2002, I somehow managed to squeeze my way back into the dressing-room and had managed to get some of my family back in there too.

But my son Paul found himself locked out. When a Croke Park steward asked for his identity he replied: “I’m Paul Kernan, a son of Joe.”

To which came the replay: “God almighty, how many sons has he? There must be about 20 of them in there already!”

It just goes to show that fans will use any means possible in their bid to gain access to the inner sanctum at Croke Park on All-Ireland final days.

I for one am particularly glad to know that from now on this will be the domain of the players themselves, the people who after all hold centre stage on the day and who have made the necessary sacrifices to make the occasion possible in the first place.

It was great to see Donegal succeed in the grand manner. They did themselves, their families, clubs and Ulster proud.

They took the hardest road possible to glory by beating Cavan, Derry, Tyrone, Down, Kerry, Cork and Mayo.

Not too may sides have met and overcome such top-quality opponents en route to becoming champions although Tyrone played ten games in all including replays in winning the Sam Maguire Cup seven years ago.

To say that Donegal have earned their booty would be an understatement.

They have shown themselves to be a special side.

A side that could be around for some time to come although the line-up might need a little tweaking if this is to be the case.

Jim McGuinness may have stayed on at school a good bit longer than the rest of us but on Sunday afternoon at Croke Park his education certainly stood him in good stead.

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