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Joe Kernan: Clones is perfect stage for final battle

Not so many years ago a small, damp office in the bowels of St Tiernach’s Park, Clones housed the Ulster Council headquarters.

Sophisticated technology, modern communications systems and state-of-the-art office furniture may have been conspicuous by its absence but to my knowledge this did not impact adversely on the overall efficiency of the GAA’s governing body in the province.

Fast forward to today and that same claustrophobic office which housed the Ulster Council is now a store room underneath a majestic 8,000-seater grandstand. And what was at best a questionable and at worst a bog-like playing pitch has been replaced by an immaculate Prunty surface which compares favourably with the very best in this country in any sport.

Reconstructed terracing, excellent accommodation for the disabled, expansive seated areas and miscellaneous ancillary facilities including a shop, tea-room and Press area, combine to make the Clones venue a warm, homely environment compared to the spartan, almost primitive venue which it was in the past.

Having played in six Ulster finals with Armagh there — three were won and three were lost — I have vivid memories of the packed ‘Hill’ which proved a very slippery slope in damp conditions.

It’s all so different now and that’s why I am particularly pleased that the Ulster Council, now housed in spacious, well-equipped offices in Armagh city centre, made the decision to play both provincial football semi-finals and final there.

In years gone by, traffic bottlenecks, poor services for fans and exposure to the elements during games may not quite have persuaded people to stay away but such handicaps certainly made their journeys to and from the venue and their time spent there an endurance test on many occasions rather than a fun day out.

On Sunday, when Derry and Armagh meet in the first of the semi-finals, I am reasonably confident that we will not only have the biggest crowd for this year’s championship to date but that we will see a superb match in what I feel is now a dramatic sporting amphitheatre.

I am aware that many Derry fans, in particular, harbour strong reservations about the suitability of Clones as a location for this match, their expressed preferences being Casement Park, Belfast or Healy Park, Omagh.

That is understandable given that Clones is some distance removed from places like Dungiven, Claudy, Derry city, Coleraine, Drumsurn and Glenullin and is certainly not served by motorways in the same way that Casement Park, in particular, is.

Nonetheless the Ulster Council have made their call and although many will feel that Armagh will have something of a psychological start on the Oak Leaf men because of their familiarity with the ground, this will not provide them with any scoreboard benefits.

And while Armagh may be thought to enjoy home comforts at Clones, Tyrone are doing quite nicely there too since they are going for their third title on the trot.

Brian Dooher has taken delivery of the Anglo Celt Cup in each of the past two years and the 35-year-old dynamo will lead his side out against Donegal on Sunday week hoping to secure their place in the final.

In contrast, Derry have not appeared in the Ulster final since 2000 while Donegal fans still believe that the sporting gods conspired against their team in St Tiernach’s Park on more than one occasion in the recent past.

Over the course of the next ten days or so the full relevance of the ‘Clones factor’ will be revealed.

The town itself is now more geared to coping with big crowds and the local Chamber of Commerce has certainly been playing a part in helping to facilitate major matches.

The sight of thousands of fans swarming up the hill to the ground still generates a great feeling of togetherness and camaraderie.

Maybe the temperature can become a little too heated out on the playing arena but this can go with the territory when a major prize is at stake.

And whether their teams win or lose, the vast body of fans are unlikely to turn their backs on them simply because of venue choice.

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