It was close to 9pm when I left Croke Park last Sunday evening, the stadium now empty except for a few other journalists completing their work and noisy seagulls finishing off the day’s rich pickings.
For some reason, the place looks different when it’s empty in the hours before a game and in the evening after everyone has left.
The sense of anticipation is replaced by an eerie, calm quietness that invites reflection on what you have witnessed.
It was more a case of ‘demand’ than ‘invite’ last Sunday after a weekend that delivered two quite remarkable hurling games.
You look down on the various areas of dramatic action, ranging from Peter Duggan’s wonder point to Joe Canning’s and Tony Kelly’s arcing sideline cuts to Conor Lehane’s superb goal and, most astonishing of all, Nickie Quaid’s flick as Séamus Harnedy was about to strike for what would probably have been the match-winning goal for Cork.
Instead, they were taken to extra-time, lost by four points and headed home with their season ended. A day earlier, extra-time failed to separate Clare and Galway, providing an exhilarating hurling season with a bonus next Sunday.
Without it, only one inter-county game would remain to be played after July 29. That makes no sense. Indeed, playing extra-time in semi-finals is not only unfair on the teams involved, it’s madness from a marketing viewpoint.
A second helping of Cork v Limerick would generate massive interest but instead it was played to a finish by exhausted players.
And since a replay involves only one extra week, there would be no significant impact on club fixtures.
Here was a golden promotional nugget tossed away because of the decision to bring forward the All-Ireland finals by two weeks on the spurious pretext that the September dates were seriously damaging club championship programmes.
There was no clear evidence to support that, but it sounded convincing and, after being rejected by Congress on a few occasions, it was accepted as part of the championship reform packages in operation this year.
Extra-time was added to all games that finished level, except for provincial and All-Ireland finals. Allowing replays in their finals helped persuade provincial councils to back the new formats, even if made no sense from a practical viewpoint. Provincial final winners and losers remain in the championship so why a replay there, but not in All-Ireland semi-finals which carry no safety net?
It’s deeply frustrating for Cork that they have created history by becoming the first team to be eliminated from the championship despite not losing a game in regulation time. There’s something not right about that.
Cork manager John Meyler accepts the regulations as they stand, but everyone knew what he meant when he commented: “It’s a small bit funny when you draw a Leinster final and there’s a replay.”
Extra-time is fine in quarter-finals, where both counties have already lost at least once, but not in semi-finals, which Cork and Galway reached without any defeats.
That anomaly needs to be addressed, as does the provincial programmes, where Tipperary and Offaly each had four games on successive weekends this year.
That could have been avoided by allowing just one week more for both provincial championships.
Leinster, which started on May 12, had a 22-day gap between the end of the ’round robin’ and the final, while Munster, which didn’t start until May 20, had two weeks before their final.
If they both launched on May 12/13 and finished on June 17, it would ensure that no county were in action four times in 21 days.
I met Michael Ryan on his way into Croke Park last Sunday and while he’s no longer dwelling on the difficult hand Tipperary were dealt, he must surely be feeling that if they had a one-week break during the ’round robin’, their season would not have crashed to an end before mid-summer day. Indeed, it may well be still alive now.
Regarding next Sunday’s Galway v Clare semi-final replay, should it not be played in Croke Park, as befits the game’s status?
The GAA’s national stadium should be available for a semi-final, instead of being a home ground for Dublin in their final ’round robin’ football game.
There’s no obvious reason why Dublin v Roscommon could not be brought forward to Saturday, leaving Croke Park available on Sunday for the hurling game.
Indeed, playing on Saturday would probably suit Dublin, giving them a day longer lead-in to the semi-final on August 11. And since Roscommon are out of contention, they would hardly object to a change either.
Unlike the Group 1 ’round robin’, where the two games interact with each other in terms of the final table, Dublin are guaranteed to finish top of Group 2, with second place to be filled by the winners of Donegal v Tyrone.
In those circumstances, the two games do not have to be played on same day.