‘It was a spectacular day for the GAA, for sport in this country and for Ireland in general’

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WAS HE NERVOUS beforehand?

Of course. How could he not be?

It’ll be a decade next Friday since Nickey Brennan took his seat in Croke Park for a seminal sporting occasion.

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As GAA President there was nothing new in being present at a match on Jones Road.

But this was different.

The collision of the Ireland and England rugby teams – and the historical backdrop to such a contest – was enough to leave Brennan with a sense of anxiety.

“I wasn’t nervous in that I knew all the arrangements had taken place. I was well familiar with all the security stuff, I was well briefed of the protocols.

“But at the same time, you always felt that somewhere along the line, will something happen that will put a dampener on this?

“There were obvious sensitivities leading up to it and some protests outside the ground, although they were rather small to be honest.

“At the same time when ‘God Save The Queen’ was played and you were standing beside the President and the Prime Minister of the country, you were saying ‘something is going to go wrong here’.

“You just had the sense that this was going too well to be true.”

In the stadium, Brennan was sitting in the front row of the Hogan Stand, the same seat that he was grateful to be given by the IRFU and FAI for every fixture.

That nagging fear persisted about the playing of the anthems but it proved to be misplaced.

The pre-match formalities passed off without a hitch, the anthems impeccably observed.

“The relief that I felt when the national anthems were over and the game started, it was then a game I could enjoy.

“There was just a sense of elation and a sense of relief at the same time that everything had gone so spectacularly well

“Because if you are President and something goes wrong inside or outside the stadium, you would feel a sense of some responsibility whatever would happen, even though you wouldn’t have a direct involvement other than the decision to open the place.”

The English team sing the national anthem. Source: Billy Stickland/INPHO

Ireland subsequently flattened England, running in four tries and claiming a 30-point victory on a raucous night in Dublin 3. The match capped off an emotive and divisive debate as the GAA had grappled with the decision over Rule 42. It was a process that Brennan was closely linked to.

“When the initial decision was being made, there was a significance for me personally, as the day the decision was made to open up Croke Park (in 2005), was the day I was elected as President as well.

“The two issues were not unconnected, let’s put it that way. My view was that it should have been open and there was parts of the country that thought it shouldn’t have been open.

“So obviously maybe they weren’t particularly supportive of me. There was that personal side of it at the very outset.”

Nickey Brennan was elected GAA President in 2005 Source: ©INPHO

Hurling has always been at the core of Brennan’s life, an All-Ireland winner with Kilkenny in 1975 and 1979 while he was a manager for a spell in the 90′s, in that time before Brian Cody came to fill the hot seat.

He then entered the arena of administration but his sporting interests were never narrowed down to a single focus.

“I’d have a great interest in all sports. I’d have worked in Glanbia the food company. There was a rugby tournament back in the 70’s, the Dave O’Loughlin tournament, that I remember being cajoled to play in.

“My rugby days were short and few but I played a fair bit of soccer, as did a lot of lads with local teams. I suppose then Kilkenny came calling and that was the end of that.

“But with the opening of Croke Park, I attended every rugby and soccer game in the stadium when I was GAA President, bar one.

“For that I had to do a GAA trip to New York and I remember watching – whatever soccer game it was – I watched that in a bar in Manhattan.

“I wanted to be there in spirit if I couldn’t be there in person. I’m not a drinking person, so going into a bar for me was unusual.”

He is keen to stress the praise that Peter McKenna deserves for handling the logistics of staging soccer and rugby games at Croke Park.

Source: Donall Farmer/INPHO

“There was a whole plethora of matters to be done after the decision was taken. Bearing in mind, there’d been no decision about the cost of renting the stadium.

“What would happen in the event of the logistics for the two codes with different pitch dimensions? There was also the fact that soccer fans were going to be segregated.

“Peter deserves huge credit for how he handled those discussions with the soccer and rugby bodies.

“There was a lot meetings with the rugby people, the soccer people. We dealt with people from the British Embassy.

“All of whom I found were most courteous, most generous and were appreciative of using Croke Park. At the same time they had the serious business of their games taking place.

“They wanted it to be as much of a success as anyone else.”

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

For the French rugby game in February 2007, it was Brennan’s idea to produce a booklet explaining to the travelling media about the GAA. They were given a sense of what this alien amateur sporting organisation was about.

For the subsequent England game, he points to the fact that the RFU were well aware of the heightened exposure this game would receive. Their decision to draft in Conor O’Shea, a man well-versed in rugby but also the son of a Kerry All-Ireland football winner, to educate them about the significance of the fixture, was well received.

“They prepared very well for it. Even after the match, I remember Bill Beaumont – the famous English rugby player – he came to me and personally thanked me on behalf of everyone for what we’d done.

“I would never have met the man before. But he obviously sought me out. I thought it was a very nice gesture.”

Brennan looks back at a brave GAA decision that was vindicated. Ten years have elapsed but he feels it was an occasion that will linger long in the memory.

Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

“What happened could never have been envisaged a number of years earlier. I think it was an extraordinary courageous and generous decision by the GAA, that it did in the interests of Ireland first of all.

“Yes, there was rewards for the GAA in terms of the finances and that has manifested itself around the country in the centres of excellence that have been built on the backs of those games.

“I think the significance of the occasion will be remembered very well and very positively in history.

“It was one of those seminal moments in Irish life, where history was made in a sporting context and sent a message across the world of where Ireland had come from.

“It was a spectacular day for the GAA, for sport in this country and for Ireland in general.”

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