Peter McKenna Park ranger
Future of headquarters in McKenna’s safe hands, writes Martin Breheny
IF Croke Park could talk, it would probably ask some questions about its smaller, if more expensive rival, across the city in Dublin 4.
It would query why after being such a generous host to rugby and soccer internationals since February 2007, it is scheduled to close its doors to international action once Lansdowne Road is completed in early 2010.
It would ask why, after changing its rules in the national interest, which also saved the IRFU and FAI the embarrassment of having to export their international games to Britain, the GAA would even consider locking the Croke Park doors again.
Most of all, it would express amazement at the sheer waste in financial and accommodation terms of playing major rugby and soccer internationals at a 50,000 capacity Lansdowne Road while Croke Park can comfortably host 82,500 just a few miles away. Who will explain to the disappointed 32,500 fans that after enjoying so many glamour days in Croke Park since 2007, they must revert to watching the games on television from late 2010 onwards?
As things stand, Croke Park is due to be withdrawn from the rugby/soccer equation once Lansdowne Road is completed. However, there are already stirrings in the GAA undergrowth among members who reckon it would be utterly bizarre to re-impose Rule 42 and be blamed by an angry public who can't get tickets for rugby and soccer games.
A proposal to allow Rule 42 to lapse indefinitely will emerge in due course and is likely to be accepted, thereby placing the responsibility for where they play their major games at the IRFU and FAI doors.
Opening up Croke Park has been a wonderful success for the GAA, both from a financial and public relations viewpoint.
Rent money per game runs at €1.35m, yielding around €10m a year, while the spin-off in terms of showcasing the stadium's facilities to an international audience has been a big help in attracting conferences and other corporate events.
As the man charged with overseeing the day-to-day running of Croke Park, Peter McKenna offers no view as to whether it should remain open to soccer and rugby once Lansdowne Road is completed, although one suspects he would favour it on the basis that it helps maximise the stadium's potential.
"That's not my area. How Croke Park is used is a policy decision for the GAA. My job is to implement that policy," said McKenna, who, by general accord, is doing an excellent job as stadium director.
While he won't become involved in the debate on Croke Park's future as a rugby/soccer venue, he says that the GAA has benefited enormously from its international exposure.
"Having rugby and soccer here has worked extremely well. Apart from the revenue generated, it has earned the GAA kudos, although maybe not as much as it should.
"It has been a great experience hosting rugby and soccer and it showed what we could do with Croke Park once the opportunity arose," he said.
Croke Park's earning power was underlined in 2007 when the company which runs it handed €13.5m over to Central Council for use on various projects countrywide. McKenna says that while the books for this year are yet to be finalised, the dividend for Central Council will be at least the same again.
However, like every other business, the downturn will have an impact on Croke Park. Bookings for the last quarter of this year and the first quarter of 2009 are down and the trend is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Still, the books are in a very healthy state, with Croke Park's debt down to around €15m (it reached €98m at one stage).
The next sale of premium tickets and corporate boxes isn't due until 2010, by which time there may be an upturn in the economy. Even if there isn't, McKenna is confident that they will have plenty of takers.
"The Hogan Stand side comes up for renewal in 2010 and since it's the most popular part of the stadium, I would be confident of a big interest. Our prices offer great value -- in fact we could probably double the cost of premium tickets and still be over-subscribed," he said.
Premium tickets currently cost €12,000 each for 10 years which is much cheaper than the packages being offered by the IRFU and FAI for Lansdowne Road.
While the debate on whether Croke Park should remain open for big rugby and soccer games is certain to intensify over the next year, one argument which can not be used by those opposed to the idea is that the pitch is unable to stand up to the demands.
From a position where there were calls for it to be dug up and replaced with a traditional soil pitch a few years ago, it has progressed to a situation where delegations from around the world now come to inspect it as an example of how to install a multi-purpose surface.
It staged two rugby (Ireland v New Zealand and Argentina) and one soccer (Republic of Ireland v Poland) in the space of a week last month, standing up quite easily to the demands.
But then the Croke Park pitch is a different proposition now than to the weekend back in 2001 when the old surface cut up so badly after a weekend's rain that the ball was regularly squelched into the ground during the Galway-Kilkenny All-Ireland hurling semi-final.
It's different, too, to the mischievous surface which produced so many uneven bounces during its first few seasons.
It established itself as something special last August when the Galway-Kerry All-Ireland football quarter-final was able to continue despite one of the heaviest downpours ever experienced in Dublin.
While the city, including the areas around Croke Park, was seriously flooded, the Croke Park surface absorbed the deluge, enabling the teams to continue in what was one of the best games of the season. Not only that but it was in perfect condition for another three games on the following day.
"There's no doubt that if it had been a traditional soil pitch, the game would have been called off and we wouldn't have been able to play three matches the following day. There was heavy flooding out on Jones's Road, which is much higher than the Croke Park pitch, so you can imagine what would have happened if we didn't have proper drainage etcetera in place. Apart from that, it would probably have been too dark to play on if we didn't have lights," said McKenna.
The surface has improved dramatically over recent years thanks to extensive work carried out by Richard Hayden and his team at the Sports Turf Research Institute.
It has combined the most modern installation techniques with a detailed maintenance programme which achieves optimum results.
The finished product has been praised by players from all codes and has attracted inspection teams from as far away as China and South Africa.
However, there is a lifespan for everything and McKenna says that the Croke Park surface will have to be replaced at the end of 2010 at cost of around €1m.
It would be possible to prolong its life if the GAA could stop the regular pitch invasions which produce a double-jeopardy situation.
Apart from the damage to the pitch, the invasions are also a serious health hazard.
"Our experts have worked out that each pitch invasion has the same impact on the surface as around eight games. That's how damaging it is. It shortens the lifespan of the pitch which means we have to replace it more often which is costly," said McKenna.
The claims element is of even more concern for the GAA. It is not uncommon for people who injure themselves (or claim to have done so) while dashing onto the pitch to lodge a claim and while cases are vigorously challenged, it has cost the GAA almost €600,000 in settlement and legal costs over the past three years. It is a trend which can't be allowed to continue, according to McKenna, who cites Australia as an example of where it is an offence for people to come onto the pitch after a match.
"We saw it in the recent International Rules games where people were arrested and fined for coming onto the pitch in Perth and Melbourne. It may be part of the GAA tradition to dash onto Croke Park to celebrate a victory but it's not only dangerous, it's also very costly both in terms of insurance claims and damage to the pitch. We certainly haven't given up on coming up with a system to prevent it.
"It would be much more enjoyable all round if people remained on the stands and Hill 16 and allowed presentations, laps of honour etcetera on the pitch. We could add a touch of glamour to the proceedings with firework displays. What's happening now is not acceptable on a number of fronts," he said.
If curbing pitch invasions is still on the agenda, so too is the installation of a roof over Croke Park, although it is unlikely to happen unless there is a technological breakthrough.
Because of the span involved, it would cost around €150m to cover Croke Park using a suspension bridge system.
However, technology is advancing all the time and McKenna said that the situation was being constantly monitored to see if a more cost-effective system could be applied.
While covering Croke Park has its attractions, the question remains as to whether it's appropriate to introduce an artificial atmosphere for major games for which the participants have qualified in different conditions. McKenna accepts that it's a consideration and believes that there may be resistance to the concept.
However, he maintains that it's important to explore all avenues in the on-going effort to protect Croke Park's status as a market leader in stadium design and presentation. It is all so far removed from the Croke Park which came into the GAA's possession 95 years ago this month when they bought the grounds from Frank Brazil Dineen, the Limerick man whose philanthropy made it possible for the cash-strapped Association to establish such an important landmark in Dublin.
It was to become one of the most significant developments in Irish sporting history and today Croke Park stands proud and tall, dominating the north Dublin city skyline and, equally importantly from a GAA viewpoint, remaining as the No 1 stadium in the country, a position which will remain unchallenged even after the re-opening of Lansdowne Road.
Peter McKenna on ...
"I don't believe that the GAA ever got the credit it deserves for opening Croke Park. Apart from keeping rugby and soccer internationals at home, it has boosted the Dublin economy to the tune of millions every year, but it hasn't been recognised. Remember how the city was festooned for the Ryder Cup in 2006. You don't see that for All-Ireland finals, despite the fact that they bring in 165,000 over two weekends. The business world and city officials don't seem to recognise that.
"Also, it's extraordinary that, despite our best efforts, we can't get the Dublin Tour Bus to stop off at Croke Park. It takes in various other places like Guinness and Irish Distillers, both of whom do a great job for tourism. Still, it seems strange that a pint and a short are seen as an essential part of the Dublin experience but not Croke Park with all its heritage. Big stadiums in other cities are part of the tour scene but if people want to see Croke Park they have to make their own way there. Thankfully, a lot of them do, which further underlines why it should be part of the bus tour."
Future plans for Croke Park ...
"A stadium like Croke Park requires constant updating and modernising. We're working all the time on various areas and we're going to have to do a major job on the pitch at the end of 2010. We're all looking into the possibility of using a special technology, which would enable us to extract heat from underground for use in the stadium. We also hope to bore a well so that we can generate our own water supply. Water costs currently run at around €110,000 per year, which would be reduced considerably if we had our own system."
The challenge from Lansdowne Road
"We have had the city to ourselves for major concerts and events over the last few years but that will change when Lansdowne Road is completed. However, Croke Park has been established as a great concert venue where big acts want to perform so we're in a good position.
"Ultimately though, the market decides these things so it's a question of offering value for money. We will continue to do that as well as offering the special Croke Park experience."