Dubs in HQ: the biggest gig in town is gone
'GAA can't bury their head in the sand any more,' says Connell, as fans shun Leinster mismatches
Senan Connell can recall a tour of the new Croke Park before it opened for Dublin's Leinster semi-final against the old Royal enemy in 2002.
It wasn't quite the finished article - the Hogan Stand upper deck had yet to open, hence a still-curtailed capacity.
But 65,898 were there to see that breakthrough win over Meath. And a few weeks later, when Tommy Lyons' men faced Mick O'Dwyer's Kildare, the crowd had soared to 78,033 for Dublin's first Leinster title in seven years.
"If there's a better gig in this country than Gaelic football in front of 78,000 people, I have never seen it. I thought the atmosphere was just unbelievable," waxed an ebullient Lyons afterwards.
Back then, Dublin in Croker were the only gig in town. And nowadays?
"There has been a malaise for a few years," admits Connell, speaking at this week's launch of the Benetti Menswear GAA Ambassador campaign.
"I've seen that within my own club ... the interest isn't there in the early rounds of the provincial championship and that scared me a little bit.
"Being a Dublin supporter and an ex-player, you are going to go to every game and try and enjoy it as much as you can. But looking around you ... people are just chatting after 20 minutes.
"The malaise that I am talking about is on the street. Fellas are saying, 'We'll wait to July and we'll get the three games in the Super 8s. We'll get one game on the road and then we're looking at an All-Ireland semi-final and final.' That's hurting the provincial championship."
So what has changed in the past 17 years? Everything. The end of Dublin's seven-year Leinster famine didn't launch an instant revolution - they crashed out to Laois in '03 and Westmeath in '04 - but from 2005 they have virtually owned the Delaney Cup.
Tomás Quinn's late deadball deliverance against Laois in '05 kickstarted a run of five titles on the spin. The shock-and-awe concession of five goals to Meath in 2010 would prove the ultimate outlier, as Dublin rebounded with the last eight provincial titles.
Thus, they emulated Micko's Kerry greats who ruled Munster for eight unbroken summers from 1975 to '82.
But even here, the comparison ends. That Kerry team was pushed to a couple of replays by Cork - in '76 and '82. Dublin have never been forced to a sequel; moreover, while Pat Gilroy oversaw two three-point victories, Jim Gavin has won his six Leinster finals by margins of seven points, 16, 13, 15, nine and 18.
No wonder Dublin are 1/50 to create SFC history as the first county to win nine straight provincial titles. And little wonder, especially with the advent of the Super 8s, that fans are tuning out of Leinster football - to such an extent that their semi-final double-header attendance of 36,126 was greeted almost with relief that it wasn't lower.
Connell readily accepts that fans are "bored in May and June." For such a transformation to occur in a relatively short time is "the frightening bit".
"Before we played Meath in the Leinster semi-final, Lyons was in charge, we actually got a walk around Croke Park ... because it was going to be the first game with a full house in a finished stadium as such," he recalls.
"And at that time, 2002, in Leinster you were playing Meath and Kildare were waiting for you. If you beat one of the big two, the other one was waiting and it was the same for all three teams. And it's still tricky enough to beat your Laois and Westmeath then, because we know what they went on and did.
"So the fear is when you fast-forward to today ... if it had been raining (for the Leinster semi-finals) God knows what the figure would have been.
"When the new Croke Park was built the Leinster championship became like a concert - when Dublin were playing you had to be there, kids, women, everybody. (There was this) buzz around the city for the Leinster championship because they knew they were getting value for money for every match.
"If you fast-forward to today, what are Dublin going to have to do? Play in Parnell Park. If the numbers keep dwindling, it's going to be Dublin at Croke Park with 10,000 like the hurling at the weekend."
Connell knows something has to give; he's just not quite sure what the solution is. And it's not as if the problem is unique to Leinster: in Munster, Kerry are chasing seven-in-a-row against Cork on Saturday, having routed the Rebels by 11 and 17 points in the last two finals.
"The GAA can't bury their head in the sand any more. There's no bums on seats for these games any more. And it's still Dublin playing, the All-Ireland champions, and you don't get a chance to see them that often ... so there's a breakdown or a disconnect somewhere.
"Everyone on the streets here in Dublin has identified that there's a problem, that the malaise is there. The GAA now, I think, have identified it ... and it has to be rectified fast."
But are they ready to be radical?
"That's the thing. Like, how slow is the GAA to change?" is Connell's semi-rhetorical answer. "There's too many layers to go through," he adds. "In rugby and soccer they make changes on a whim, we're so slow to change within the GAA and that's my fear."
Connell is hoping that president John Horan's new fixtures review committee can make the most of their blank canvas. "If that's a step in the right direction, then brilliant. But I'd love to see more than just baby steps. I'd love to see a giant leap forward."