Dermot Crowe: Rossies left with nowhere to Hyde
Decades of dispute to blame for county's costly failure to upgrade outdated main ground
It rained mercilessly in Roscommon town on Saturday night last weekend, as if nature decided the county's football interests hadn't suffered sufficient embarrassment for the neglect of their main ground, Hyde Park, over many years.
Everything was done to try to salvage their most prestigious fixture since returning to Division 1, the visit of the All-Ireland and league champions Dublin. On the Friday before, a company from Cork with expertise in restoring grounds affected by heavy rain was hired by the county board, and their efforts, and the work done in the preceding days by ground staff, looked to have achieved the desired result.
On Saturday at 5.0pm, a referee sent down by the GAA's Competitions Control Committee responsible for national fixtures declared the pitch playable. The county chairman Seamus Sweeney, still in his first year in the job, was at a family wedding at the time, in body at least. "My wife reminded me of that too, I can tell you," he says. "It was on my mind the whole time." That night, their worst fears were realised when the skies opened. At 9.0 the next morning another independent inspection declared the pitch unplayable.
Roscommon were due to play four home league games this year; they ended up playing one of those in Longford and another in Carrick-on-Shannon. Their opening game against Monaghan was moved to Kiltoom, a small club ground incapable of satisfying the huge public demand. The county under 21 team lost home advantage when Hyde Park could not accommodate the Connacht final against Mayo last weekend and ended up playing in Sligo. Roscommon on Sunday morning last resembled a refugee centre, with visiting supporters from Dublin stranded and having to be bussed to Carrick. There were reports of wheelchair-accessible coaches being ordered at short notice for disabled people who were coming off trains that morning for a match moved at short notice to a ground almost 30 miles away.
Sweeney is asked how he felt when the dreaded news was confirmed. "I will be honest, 100 per cent honest: I was fiercely disappointed for our team, and our supporters, and for the Dublin supporters who had travelled down to Roscommon for the weekend. The Dublin supporters are fantastic followers and are extremely loyal to their team and the GAA and I compliment them on that. In fairness to the national CCC, they gave us every opportunity to host that game. It wasn't good for anyone."
Talks have started with the GAA's Infrastructural Committee to find a solution and ensure it never happens again. "There will be a new pitch this year," says Sweeney. "In relation to the stadium there is a plan for the development of Hyde Park. It is a bigger project; we certainly will be doing that in stages. But our immediate job of work is to put down a new pitch in Hyde Park."
If Roscommon defeat New York and Leitrim in this year's Connacht Championship they are scheduled to play Sligo at the venue in the semi-final. The work would be likely to begin after that date. It has been a sore and costly lesson. The weather since Christmas has been exceptionally wet, but last Sunday, with the main county ground unavailable, a number of other venues in the county staged matches. The Hyde has been left behind, caught in a time warp.
Much of this is blamed on a long-running dispute over control and ownership of the venue between the county board and Roscommon Gaels, who regarded it as their natural home. By the 1960s Roscommon's original county ground at St Coman's was no longer suitable, ironically due to frequent flooding, and in 1971 Hyde Park opened after Raftery's field, a 14-acre site on the Athlone Road, had been bought two years earlier for £3,000. In the following years the Hyde Centre, including a bar and dressing rooms, were added. Terracing on three sides followed in 1993. The ground could hold 30,000 people and had the benefit of excellent road access.
When Hyde Park was opened, a Hyde Park committee was set up to manage the venue that included board members and officers of the Roscommon Gaels club but over the years the board's influence waned. One source says the county officers stopped receiving invitations to meetings.
In 1992 the then chairman of the county board Tommy Kenoy was instrumental in launching an ambitious plan to redevelop the grounds which, if allowed to proceed, would have meant that the recent spate of cancellations would never have happened. Hyde Park had been approved as the main GAA venue in Connacht and received Central Council funding of ir£250,000. A county board delegation met then Taoiseach Albert Reynolds to seek State support for the project. They went looking for ir£50,000; they came away with ir£200,000. The cost of the redevelopment, which was to include a full-length stand with two tunnels and new dressing rooms and other facilities at the rear, as well as terracing at the other three sides, was in the region of ir£1m.
One other fundraising plan that would have made the project even more financially viable never got off the ground. After considerable time and effort, licensing was obtained to host three concerts annually there for five years. This was expected to be an invaluable revenue stream but it was jettisoned by objections from local residents and business interests. As one local GAA officer put it ruefully: "Missed opportunities, intransigence by people, stupidity by people and brainlessness by people, and we are left with the legacy now."
Concerns were raised over concerts coming to the town with fears of an influx of undesirables, the potential noise levels and general disturbance. Those backing the move argued that the concerts were going to involve "middle of the road" performers with a sedate and peace-keeping fan-base. Another objection was due to the close proximity of the county nursing home to the venue. A local who heard of this objection asked, in exasperation, if they were afraid that the residents might go dancing.
The people behind the project had a plan for the nursing home residents too, to take them away on a day outing to avoid any unnecessary discomfort. But this failed to sway opponents and the plans never materialised. The Hyde Park Committee had its own ideas. Instead the three terraced areas were developed in '93 and a smaller main stand added at a later point. The original plan was effectively shelved and a chance to modernise the ground was lost.
In the middle of the last decade, when GAA head office had to intervene as Roscommon debts spiralled towards €1.4m, the county board was instructed to resolve the issue with the Roscommon Gaels club and obtain ownership of the county ground, so that redevelopment could proceed. A painstakingly long and protracted series of negotiations, that went on for years, ended in a settlement at the end of 2014, at a time when the chairman of the board, Michael Fahy, was a member of Roscommon Gaels.
Speaking to Willie Hegarty of Shannonside FM at the time, he sounded relieved that, finally, the way was clear to redevelop the ageing Hyde. Effectively, the board and the Gaels club signed an agreement enabling the board to take ownership of the county grounds. Roscommon Gaels were granted a 999-year lease on the Dr Hyde Park Social Centre, effective ownership, and a 150-year lease on the training pitch, as well as playing rights in the stadium.
In 2010 the Gaels opened a new ground in Roscommon, at Lisnamult, after buying land there to expand their facilities to cater for an increasing number of teams. It features a modern floodlit all-weather pitch. That lessened their dependence on Hyde Park but a resolution in their dispute with the board took another four years.
Fahy described the truce as a "huge achievement" - finally enabling redevelopment work on Hyde Park to go ahead. In recent years it has had its capacity reduced to 18,500, and is badly in need of updating. In the meantime, Roscommon, a Division 4 team in 2011, continued to make smart progress on the field. Hyde Park wasn't used for their first home game last year, against Cavan, but that was in Division 2. In Division 1 the goalposts moved significantly. For the Mayo match, the only Division 1 match at the Hyde, 12,000 turned up. Heightened public interest in the team meant Hyde Park was the only ground in the county capable of meeting that demand.
Fahy, when chairman, said that the agreement brokered between the board and the Gaels was the fruit of nine years of work. "It wasn't easy," he admitted. "There was lots of obstacles along the way. And our instructions from Croke Park was that not until all 'i's' were dotted and 't's' were crossed would we sign to ensure that there was nothing else going to jump out and bite us in years to come."
Aside from the obvious promotional damage, and the cost to the businesses of Roscommon, there has been a hefty financial implication for the board which is still paying off substantial debts. Their financial position has stabilised - debt is now down to around €750,000, helped by the intervention of a local benefactor who provided €1m in an interest-free loan. But the loss of games against Dublin, Down and Monaghan, and the under 21 final, could have cost the board as much as €100,000 in gate receipts.
One source contacted in recent days said the idea that Roscommon did no work on Hyde Park was misleading, citing vertical drainage and sanding repair work last autumn. But the problems with the playing ground went deeper and needed more radical intervention. The ground has been a long-running source of anguish for the board. In 2013, the Connacht Council decided that Hyde Park wasn't in a position to host the provincial decider between Mayo and London owing to a number of safety concerns. It doesn't stop there.
There is also an urgent need to develop a centre of excellence, with Roscommon the only county in Connacht without one. A 57-acre site at Runnabracken has been secured but is sitting idle, affected by delays. The Roscommon team have been relying on local clubs for training facilities.
The irony is that it is the success of the county football team - a source of justifiable pride - that has brought these infrastructural shortcomings to light. From the depths of Division 4 in 2011, coming from a small county with a history of disputes and serious debt, they head to Croke Park today for the league semi-finals having survived in Division 1 against the odds. While Roscommon fiddled on facilities, their work in coaching was exemplary.
Current chairman Seamus Sweeney spent a number of years as coaching and games development officer, helping to revitalise the development squad structure which began in 1997. He was finishing up his tour of duty when the minors won the All-Ireland in 2006. Since then they have become a force in minor and under 21 football in Connacht and were desperately unlucky last weekend not to win a third successive provincial under 21 title.
In Connacht, they've won four of the last six under 21 titles, having taken 30 years to win the previous four at the grade. They later lost two All-Ireland finals to Dublin. Their two provincial minor wins since 2006 have come in the last five years.
Roscommon has an unenviable flair for generating controversy but they will hope that the worst is behind them. It is time to start talking about football again. It is time to enjoy what they are truly good at.
Sunday Indo Sport