Sunday, August 08, 2021

After last Monday’s ladies’ match between Mayo and Galway, and with the provincial championships completed in the men’s game, redevelopment works can now begin in earnest on the renamed Hastings Insurance Broker MacHale Park. Refurbishments will include the spreading of 1,000 tonnes of Wexford sand, re-seeding the entire surface, drainage works, extending the pitch by five metres at the Davitt House end and installation of new ball nets behind the goals at the same end.

Referee Paddy Neilan inspects the MacHale Park surface ahead of the 2018 Connacht FBD League clash between Mayo and Galway. Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

This refurb will be a welcome move as I have long felt that the MacHale Park surface is not befitting of Division 1 National Football League matches. I was playing that night in early February 2011 after which Down’s Marty Clarke scornfully remarked that the Castlebar pitch “was one of the worst grounds I’ve ever played at.”
To be fair, the pitch has improved immeasurably since then and is a good summer field. I used to love training on it in June and July ahead of championship games as with the more benign summertime conditions, Phil Heneghan and his crew had it in immaculate condition. In the depths of winter, however, the going was heavy and bog-like. The only thing worse than playing on the marshy ground at that time of year was spectating in the stands as a bitter northerly wind whipped through it. Meteorologists claim that the lowest temperatures ever recorded on earth were in the Eastern Antarctic Plateau but have they ever been in the MacHale Park stand during an NFL game in early spring?
And don’t get me started about the stand’s view-impeding poles which can spoil the beauty of football on show as much as a blanket defence or cynical fouling. Columns were stylish and practical in Ancient Greece, not in modern-day Mayo.
I think it is no harm that the latter stages of the club championship will be played around the county in the Autumn rather than in the cavernous MacHale Park. The 30,000 capacity is much too big for club games and diminishes the atmosphere during tightly fought clashes. Smaller, more intimate club grounds like Ballina, Charlestown or Ballyhaunis will really add spice and frisson to tribal club affairs in do-or-die championship ties later this year.

Late evening clouds gather over the resplendent and floodlit Kilfian GAA Club pitch and stand. Picture: David Farrell Photography

Of the 46 club venues in Mayo, I figure I have played at 41 of them in my 25 years of playing football. Ardagh, Ballycroy, Cill Chomain, Kilfian and Moygownagh are yet to be ticked off the bucket list; maybe someday before I retire as it would be lovely to be able to say you kicked a score in every pitch in Mayo.
In my opinion, the best playing surface in the county at present is James Stephens Park, Ballina. It is a fine big field with a smooth and firm top. This, however, hasn’t always been the case as before the recent pitch renovations, it too was a grim winter venue. I remember playing Dublin in a National League game there in March 2009 when the long grass and bumpy quagmire was not in keeping with a high-profile, televised Division 1 game. When stepping off the bus that day, the pampered Dublin stars must have thought: “I’m a celebrity, get me out of here!” The game reflected the quality of the pitch as the teams played out a drab 0-9-all draw.
In the same season, with the MacHale Park stand being redeveloped, the county team’s roadshow brought us to Charlestown for another league game against Westmeath. Charlestown is another nice playing surface, and like Ballina, is a vast pitch suitable for players with speed and movement. With MacHale Park out of action in early 2022, Mayo fans will once again be hosting their Division 1 opponents in club grounds around the county next year.

The sun above Nephin as seen from James Stephens Park in Ballina. Picture: Noel Thornton

While Mayo has always been a football-mad county, the pre-2010 following was much smaller than it has been in recent non-Covid affected years. I would estimate that no more than 4,000 fans watched us in those league games in 2009 so it will be interesting to see how the likes of Ballina or Charlestown would cope with approximately double that amount for a big home clash against the Dubs.
What makes a good pitch? Well, for me, as a corner-forward, I like a large field with a high and true bounce. One of the nicest things about playing in Croke Park as a corner-forward is that you know that a ball kicked into you will bounce truly and not hit any rogue divots that will skew the ball away from your grasp. It is little wonder that Mayo’s home league form has been spotty in recent years given the nature of the MacHale Park grass in spring. Fast players like fast surfaces and slower, soggy terrain is a great reducer. In Gaelic football, like in horse racing, galloping thoroughbreds need elite-level Grade 1 venues.

Cows look on as Breaffy warm-up ahead of last year’s home game against Westport in the Mayo SFC. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

While Ballina is the best surface in Mayo at present, Breaffy is my favourite place to play ball in the county. Again, it is a huge pitch with a pristine surface. It is not just the size or surface of a pitch that appeals to me though but also its setting and Breaffy with its sylvan background is a fine venue and aesthetically very pleasing.
Speaking of pretty backdrops, Achill’s pitch overlooking the Atlantic Ocean is picture-postcard-esque. I’ve only played there once but I found it hard to focus solely on the ball given the spectacular views. Another striking location on the Wild Atlantic Way is Belmullet’s new development in Tallagh. The only problem with these open, scenic sites on the Western seaboard is that they usually lend themselves to wind-influenced games of two halves.
I always found it uncomfortable playing in pitches in Gaeltacht regions. Games away to the likes of Kiltane and Tourmakeady were never a bed of roses. Tourmakeady and Kiltane, like Belmullet, have state-of-the-art facilities in their grounds but once you crossed the white lines of the pitch the red carpet was rolled back up and combat commenced. Clubs in the Gaeltacht take such pride in their homes that they ferociously protect their domains at all costs. Any day you left those places alive was a good day. A victory was an unexpected bonus.

Girls from the ladies team in Achill having fun at Davitt Park back in 2003. Picture: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

Speaking of battlegrounds, Davitts GAA’s patch in Ballindine is one of the tightest pitches in the county. The narrowness of the field, coupled with the hosts’ teak toughness and manic aggression, always made trips there about as enjoyable as a visit to the dentist. Our own pitch in Shrule is also exceptionally short and narrow. It didn’t really suit us in our prime as we had lively, pacy, skilful forwards who thrived on open space but, at the same time, we were always hard to beat at home as we were more au fait with the restrictive dimensions than our rivals.
The Connacht GAA Centre in Bekan is a world-class facility. Each pitch is of a very high standard and the general setup always reminds me of a Premier League club’s training ground when I drive in the front gates. The ultramodern Air Dome looks like something from a futuristic movie and is the venue in Ireland that I would most like to play a match in. Most counties now have their own Centres of Excellence and it would be fantastic for Mayo football if the proposed development at Lough Lannagh, Castlebar comes to fruition in the coming years.
In Galway, Tuam Stadium is iconic and unofficially known as the “home of Galway football.” Although the main stand is a glorified hayshed, and is a much more primitive edifice than the main stand in Castlebar, its size and old-school charm create an electric atmosphere on club championship days. The surface in Tuam is decent but, similar to MacHale Park, can be on the softer and slower side. I much prefer the playing field in Pearse Stadium with its harder, sandier and drier turf but, alas, roaring winds usually wreak havoc on encounters in the Salthill stadium.

A view of the Air Dome at the Connacht GAA Centre of Excellence, Bekan. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

There are also many lovely hurling pitches in Galway and these fields tend to be longer and mown more tightly thereby making them a forward’s dream. Kenny Park in Athenry is as fine a playing surface as you will find in the land. Unfortunately, it is nearly easier for Westerners to enter North Korea than for footballers to get the opportunity to grace this exquisite hurling arena.
Of course, all of the above is just personal opinion and highly subjective. Players will always prefer grounds where they win most and play well. Supporters will always cherish venues that conjure special memories. For players and supporters alike, let’s just hope the revamped and renamed MacHale Park is pitch-perfect.

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