I’ve always loved the atmosphere in Croke Park, never more so than when my home county of Dublin is playing. I usually get to a few games each year during the All Ireland Championship. When I was younger, I also used to attend the odd National League game in Parnell Park.
Since Dublin’s League games were moved to Croke Park on a Saturday night, however, circumstances have meant that I have only managed to attend a couple of these games and have never made it to the Hill for any of them.
For those of you who don’t know, Hill 16 is the name given to the ‘standing section’ end of the Croke Park Stadium. The Hill has long since been associated with Dublin fans and is famous for its atmosphere and attitude both.
On the 29th of March my brother phoned me to invite me to attend the Dublin game against Mayo in theAllianz National League. I was interested. It’s always informative to see the top teams at this stage of the year. Both Mayo and Dublin are teams who aim to peak for the business end of the All-Ireland series in August and September. During the National League campaign, they blood young players, try out new formations and systems and generally begin the long hard road to All-Ireland preparedness. When my brother explained that these tickets were for the Hill, that was it for me. I was already hunting out an old Dublin jersey to wear under my coat.
As I left my house on the evening of the game, I didn’t really know what to expect. I knew the League has become far more competitive and significant in recent times, but still had it down in my head as little more than a series of training matches. The bus journey to town was strange. Normally on the day of a Dublin game, the bus would be full of blue jerseys, obvious signs that the Dubs were playing.
But there wasn’t a single Dublin jersey, scarf or flag to be seen.
It was just another Saturday night and Dublin city was starting to rouse itself. No-one seemed to be aware or interested in the Gaelic match. I met my brother at the base of ‘The Spire’ on O’Connell Street and we made our way to the stadium. It was only around the fringes of Croke Park that we began to see other football fans attired in sky blue.
I found this a little disconcerting, given how long it had been since I had attended a non-Championship match
Would the atmosphere be non-existent and the game a tame, pointless affair?
I really needn’t have worried.
Croker wasn’t full by any means. There were maybe 20,000 people in the 80,000 stadium. Even the Hill itself wasn’t completely packed, although it was probably the busiest area in the place. But these Dublin fans had brought their A-game. The noise and atmosphere in the stadium might not have been quite as intense as it will be in late August but the place was still rocking.
Right from the off, the noise on the Hill was deafening and the banter was witty.
Not to mention the ingeniously original means by which Dublin Gaelic fans insult the ref, the opposition and their supporters and even their fellow Dublin fans.
Then there was the young woman standing behind my brother and me, who bleated at the referee in the most remarkable manner throughout the match. Her tone was nasal. Her comments demonstrated little knowledge of Gaelic – football. But none of that mattered. Because the sheer volume, originality and surreal nature of the insults she generated, rendered this girl a comic great in my eyes.
Anyway, in terms of the match itself, Dublin’s goalkeeper Stephen Cluxton was sent off following a reckless challenge on Mayo’s Kevin Mc Loughlin. ‘You’re a sh*t sacker ref!’ shouted a fan on the Hill.
This reduced the Dubs to fourteen but they still managed to finish strongly thanks to two late goals from substitute Eoghan O’Gara. The match itself was entertaining. The final score was Mayo 2-17 Dublin 3-14. A draw and a splendid advertisement for the GAA!
We saw promise in both teams and it is obvious that this year’s Championship will be another closely fought affair. More so, we saw yet again that the current Dublin squad has great strength and depth and should be one of the teams competing for the Sam Maguire trophy come the end of the summer.
The atmosphere and the sense of good humoured comradeship that comes with supporting a GAA team are unequalled. I’ve been to Irish soccer and rugby matches. I’ve been to GAA matches all around the country and, as an ardent Manchester United fan, I love to visit Old Trafford.
All of these places are lacking one major element, however.
The Hill and the unique wit of the Dublin fan!
But for me, who has been missing out on such adventures for the last few years, the experience served to remind me why it’s better to attend these games live than to watch them on TV.
We met a friend and an American CEO, who had attended his first Gaelic football match on the Cusack Stand. The American was utterly baffled by proceedings. I couldn’t help wondering if his understanding might have been enhanced had he attended his first game on the Hill!