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Keeping Croke Park fans safe is GAA’s main priority

By John Campbell

If Down manage to overcome Kildare on Sunday at Croke Park the players need not expect to be engulfed by ecstatic fans when the final whistle is sounds.

The new ten feet high fencing at the Hill 16 end of the ground is expected to be completed in time for the game — a measure designed to ensure that the more exuberant followers are corralled at the end of matches.

Central Council took the decision to erect the fencing after spectators encroached onto the playing arena at the end of the recent Meath v Louth Leinster football final and threatened the safety of referee Martin Sludden.

Ironically, those fans entered the playing area from the Hogan Stand — perhaps a hundred yards away from Hill 16!

Yet GAA officials, clearly frustrated by the sharp reaction of the sporting public to their decision to install the fencing, are currently very much on the defensive as Sunday’s showdown looms.

President Christy Cooney takes the line that “the decision is made and that’s it” while Croke Park stadium director Peter McKenna has responded to the fans’ anger by declaring: “You would swear we were trying to rip down the Tricolour or something.”

There is perhaps, too, more than a touch of irony that Down should be involved in Sunday’s contest.

When the Mourne county won the Sam Maguire in 1960 and thus became the first team to bring the Sam Maguire Cup back across the border, some 90,000 fans attended the semi-final and final and it was the same again when they repeated their feat the following year.

But stringent health and safety procedures now mean that possible victory celebrations on Sunday will be rather muted.

It remains to be seen of course if the new fencing achieves the aim of restraining spectators from entering the field of play with Peter McKenna already making it clear that the alternative then would be to install seats on Hill 16.

“This would be very much in the nature of a last resort,” he maintains, “As things stand, the heightened fence around Hill 16 is the least intrusive option available to us. People will of course he able to see the game clearly — their view will not be impaired. It is recognised that the atmosphere on the Hill for big matches such as next Sunday’s is special and we certainly would not want to detract from that.”

And he adds: “Croke Park is recognised as a family-friendly ground. We have worked hard to establish its reputation but you could lose that very quickly. One incident and the stadium is irrevocably damaged.”

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