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GAA's easy money to dry up as other codes leave Croker

Well there's that, and then the not-so small matter of the coffers on Jones' Road being a lot fuller than they would have been if the soccer and rugby crowd had been renting the Millenium over in Cardiff while their new home was being built. The money is important. When the decision was made to open the gates of the venue to the so-called foreign games, Ireland was a very different place. The Celtic Tiger was still just about breathing and nobody foresaw an economic collapse coming down the road.

Who would have believed back then that the government would one day very soon be calling a halt to the sports capital grant scheme (a fantastic system even if it was abused for political purposes) designed to help clubs in all codes improve their facilities? At least the 35m euros or so gleaned from the soccer and rugby tenancies will ensure that the GAA still has a fund with which to finance projects to grow its games.

"We always had to treat it as a windfall gain," said Tom Ryan, the GAA's director of finance, when discussing the lucrative rental last month. "The idea was to leave a legacy behind for the four years that the stadium was open to the other associations. The emphasis was put on capital infrastructure, but capital from a playing and participation point of view, not spectating, not administration."

Almost 100 different projects at GAA clubs around the country will benefit from the fact Sean Kelly and others saw the wisdom in allowing the soccer and rugby teams to enjoy the greatest stadium the country has ever seen. With only a quarter of it already doled out, there's a good chance this fund will help the association and all who sail in her to ride out the worst of the recession. Of course, there's a great irony here too.

Nobody is saying as much but it's legitimate to speculate that money earned from letting the FAI and IRFU hang out in the fancy digs may well have helped the GAA avoid doing something as crass as having to sell the naming rights to Croke Park. Think about it. Already, Vincent Browne and other professional agitators and malcontents are campaigning for people to not call the Aviva Stadium by its given name but by the historically accurate Lansdowne Road. The doors aren't even open in that place and the squabbling about the nomenclature has started and won't end for a long time yet.

The GAA has been spared that embarrassment. And really, wouldn't the most hardline refuseniks (yes, some of them knocking around the Cork County Board) prefer that the sacred sod hosted the odd soccer and rugby match than have to rename the stadium after an insurance company or, even worse, a bank? While that allows GAA folk the opportunity to look down their noses at their brethren in the professional codes, the association faces a real challenge now that the rental tap has been turned off. Where will it get such easy money again? How about from the very same people who paid up over the last four years?

"When the Aviva stadium is up and running, the notion of hosting a major soccer or rugby event in Croke Park should not be ruled out," said Deputy Tom Kitt, chairman of the Oireachtas committee on Arts, Sport, Tourism, Community, Rural and Gaeltacht affairs back in November. "Several members mentioned this to IRFU and FAI representatives when we visited the Aviva stadium on the basis that where there is public demand for a World Cup qualifier or major rugby match; Croke Park can hold 30,000 more spectators. I do not want to dampen the excitement about the new stadium but there will be a case for the people we represent to leave that option open."

Kitt was speaking to a select audience that day, including John Delaney and Philip Browne, head honchos of the FAI and the IRFU respectively. He was reminding them that, magnificent as their joint venture looks like being as it rises majestically into the skyline of Dublin 4, it will not be of adequate size for all their games. A capacity of 50,000 is sufficient for all but the rarest of soccer internationals and, judging by their recent trip to the Emirates, the FAI would rather dissolve than pay to play at Croker again anytime soon. All that says more about them than anybody else.

Rugby is a different story. Even those of us who regularly pontificate about the absurdity of its rules and especially its tolerance for thuggery will admit that the popularity of the sport just now ensures they could sell twice that many for most of their fixtures. Indeed, some time in the next couple of years, Ireland will have a Grand Slam on the line in a home game and the row that will ensue about the paucity of tickets for that will be a sight to behold. We hope when that day comes, all those who lambasted the GAA for years about doing the right thing and opening Croke Park will be as rough on the IRFU about the need to shift the game from the Aviva across the river to the northside so that more people can attend. We hope that will be the case. But we doubt it.

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