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It is said, anecdotally, that after one of the first Soviet space flights in 1961, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev asked his astronauts what was the friendliest country they passed over. They replied, “Ireland: there was a huge crowd in the capital, Dublin shouting, ‘Come on down!’”
The crowd was actually shouting “Come on, Down!” – County Down being one of Ireland’s 32 counties that compete annually for the Sam Maguire Cup, the biggest prize in the national Irish sport of Gaelic Football, and which was playing that year in the final against Offaly before a massive crowd of enthusiastic and vocal fans.
The northern country was in the final again on Sunday after a long absence, and Croke Park stadium in Dublin once more resonated to roars of “Come on, Down!” and the equally confusing cry, “Up Down!” This time however it was to no avail.
Down was narrowly beaten by Cork in front of an all-ticket crowd of 81,000. The large attendance underlined the phenomenal popularity of the sport in Ireland. All the players in Gaelic football, and in hurling and the women’s discipline, camogie, are amateurs. The counties compete fiercely and inspire such passion and dedication that emigrants will arrange their vacations home to coincide with the finals.
For weeks before the Gaelic football showdown this year, towns and villages in Co Down, my home county, were en fete with flags and bunting in the red and black team colors. Yet despite the Irish image as scrappers, the rival county supporters pride themselves on a high level of sportsmanship. I sat in the Cusack Stand wearing a black and red jacket and scarf shouting, “Come on, Down!” But after the game the Cork supporters around me made a point of shaking my hand to say, “You’ll be back!”
The Down team might be back but I have no guarantees. Getting a ticket to an all-Ireland final is a nightmare. The best seats were selling on the black market at €500 ($670) and I only got a ticket this year because a better-connected friend could not go.
It was so different 50 years ago when I attended the first of Down’s back-to-back wins in 1960. The park was overwhelmed by supporters from the upstart county north of the Border and from Kerry, the superpower of Gaelic football from the south west. The official attendance was a record 90,500, the highest in Irish sporting history. Veteran sorts commentator Jimmy Magee reckons that another 20,000 got in without tickets. I am sure he is right.
I had a ticket but found the gates locked by panicking officials and I got in by climbing over the wall along with hundreds of ticket-less fans. It was extremely frightening and it is a wonder no one was killed. Croke Park has since been converted into a top-class European stadium and the attendance this year was tightly controlled.
The happy pitch invasions by fans which characterized Gaelic football finals until recently have also now been banned, much to the regret of traditionalists, because a couple of punches were thrown at a referee by supporters of Louth, which was cruelly denied a historic victory in a qualifying game because of a wrongly allowed goal.
By the way, in Gaelic football three points are awarded for a goal and one point for putting the ball over the bar. The ball is round, and it can be kicked or punched, but a player can only run with it a few paces unless able to toe-tap it up the pitch. For the record, Down trounced Kerry in 1960 by 2-10 to 0-8, but this year was defeated by Cork 16 points to 15. But we’ll be back. We have historic support. As the newspaper headline said during the Cuban Missile Crisis, “Khrushchev Backs Down”