Friday 6 December 2019

Park life was soul provider

If the walls of Páirc Uí Chaoimh could talk, they'd have some cracking tales to tell, writes Damian Lawlor

General view of Pairc Ui Chaoimh
General view of Pairc Ui Chaoimh

Damian Lawlor

THE gates around the grey old bowl won't be locked for five months yet, nor will the wrecking ball be brought in any time soon, but all the same today marks the end of an era.

This afternoon's Munster hurling final is the last marquee inter-county fixture to be held at Páirc Uí Chaoimh as we know it, that divisive old arena; a haven for some, a hovel for others. A venue, though, that could tell a thousand stories, from its grand opening in 1976 to desperate boardroom meetings trying to find a solution for those historic player strikes; from heroic breakthroughs to shock defeats.

There are many tales to tell since the ground opened in '76, enjoying a dream beginning with three provincial finals attracting total crowds of 128,000 in its first season alone. Here are just a mix of memories, good and bad, down through the years.

THE DRESSING ROOMS

David Kennedy, Tipperary's 2001 All-Ireland-winning centre-back, probably puts it best. "It wasn't what happened out on the pitch that worried you about Páirc Uí Chaoimh, it was the worry of what might happen in the tunnel or dressing room that would give you more strain."

Along the way to winning that championship, Kennedy and his team-mates landed a Munster title in Cork. It was Kennedy's first, but he didn't get the grand celebration he craved afterwards.

"We had to share our dressing room with the Tipp minors and there was a guy called David Kennedy playing for them too. We couldn't get into the dressing room until the minors had left and when we eventually went into the room, the floor was like an ice rink after the minors had showered. We were slipping everywhere.

"I togged out and went to warm up but after the game there was no gearbag. I still don't know what happened it. I suspect it ended up on the minors' team bus, put there for the other D Kennedy. When I came off the field that evening, I had nothing. No clothes, no wallet or car keys, no shoes. Everything was gone. I only got the bag back the following Wednesday at training. Nightmare. But that was The Park; you got on with it."

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In his weekly column, Darragh ó Sé offered this summary of the changing rooms. "Anyone who's ever played an away game in Páirc Uí Chaoimh will only really ever carry one memory away from the place. Those dressing rooms. They have to be the worst in a major ground anywhere in the country. I never actually got out the measuring tape, but they can't have been more than 12 feet wide by 18 feet long. The worst scenario would be for there to be a minor game or a junior game on as a curtain-raiser. Anybody who needed a rub would have to go and lie on a table that had been set up in the showers or in the toilet.

"And the showers themselves! Any time I was in them, those showers had two settings - Off and Boiling Water. No middle ground. You're there, you're starting to get pumped up, in the zone and all of a sudden, you can't see the man three feet away from you because this big cloud of steam has come in from the showers and the young lads are screaming at the scalding they're getting. There could be 40,000 people outside thinking there's all sorts of careful planning going on in the dressing room; meanwhile, you can't make out who's talking to you because it's like a Turkish bath in there."

John Mullane tells a story about one experience he had in the 'away' dressing room. "We (De La Salle) went down to play Sarsfields from Cork in the 2010 Munster club championship and they were good enough to turn the central heating on for us," he laughed. "In fact, they turned it right up to the very highest level. It's hard enough to get air in those dressing rooms at the best of times but with 30-40 grown men inside and the place like a sauna you can imagine what it was like. I'd just like to ask was the heating up so high in the Sarsfields dressing room? I wouldn't say so."

BEYOND THE TUNNEL

Into the 1990s, players rightly moaned about having to mix and merge with the crowds as they tried to get off the field and into the dressing rooms.

Kennedy recalls two team-mates getting lost in the crowd before one game. At half-time another day he was last off the pitch when he literally bumped into his father who had run out to the shop. "He was as startled to see me as I was to see him. But that was the type of ground it was - you could be battling like a gladiator in front of 50,000 people and then 12 seconds later in the tunnel you could be talking to your next door neighbour about the local gossip."

As the years rolled on, and a series of epics were played out, a general consensus grew. There were few better stadia in which to watch a game, even if some of the seats were unforgiving and not really built for the Irish male! And given what lay beneath, the players had grown weary of the cattle mart nature of it all.

Further up the tunnel, there was a gym. It became famous during the Cork player strikes, as some of the hurlers had to urinate there before they went out and played matches. Before his first Tipperary game, Kennedy had a similar experience.

"I got a real eye-opener before the Clare game in '99. We had nowhere to warm up and the dressing room floors were soaking after the minors' showers so we pushed up to the gym which was full of equipment. We ended up pucking to each other across some barrels and other stuff. Of course the lads were drinking lots of water and needed to go to the toilet but there was nowhere for them to go. And I always remember six or seven of them peeing into a bucket. This was all new to me, I was just standing there in amazement. But the lads didn't bat an eyelid. It was mad."

THE PITCH

Apart from the 2011 Munster final drubbing to Tipp, Mullane enjoyed many great days at The Park and credits the pitch for being able to host the 2010 Munster final against Thurles Sarsfields. The country was covered in frost and snow and it took his team three hours to make it down to Cork. Indeed two buses of supporters failed to get there. But even though the ground was covered in frost the game still went ahead. "Not many pitches could hold up like that," he says.

Growing up, David Kennedy had always wanted to play there and finally got the chance in 1999 when he made his senior debut. "It was the whole drive down that pulled you into the venue, the roar of the crowd when you ran towards the Blackrock End with 10,000 Tipp supporters almost dragging you into them and then the pristine pitch you played upon. You knew then that you were an inter-county player. As Stephen McDonagh from Limerick said, 'There were no bushes to hide in at Páirc Uí Chaoimh.'

Clare's Niall Gilligan rates the pitch as one of the best in the land. "Other grounds would be rock hard but there was always a small bit of give despite the heat. And you had the crowd on top of you. Magic."

THE PEOPLE

The Park was typical GAA, warm and welcoming. But when business got serious, and when the strikes and the various crises were played out, the locals could be clinical too.

The Park was a home of rule and regulation and it played host to many's a Frank Murphy rule tweak. Plenty of key decisions were thrashed out in the boardroom.

"It would host up to 400 Cork board delegates and it's where a lot of decisions, ground-breaking or otherwise, were made," recalls Cork County Board chairman Bob Ryan.

There was nearly always something light-hearted about it, though. After a frenzied hurling championship encounter, for instance, two colleagues, Vincent Hogan and Roy Curtis, were working so late on their articles that they were locked into the stadium.

As night fell and the two men finally emerged from the press box they were set upon by two fierce guard dogs. Cue a hasty retreat to the sanctuary of the press box.

Ryan remembers watching people staying on the pitch for hours following county finals in the heyday of Cork city hurling where between 20,000 and 30,000 people would attend.

"So many great games stick out," the chairman adds, "but one of the fondest memories I have is of Niall Cahalane and a referee. I'm a little hazy but I think Niall might have been chasing him," he laughed.

It was the people who made it. Whilst negotiating their way to the exit route from the pitch or main stand to the dressing rooms or exit was like trying to take on Newlands Cross on a Bank Holiday Friday evening, scarcely an angry voice was ever raised.

"There was never once a serious issue," says Ryan. "That's down to the type of people in attendance and the atmosphere that was fostered here."

Niall Gilligan agrees and says the journey to The Park was always a special one. "You'd pass the Clare fans and they'd raise their flags. Then you'd pass the Tipp boys and they'd raise their fingers. All good-natured. We frequently had full houses of around 45,000 then, maybe it was the closest to feeling like a Premier League soccer player."

THE SAFETY ASPECT

Despite the fact that it was creaking for some time there was never an issue, or a serious one at least, when it came to safety and welfare.

Even in its opening year, in 1976, when the Munster football final threatened to cause havoc, they got by just fine. Mick O'Dwyer took his All-Ireland champions to Cork and an entrance to one gate broke allowing hundreds of spectators to pour around the stands and terraces and then overflow onto the sideline and directly behind the goals. Yet, there was never a hint of trouble.

Likewise with concerts. The Park welcomed Michael Jackson in late July, 1988 and over the years Prince, U2 and Springsteen. Through the 1980s it was the venue of choice for a plethora of international acts.

THE FUTURE

The local championships will proceed over the winter. "We'll play out our games and then close the gates in December," says Ryan. "Bring the wrecking ball in."

Few want to play or travel there anymore, but the hope is that the old bowl goes out on a high.

So far so good. Two Munster finals and a paving of the way for a new stadium that will provide over 400 jobs to an ailing economy and a redevelopment which will contribute €67m is not a bad curtain call.

The replacement will see the obligatory Centre of Excellence and all the other nouveau-riche stuff that comes with modern-day stadia. It will smell of fresh paint and will look a million dollars.

But if the new bowl possesses a quarter of the soul and character that the old dear had, then everyone will be happy.

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