'A statement of an Irish people's sense of place and sense of race'
The new Croke Park has been a logistical and symbolic triumph for the GAA, writes Dermot Crowe
TWENTY years ago yesterday, on March 9, 1993, the GAA received planning approval to allow Phase 1 of its ambitious reconstruction of Croke Park begin. Some officers worried about the risk potential of such a bold venture even though bricks and mortar had always been a reliable GAA performer. This was building on a colossal nerve-jangling scale. Undeterred, the president Peter Quinn proudly forecast: "We can now bring the GAA into the 21st century with one of the most modern stadiums in Europe, if not the world."
Today it is there for all to see, the fourth largest stadium capacity in Europe, the entire redevelopment costing around €260m and fully paid off. Work on demolishing the old Cusack Stand started the day after Derry won the 1993 All-Ireland football final and in four phases the giant task was complete by March 2005. It took courage and intuition to turn dream into reality but even the most willing backer, like GAA director-general Liam Mulvihill, realised there were risks and that any project of this magnitude could encounter difficulty.
Remarkably, with tight and meticulous management and the four-stage piecemeal approach that minimised games interruption and kept a tight rein on costs, they completed the job within budget and inside the time frame. The first stage, the new Cusack Stand, cost IR£43m, a staggering amount of money in an Ireland not long out of 1980s recession, but it mostly paid for itself through corporate and premium ticket sales.
But there were other compelling factors driving the redevelopment. In 1983, a potential disaster due to overcrowding at the rear of Hill 16 during the All-Ireland football final between Dublin and Galway was narrowly avoided, underlining the need to improve crowd safety measures. The stadium was showing signs of age and in serious need of a facelift. The Hogan Stand dated back to the late 1950s; the Cusack Stand across the pitch was 20 years older.
"It was obvious that the Cusack Stand was crumbling and the Canal End was in a right bad state," recalls Danny Lynch, the former GAA PRO, who worked through the lifetime of the project. "A toilet collapsed in the Hogan Stand not long before (1985). One person had had a foot amputated."
The incident referred to was the collapse of a toilet screening wall in the Hogan Stand which injured three people during the 1985 All-lreland hurling final. The tragic Bradford fire and the Hillsborough disaster focused the minds of all sporting organisations in control of large stadia.
That was the picture back then. On Wednesday last, the Croke Park director Peter McKenna, in charge of the holding company which manages the stadium's business day-to-day, sat in the GAA museum delivering another set of positive financial accounts while foreign tourists milled about nearby. The museum, opened in 1998, is now attracting record visitors – 100,000 last year – in a vibrant stadium buzzing with activity and generating crucial income on a daily basis. The spectacular Etihad skyline has added another layer of appeal for visitors, with sweeping views over Dublin. The stadium's hull hums with conference activity, while on the big match days, which the stadium caters for primarily, it is a swell of humanity when attendances spiral towards 82,300 capacity.
There is now an established corporate sector, which once drew frowns from within GAA ranks but soon became assimilated into the fabric of the stadium. It is not that long ago facilities were Spartan in comparison. Tours might be arranged ad hoc for school groups but there was no regular facility and there wasn't a great deal to see. "Guides would be hired but it was completely basic," says Danny Lynch. "You walked around and got a few stickers and posters."
As for corporate wining and dining, it was unheard of. Lynch often heard older colleagues reminiscing of times when ladies made sandwiches on the Saturday before All-Irelands to serve as post-match catering. "And (former GAA director-general) Seán ó Síocháin's deference to corporate hospitality," adds Lynch, "was two bottles of whiskey and six glasses." Those availing of this modest reception might include the President of Ireland, the Archbishop of Cashel, the Taoiseach of the day and various other dignitaries.
The rapid convergence of these two worlds, old and modern, is illustrated in an amusing story from the time other stadium models from around the world were being examined while a team was working on the new design. One concern was in relation to sightlines, whether spectators, for instance, would be able to see a sliotar from these towering upper deck positions. On a trip to an American ground former GAA president John Dowling put aside his fear of heights to see for himself. He had to be helped down by five gentlemen when the nerves got the better of him but not before he was satisfied that the spectator could get a decent view. Ask not what your Association can do for you . . .
This year is also the centenary of Croke Park. In December 1913, Frank Dineen, a journalist and GAA sympathiser, was paid £3,500 for Jones's Road and the grounds became the property of the Association. "There will be events to mark this (in 2013), as there should be," stated Páraic Duffy in his report on the GAA's financial statements last week. "The stadium – its very name indeed – has entered the collective Irish imagination and has been the venue for moments and experiences that are among the greatest in Irish sport."
Danny Lynch remembers the long hours spent with local residents and local politicians trying to reach common ground during the various stages of the development. He reckons he knew every house within a one-mile radius and everyone in them. There were 15 city councillors voting on their initial planning application. Lynch was tasked with lobbying them. He prides himself on the absence of any planning objections during the course of the redevelopment, given its size and location in a tight north inner city confine. Every issue was worked on behind the scenes and an agreement reached. There must have been stressful times?
"It was by and large nearly all stressful," says Lynch. "I used to be phoned in the middle of the night by residents because the builders would be breaking the rules and working till 12 at night. In terms of the paying for it, it was slightly unknown territory to some extent but in worst-case scenario we felt in 20 years it would be paid for.
"Two things broke the camel's back. One was the famous £60m and the other was the soccer and rugby in Croke Park. There is no doubt about it, if that £60m had not come about, soccer and rugby would have been in there a lot earlier. That particular night before the Congress which announced the £60m I had two speeches written, one attacking the Government, and one praising them."
Lynch refers to the annual GAA Congress of 2001 when delegates voted against opening up Croke Park to soccer and rugby. The motion was lost by a single vote after needing a two-thirds majority, the surprise announcement by Bertie Ahern of a £60m injection for the redevelopment on the morning of the vote seen as deliberately influential. Ahern's own dream of a national stadium was not hindered by the voting outcome.
Seán Kelly was president for the final phase, the Hill 16 and Nally Stand end, now a standing terrace in three sections. "It was a touch of genius in some respect when they did it, in a time of recession, and also to phase it; if it wasn't phased it would never gone ahead," he states. "It also meant it was never unavailable for All-Irelands finals, unlike the situation you had at the Aviva.
"It put it up there as a showcase to the world and people saw this fantastic stadium and the image of the GAA has been altered immeasurably since. Prior to that the GAA was seen as a rural, and, to some people, backward organisation, an organisation that would be criticised at every turn."
Commercial activity was critical and the embrace of the corporate sector. Horrified idealists dubbed it Corporate Park. Dermot Power came in from Bank of Ireland to lead the campaign. "Dermot Power came from a rugby background himself and from the bank," notes Kelly, suggesting he was not classic GAA stock. "But he had worked with the upper echelons through the bank's sponsorship of the All Stars and
they were able to convince the rest. He knew what he was talking about. He had a reach to the commercial sector that very few prominent people in the GAA at that stage would have had."
Power admits the initial phase took some persuading as people were buying corporate boxes and premium seats off the plans. "It was a totally different environment, you didn't have the later confidence in the economy and Croke Park was the first of its kind in this country, there was no precedent – the concept was relatively new in the Irish market. Quite a big step for people to think that it could be built and to think it could be done so well. Liam Mulvihill never compromised; that was the great thing.
"They said straight away, we are going to put in a corporate sector but it is going to subsidise the seats for the GAA supporters; I think the ratio was 15 per cent paying 59 per cent of the cost. It was a very brave step for the GAA at the time, there would have been some people with reservations. Like the numbers for the first phase (£43m) were huge, it really was an act of faith.
"In the early '90s the market wasn't hugely buoyant. As the economy picked up, we had facilities coming on stream. We got huge support – one of the lovely things about the premium level, it wasn't people who came down from Mars, it was largely GAA people; it had a great match atmosphere."
Lynch remembers discussion on leaving Jones's Road and moving to a greenfield site. "That was seriously considered. It has a lot of advantages and many of the US grounds we looked at were on greenfield sites but there was the historical significance of Croke Park and we felt it would be nearly impossible to bring the constituency with us."
A train station on Jones's Road was considered but there were serious reservations about crowd spill after matches. A trip to the Nou Camp in Barcelona which features its own train station and the chaos witnessed there helped sway the decision. A retractable roof is a future possibility and they can also roof the Hill end but there are unlikely to be any major works for some time.
"I would say none of us will be alive to see the demolition of anything that is built. I would say it'll be another 50 years before anything like that happens," says Lynch. He is asked to sum up his feelings about the end result and its legacy. "I think it is a profound statement of an Irish people's sense of place and sense of race."