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GAA promises no further slip-ups on Croker surface

THE GAA is to make another major effort to get the Croke Park pitch right for next season but there is absolutely no question of acceding to calls to move in the JCBs and dig it up.

There have been several complaints by players and managers that the pitch, which was installed in 2002 at a cost of ?2.5m, is excessively hard and far too slippery. This has led to suggestions that the sand-based Desso Grassmaster surface should be torn up and replaced with the traditional soil pitch.

"That's simply not an option. This is the appropriate pitch for this stadium but we have to get the maintenance right. We admit that the surface is not perfect but neither is it as bad as some of the more hysterical comments would have you believe," said Croke Park Stadium director Peter McKenna.

Players who have slipped at a crucial moment or saw the ball skew away mischievously when they tried to bounce it might not agree, but McKenna insists that the problems can be solved. On the recommendation of Hewitt Sportsturf, Leicester, the company who installed the pitch, significant work will be carried out immediately after the All-Ireland club finals next St Patrick's Day, designed to have Croke Park in much better condition for next year's summer programme.

However, McKenna warned that unless something is done to prevent pitch invasions, it would also be impossible to produce a uniform surface on Sundays where big games had been played in Croke Park on the previous day.

"Pitch invasions are an absolute disaster for a ground like this. A mass of people running all over the pitch can increase the surface hardness by anything up to 50 per cent so when that happens on a Saturday, it's impossible to have it in peak condition for Sunday. I know supporters like to come onto the pitch after games but they really are doing terrible damage to the pitch and are increasing the problems for the next game, especially if it's only 24 hours later," said McKenna.

Detailed analysis was recently carried out on Croke Park by Hewitt Sportsturf, who compared the pitch with eight other venues, including six in England. The results (see tables above) suggest that in terms of hardness Croke Park was average but was at the lower end of the scale for grip compared to the English venues.

It featured ahead of Semple Stadium, Thurles and O'Moore Park, Portlaoise but it appears they were tested after heavy rain. Certainly, anybody who attends games in O'Moore Park or Semple Stadium, which has a truly magnificent surface, knows that players aren't as prone to slipping as in Croke Park.

HEWITTS did concede that certain areas of Croke Park bordered on the firm/hard category and have proposed taking corrective action next March. This will include removal of the entire surface in a specialist operation, followed by re-seeding with natural grass which can be adjusted to increase grip.

The aim will be to produce a matt finish to the surface while it's also planned to increase the length of the grass from 27mm to 35-40mm for games. Games can continue to be played in Croke Park during the recovery period but it will take six weeks for the surface to reach optimum condition.

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Hewitts insist that the pitch has no major problems and that with some further fine-tuning and management adjustments, the surface will be as near to perfect as is possible.

Sceptics may take the view that Hewitts' analysis is, at the very least, self-serving and that it shouldn't be necessary to wait until the fourth year to produce a surface that players find acceptable.

However, Hewitts also point out that the repeated pitch invasions, a phenomenon which does not occur at similarly-based overseas grounds, inevitably leads to compaction which, in turn, can result in slipping and an uneven bounce.

Said Peter McKenna: "If you get small, isolated patches where the ground has compacted, it causes problems. We accept that but we also believe that the re-seeded surface, combined with the slightly longer and different grass will bring about a significant improvement. Having said that, I would urge supporters not to continue coming onto the pitch. The more people trample on the surface, the more damage is done."

Pitch maintenance currently costs around ?120,000 per annum and while groundsman Robert Ellis and his team work extremely hard to provide a good surface, it has still led to severe frustration for players.

One of the previously unsolved mysteries related to the footwear which players should use. Six-stud boots are recommended but many players found that wearing them resulted in blistered feet and sore legs. Some changed to blades, which increased the risk of slipping.

McKenna plans to call in team managers and players shortly to discuss the correct footwear for next year and will then pass on the findings to boot manufacturers.

"The one certainty is that blades are out. This surface is not designed for blades, especially for games such as Gaelic football and hurling. Our aim is to have the pitch in a condition that players will feel comfortable wearing studs and I have no doubt we will achieve that," said McKenna.

He is anxious to dispel the notion that the pitch has a plastic content which makes it harder and less stable, pointing out that the stabilising synthetic comprises less than one per cent of the surface. He is adamant too that there is no evidence that the pitch has been responsible for any injuries.

"It's easy to make unsubstantiated allegations. Some commentators have done that, most unfairly in my view. Take the horrible injury sustained by 'Beano' McDonald during the Laois-Tyrone game. It's very clear from looking at the video that he got his leg entangled with an opponent as they ran for the ball and while he suffered a terrible injury which we all very much regret, it had nothing to do with the pitch."

For all the assurances from McKenna and the pitch providers as to the suitability of the Desso Grassmaster surface, GAA fans continue to query why a traditional soil pitch wasn't laid.

According to McKenna, it simply wouldn't work in a stadium like Croke Park.

"Because of the scale and size of the stands, air doesn't circulate as freely around Croke Park as in smaller stadiums. Certain parts of the pitch only get direct sunlight for around two months of the year so, in effect, the pitch is a dead valley. A soil-based pitch simply wouldn't work here unless, as in the case of Old Trafford, it was re-laid a few times a year.

"Manchester United can obviously afford to do that but it would be a ridiculously high expense for us, especially since Croke Park is about twice the size of a soccer pitch. We all remember the appalling condition Croke Park was in for the 2001 All-Ireland hurling semi-finals when two games were played on a Saturday-Sunday. It cut up like a bog, with the result that the ball was literally getting stuck in the ground.

"That's what happens to a soil-based pitch in a stadium the size of Croke Park so there is absolutely no question of going back down that road.

"We need a pitch which can stage big games on successive days on quite a few occasions ever year. We can do that with the present surface and while there are some aspects that still need to be teased out, we'll get there.

"Calls to move in the JCBs and rip up the pitch serve no purpose. It won't happen because it wouldn't serve any purpose. We have the right pitch for Croke Park and will keep working on it to make sure it's as close to perfect as it can be. We'll get it right in the end," said McKenna.

Players, managers and spectators hope he's right but they're running out of patience.

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