In February, the football world was stunned by the news that Liam Miller, the former Republic of Ireland international who represented Celtic and Manchester United during his career and won a European under-16 title for his country, died from pancreatic cancer at the age of just 36.
The Cork native had been unwell for some time, but his untimely passing still came as a seismic shock. A few weeks after his death, a match was organised between an Ireland/Celtic XI and a Manchester United XI, with numerous high-profile players agreeing to take part in the fundraiser for Miller’s family on September 25th. The match was initially arranged to take place at Turners Cross, the venue of his hometown club Cork City.
When tickets for the match went on sale recently, they sold out within five minutes. While this is an obvious testament to Miller’s legacy, the instant sellout also owed to Turners Cross’ limited capacity of 7,000. With supply clearly unable to meet an unforeseen demand, the organisers moved hastily to request that the match be moved to Pairc Ui Chaoimh, a 45,000-capacity venue across the city.
To Ireland-based readers, this next paragraph is old news. To those of you outside of Ireland, the situation needs contextualisation. Pairc Ui Chaoimh is a venue for Gaelic games, an indigenous sport governed by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA). The organisation is known for promoting the Irish codes of hurling, Gaelic football, and handball and, until a generation ago, forbade its members from playing ‘foreign’ sports such as football and rugby. The GAA’s statutes contain a much-discussed Rule 42 which prohibits the use of GAA venues for field sports outside its jurisdiction, which obviously includes football.
For this reason, when the GAA was initially approached about the possibility of moving the Liam Miller memorial match to Pairc Ui Chaoimh, the request was rejected because it contravened Rule 42. The outcry over this standpoint was widespread and vehement. The GAA was heavily criticised for not allowing a memorial match for a deceased sportsperson to take place at one of its venues simply because it did not involve a Gaelic sport.
Former Ireland midfielder Damien Duff, who would have played alongside Miller at international level, blasted the GAA hierarchy as “dinosaurs”, with Dundalk manager Stephen Kenny going one further by declaring tongue-in-cheek that Duff’s assertion was offensive to dinosaurs.
After a couple of hastily-arranged meetings, it was announced on Saturday that the GAA would permit the memorial match to take place at Pairc Ui Chaoimh, working around the rulebook by planning to stage a hurling match at the stadium prior to the Liam Miller memorial so that it would still be classified as a Gaelic games event.
Following considerable wrangling and public outrage, the logical decision of moving the match to the larger capacity venue was finally made. However, the chain of events which led to this being one of the most discussed topics in Irish society in recent days could so easily have been avoided and has created a tasteless circus around an event which was supposed to celebrate the acclaimed career of a young man who died in such awful circumstances.
The GAA has been vilified for its stubborn stance and citation of the rulebook, with some people pointing out that the organisation has happily thrown open its venues to American football, high-profile concerts, and even a visit from British royalty in the not too distant past. The initial refusal to allow the match to take place at Pairc Ui Chaoimh showed a glaring lack of common sense and ensured that, regardless of what happened subsequently, this affair has been a public relations disaster for the association.
However, the organisers of the memorial match, while clearly having the most honourable of intentions, badly misjudged the level of public interest in the event and neglected to have a contingency plan in place until the recent bickering erupted. It has not looked great on their part that they basically needed a bailout from the GAA to satisfy the enormous public demand to pay tribute to a fantastic footballer.
Amidst the public mud-slinging, imagine what this has been like for Miller’s grieving family. They have seen their husband and father’s name become associated with the washing of dirty laundry in full view of the public, on top of trying to work through what has been an extremely difficult time for them.
Thankfully, now that the correct decision has ultimately been arrived upon, the match can take place in a venue that satisfies demand for the event and Liam Miller can get the wonderful evening that his legacy richly deserves. It will be a great occasion, but it is sickening that it was allowed to turn into a circus because of outdated, blinkered opinions from people who could have handled the matter far more sensitively and competently.