Ballybofey could lose so much more than capacity

A sight that could be no more? MacCumhaill Park on Championship Sunday.


THE recent news that Sean MacCumhaill Park in Ballybofey is to have its capacity dramatically slashed to 12,250 is worrying on so many levels.

The cut in the capacity of Donegal’s number 1 county ground comes as a result of the Slattery report. The Slattery report was conducted by a body commissioned by the GAA to look into the health and safety aspects in 35 intercounty GAA grounds.

A cumulative 27 per cent decrease in capacity across the board has been recommended by the authors and it leaves the GAA down more than 200,000 places in terms of capacity.

MacCumhaill Park was one of the last to learn its fate. Previously, Kerry chiefs learned that Fitzgerald Stadium in Killarney would be cut by 13,000, the same with Cork’s Pairc Ui Chaoimh. Connacht grounds were particularly badly hit as Roscommon’s Hyde Park drops by around 15,000 and Pairc Sean MacDiarmada in Leitrim will shed some 9,331 places – more than a third.

This news serves as a hammer blow to Donegal GAA officials – who were gearing up for a possible home game in MacCumhaill Park for the seventh year in a row. The way the Championship draw panned out, Donegal were handed a preliminary round game away to Cavan. The reward for a win at Breffni Park was to be a home game in Derry, the Ulster Champions Donegal set for home advantage with the side they defeated in last summer’s final – a game that would have attracted a sell-out crowd to the Finnside venue.

“I don’t want to tempt fate, but if we overcome Cavan, I’m not sure if we could hold the Derry game in Ballybofey,” was the grim confirmation of Donegal Chairman PJ McGowan last week.

“We have a big support and we are the Ulster champions and Derry have a reasonable good support too.

“It’s a repeat of last year’s Ulster final and given our run last season, there will be a big interest in that game and 12,000 capacity may not be enough to accommodate all those wanting to got to the game.

“If we were to draw say Tyrone or one of the big teams in the championship, there is no way we would be able to stage the game in MacCumhaill Park. It simply would not have the capacity.”

This comes just a couple of years after massive upgrade work was done at the venue. Over half a million was spend upgrading the venue to have a capacity of 21,385, but now just over half of that figure would be permitted to attend the ground on any one matchday.

When it was last transformed, a once dishevelled-looking stand was turned into a modern facility, complete with bucket seating – and the splendid green and gold seating now really adds to the look of the place. In addition to the much-needed surgery to the stand, a whole host of other works were carried out to bring MacCumhaill Park up to spec: a VIP block was added to the rear of the stand, the River End terrace was reconstructed; new ball stops were erected; additional toilets were added to the stand side; toilet facilities were upgraded at the River End; a new turnstile block was installed on the terrace side; with a new-fangled computerised turnstile system put in place.

That was just three years ago and that work was carried out to bring the ground up to scratch in order to host the first round championship clash with Antrim. Now, it seems, as if the work was in vain.

It is hard to fathom that the health and safety of the ground deteriorated so much in three years. “While I don’t want for one minute to take health and safety issues lightly, I find the decision surprising as we made improvements to the ground to meet the required standards,” said PJ McGowan.

Indeed, it is hard to find fault with that. It should be noted at this point that the ground is in need of some repair, however. The exterior of the ground and the approaches to the turnstiles could be doing with a much-needed facelift – what a covering of tarmacadam would do for the carpark at the dressing rooms/club house end.

And the exterior of the ground on the Stranorlar side would also benefit from a little clean up, but that isn’t the core issue here. It is that the venue’s capacity has been cut on health and safety grounds by some six thousand.

I am a regular attendee at Sean MacCumhaill Park and find it hard to see where that figure is plucked from. It doesn’t, to me anyhow, seem

unsafe. But for a few tweaks, minor ones at that, it’s hard to see how the authors of the report could come up with such a cut. On the face of it, would it be unreasonable to suggest that it is Health and Safety gone a step too far?

I haven’t seen the Slattery Report’s findings mind you, so perhaps this column could be torn to pieces by those who penned it.

But it will be a sad day for the GAA in Donegal if we arrive at a time when Sean MacCumhaill Park is no longer fit for the purpose of staging a Championship game.

It will be sadder too for Ballybofey as a whole. Indeed, the Twin Towns of Ballybofey and Stranorlar benefit so much from the staging of a big game in the summer it would tear away one of the core fabrics of the towns – which were recently classed by former Mayor of Donegal Cllr Cora Harvey as ‘the sporting capital of Donegal’.

Ballybofey is a town, like many others of its size, in decline in many ways. It has suffered from the closure of many establishments which seemed at one time to be ‘part of the furniture’ and now the absence of Championship Sunday would come as a telling blow to many of its remaining businesses.

Ballybofey on Championship Sunday is a heartening sight, which outlines on so many levels the goodness that sport can bring to a town.

Tommy Gallen of the Villa Rose Hotel on Ballybofey’s Main Street says that Championship Sunday when Donegal are in MacCumhaill Park is their ‘biggest day of the year by a mile’.

He says: “It is the biggest for bar trade, the biggest for food, everyone gets a turn out of it – that is the beauty about it. No matter what team comes, Derry, Tyrone, Armagh, whoever, there is no doubt that it’s the biggest day of the year.”

Hotels, shops, bars, B&Bs, everybody right down to the chip van, the ice cream man would suffer without that.

The day when the cries from those poor souls whose offerings of ‘hats, flags, caps and headbands’ remind us that the big show has come to town as we filter over the bridge, down the Main Street or across from Chestnut Road are no more will be a lamentable one.

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