Saturday 21 September 2019

The voice, the stomach, the brain and the pulse - Meet the people who make All-Ireland final day happen

Croke Park announcer Jerry Grogan (left), executive chef Ruairí Boyce (centre) and the Croke Park ground staff.
Pics: Damien Eagers
Croke Park announcer Jerry Grogan (left), executive chef Ruairí Boyce (centre) and the Croke Park ground staff. Pics: Damien Eagers

Mícheál Ó Scannáil

Match-day events on Croke Park's hallowed turf and in its famed stands are the beating heart of Ireland's most famous stadium, but it is its other vital organs that ensure All-Ireland final day can live, breathe and thrive.

While on the surface, the event glides by seamlessly for supporters, underneath, there is a complex network of systems working constantly in tandem in Croke Park.

Please log in or register with Independent.ie for free access to this article.

Log In

The anonymity of this group of people is a testament to their ability to ensure that all these fans have to worry about is whether they'll go home with a smile on their face or whether 'next year will be our year'.

As Kerry and Dublin prepare to do battle again for the Sam Maguire, meet the eyes and ears, voice and stomach of Croke Park - people whose job to facilitate and showcase the All-Ireland final is best done if they remain unnoticed.

THE VOICE

You may not know the name Jerry Grogan or even what he looks like, but if you are a fan of GAA, from a county that is lucky enough to visit Croke Park anyway, you will undoubtedly recognise his voice.

On All-Ireland final replay day, Grogan will sit to the right of the Hogan Stand tunnel, microphone in hand with the day's schedule in front of him. He is the man who will herald half-time performers and Cumann na mBunscol games, introduce dignitaries and announce substitutions, and how much extra-time the losing side will have to steal victory, and how long the other will have to hold on.

The crowd in these moments, will hang on his every word. Despite this, Grogan, who has worked in Croke Park in different roles for over four decades, will not be nervous.

GAA Newsletter

Expert GAA analysis straight to your inbox.

"We get ready for all that and then before the game I have to introduce the Taoiseach and the President and the president of the GAA, when they arrive, so I announce that and then I help the children to bring the cup up to the plinth, part of the ceremony of the day," he smiled.

"I look over my notes and then I call the substitutes when they come on, and I radio that up to the big screen. Lots of announcements about the half time entertainment and the presentation of the cup and things.

"I don't really think about the crowd at all. I'm a bit long in the tooth for the nerves, I'm at it for so long, but I get a great buzz out of it. There's a great adrenaline buzz from it. I get excited every time I come into Croke Park stadium whether there's a game on or not, but obviously on a big match day, particularly All-Ireland days, and one with my own Kerry in is particularly special."

CP2.jpg
Jerry Grogan, stadium announcer, prepares the Sam Maguire Cup for the All Ireland football replay on Saturday between Dublin and Kerry at Croke park. Picture: Damien Eagers/INM

Grogan calls himself a Kerry Blue - born and raised in Cahersiveen, Co Kerry, he has lived in Dublin for over 40 years. While he admitted that there is no doubt where his loyalties lie come Saturday, the Kerry man is the National PRO for Cumann na mBunscol, where he has seen 23 of the 26-man Dublin panel play in finals in Croke park.

He boasts about photos he has of Jack McCaffery and Cormac Costello wearing the green and gold of the Kingdom in such finals. Grogan is a quintessential GAA person. When Johnny Cooper was red-carded in the drawn All-Ireland final, he struggled to keep his emotions in check. "Sometimes I'm tempted for biased announcements alright, but I'd be fired on the spot so I'd keep it for afterwards," he admitted.

Grogan also has another special task on All-Ireland final day. It is his job to hold onto the trophy the night before the match and bring it to Croke Park in the morning. The replica Sam Maguire that he will bring from his home on Saturday is worth in the region of €55,000, the original which is housed in Croke Park, he says is priceless.

Whether or not he sleeps with the trophy, he was unwilling to add.

"I have a great job of bringing the cup over to RTÉ for the Up For the Match programme the night before the match and I love that. Then I bring it in at 8.15 on the morning of the game into the museum where there's a mass to start the day. I put the cup on the alter, it's a nice little ceremony and I'm privileged to be part of that. I really love it.

"I couldn't give away my bedroom secrets but he's kept close by, I'll put it that way. Sam is very special for Kerry people."

THE FOOD

If Grogan is the voice of Croke Park, Richard Li, General manager for catering and Ruairí Boyce, executive chef, are the stomach.

On Saturday, Richard will coordinate 900 Aramark staff that will take care of all of the food and drinks consumed at the match, while Ruairí will head a massive team of caterers who will feed the hungry supporters.

On the corporate levels 2,400 people will be catered for with 6,500 to 7,000 on premium levels, and they're all on different menus as well. Food will be served on seven levels with 70 suites enjoying based on clients own wishes. A further 45,000 to 50,000 fans will be served on public levels.

Richard Li's job is to ensure not only all of this, but also all of the drinks served runs smoothly.

On All-Ireland final day Ruairí is the first in at 7am or 8am, then 50 chefs and catering assistants come after him.

"Everything cooked freshly in the morning. At 11am, 200 staff for the suite level arrive and the same at 12pm for premium levels. Then 450-500 staff arrive for public level from 2pm on, for food and drink only.

"We pride ourselves on the on-the-job training for our staff. Every match-day we provide ten or 15 minutes of training. Also then throughout the year we have cashier training, bar-tending training and hospitality training.

"For the All-Ireland final we're looking at 45,000 pints and 14,000 or 15,000 cups of tea or coffee. We're expecting about 1,500 carvery meals as well. On top of that, 8000 handmade hot dogs and burgers will be eaten across all levels, 5500 portions of chips and just under 18,000 bottles of soft drinks.

"People always ask me how many pints do you sell or how many kegs to do you buy, but that's not how we measure our jobs, we measure it on how happy we can make the supporters and how much they enjoy their day."

CP4.jpg
Rory Boyce, executive chef, and Carl Opperman prepare food in the Croke Park kitchens Picture: Damien Eagers/INM

Aramark Europe executive chef for Croke Park, Ruairí Boyce has the job of designing the menus for the All-Ireland final, as well as perfecting the dishes and ensuring that every dish on every menu is perfect on the day.

The food is prepared in advance in a large cold room and prep kitchen under Hill 16 and sent around the stadium very early on the day of a match to 14 satellite kitchens in the stadium, before being cooked at the nearest restaurant to where the food will be served. The items on the menu, Ruairí says, are carefully selected to represent the teams playing on the day. Ingredients for the food, like herbs, fruit, vegetables and honey, come from the stadium's farm in North Dublin.

Any compostable waste on the day will also be sent to be processed and returned back to the farm where the cycle is repeated. Because of the themed menus, Ruairí doesn't decide what he will cook until after the All-Ireland semi finals.

"Typically I would wait until about 5.30pm on the day of an All-Ireland semi final before I even approach writing a final menu and the reason for it is, we like to feature the competing counties in our menus," he said.

"I think it's quite special and it's a nice little touch. Provenance is hugely important to us here in the stadium. We do it all year round but we put a little more focus on a final. So this weekend with Kerry and Dublin playing, on one of our menus, Baily and Kish, on the West Pier in Howth are smoking bespoke organic salmon for us and we have some really beautiful crab coming from dingle and there are lots of little things like that from the counties that we put into our menus.

"The chefs a very talented group. I believe they are the best events crew in the country. Some of them are Michelin Star-trained, we have a very wide array of chefs which also include a first year student in TUD and a first second year student from Cathal Brugha Street.

"We don't like to focus on stadium food because there's a preconception about it but we pride ourselves on a very good burger, a very good handmade hotdog, very good fries. After that, it's entirely up to the clients what they want - We have some people that might be eating lobster and people next door that might want to eat cocktail sausages."

THE PITCH

Without a pitch to play on, there would be no spectacle to see. Croke Park's award-winning hallowed ground is pruned and primed to perfection by pitch manager, Stewart Wilson.

The preparation for Saturday started immediately after Sunday's camogie All-Ireland final was over, as the grounds-keepers repaired the divots made during the match. On Monday, a rotary mower, with what are effectively big hoovers, were used to mow the pitch and collect debris.

CP3.jpg
From left to right are groundsmen Ben Turner, Enda Colfer and Marcel Bentea preparing the pitch Picture: Damien Eagers/INM

After that the nutrient levels of the pitch were monitored for aesthetics. Seaweed application and iron were used for the green colour, sprayed on Monday afternoon. The heavy machinery has been kept away since as Mr Wilson focuses on performance standards in the build-up to Saturday's game. Every line and every element of the pitch, he says, is measured to perfection.

"We're concentrating on the performance standard of the pitch," he said.

"We're looking at the actual levels of the pitch. The firmness levels, moisture content, the traction in the pitch, so we'll start monitoring that on Tuesday. Once we have an idea of the firmness, we can decide what we want to do. If we wan to soften the pitch, we will spike it to make little holes, which creates movement and makes it softer.

"The goal-mouth area and other high-ware areas are treated with seeding, germination covers and the grow lights. From Wednesday onwards the pitch was cut twice in two different directions - length-ways and cross-ways every day. It will be cut twice on Saturday morning and the nets and flags will be put out.

"Everything we do including mowing, marking, spraying and fertilising is measured accurately. Everything is pinpoint measured. If we're putting things like fertilisers or sprays on, we don't want overlaps or misses. Same with mowing, we want the bands to be certain widths and then for line marking, there are string lines put down for everything."

THE MAIN MAN

Overseeing the entire operation are the eyes and ears of Croke Park, Commercial Director and Stadium Director, Peter McKenna and Event Controller, Elaine Casey.

Mr Croke Park, McKenna, hailed his team and said that despite the seamless end product, they are like a duck on the water on All-Ireland final day, frantically trying to keep afloat. The Stadium Director said that the key to their success is that although problems do occur, they have systems in place to alleviate any damage that may be caused, instantaneously.

CP5.jpg
Peter McKenna, Stadium Director, pictured before the All Ireland football replay Picture: Damien Eagers/INM

"It's a fantastic national occasion. 82,300 people here will probably be the biggest assembled sporting organisation in Europe over the weekend, so it is a massive undertaking," he said.

"All of them contribute to make it a fantastic day out. But of course, it's all about the 30 players on the pitch. The first game was a fantastic game and the replay will be spectacular. I don't know how it will go but anyone that comes here will have a fantastic afternoon.

"For the first couple of years it was stressful, but we're into a rhythm now and a cadence for how things should happen but we don't take anything for granted. If you're causal about things, that's when problems escalate. We do have problems every time out but we just have the capacity to deal with it before anyone notices.

"There is a bit of frantic activity that happens every game but you're mighty proud when you leave after a big game just to say 'that went well.' We really are like a theatre, we're the guys who pull the curtains but everyone comes to see the players. If you don't see us, everything is going very, very well."

THE EVENT CONTROLLER

Elaine Casey is one of the most respected event controllers in Europe. On All-Ireland final day, she will be the one observing everything going on in the stadium. She will also be the one that acts as a link between all of the different groups working, to ensure Croke Park's pulse remains steady.

CP6.jpg
Richard Li, General manager for catering Aramark, and Elaine Casey, Event Controller Picture: Damien Eagers/INM

GAA supporters often wonder who it is that sits in the darkened room under the Nally. That perch belongs to Elaine, along with other organising bodies, but unfortunately, as the glue that binds together all that is Croke Park, she rarely gets to see any of the action.

"My jobs starts week before the match," she said.

"I'm essentially the coordinator for everything that happens, so I liaise with all the stakeholders, the blue light services - the Gardaí and the fire brigade, from stewards, security to catering and medical just to name a few, to make sure we're all working together so it goes smoothly.

"It's not a one-woman team though. We have a special team of staff. So we expect over 3,000 here on All-Ireland final day. Of those staff, 360 are actually volunteer stewards who give their free time to work here in Croke Park.

"We sit up under the big screen. There are around 50 people up there. Event control where I sit, with loggers writing down everything that happens. We have radio there, CCTV - we have over 200 cameras in the stadium, we'll keep an eye on the turnstile counts and the Gardaí and Fire Brigade's control centre is there as well. Then we have the PA, so all the announcements next door and the big screen and Hawk-Eye there too.

"We have a great seat but we actually see very little of the game - our focus is getting everybody in safely, ensuring that they're enjoying the game and the experience and then once the game is started we're actually getting ready for regress to make sure everybody can leave the stadium safely."

Online Editors

The Throw-In: 'Jim Gavin has achieved what Mick O'Dwyer and Brian Cody couldn't do'

In association with Bord Gáis Energy

Also in Sport