You were sleeping while we were sweeping

Mon, Nov 16, 2009, 00:00

ALL-NIGHT CLEAN UP AT CROKE PARK: Gavin Cummiskeysees sunrise on the Cusack as GAA headquarters show Trap the door and quickly doll up for Drico

AT THE end of the day it gets . . . bright. The floodlights allow this unique process to continue until dawn. Thankfully, for the busy, ant-like workers in Croke Park on this cold November Saturday night, it stays relatively dry.

The apocalyptic storm of the previous day has passed, allowing operations manager Alan Gallagher and his staff to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

It’s always a good sign when the boss, stadium director Peter McKenna, departs before midnight. No crisis to report then. Just a curious night of endeavour.

The sports editor, in his esteemed wisdom, believed I would benefit spiritually from observing such dutiful and disciplined commitment first-hand so I was dispatched to spend Saturday night at GAA headquarters.

“Wonderful,” was my initial reaction (rule number one of sports reporting: never let the sports editor know what you are really thinking. Rule number two: take perceived punishment with a smile. Rule number three: I don’t have one yet as rule number one and two don’t really work. I’m beginning to freeze up typing this. The laptop clock reads 00.40 and I’m still on the top deck of the Hogan stand. Thankfully, a colleague left some gloves behind).

The most revealing part was the forensic preparation that goes into running back-to-back international sports events. It all began once Ireland drew France in the World Cup play-off.

McKenna granted The Irish Timesaccess to pre-event meetings with the FAI and IRFU, amongst others, in the lead up to a unique weekend.

Liaison meeting, Croke Park, Tuesday, November 10th: The IRFU, represented primarily by operations chief Declan O’Brien and Kevin Potts, and the FAI, by Declan Conroy and Joe McGlue, are present as details for the weekend are finalised. The FAI and IRFU hold separate meetings with Gallagher and his staff.

No major concerns are raised.

Pre-Event meeting, Croke Park, Ard Chomhairle, Thursday, November 12th: Every angle and potential scenario, within reason, are raised with all the relevant bodies involved in co-coordinating the two events. McKenna welcomes the large gathering before event controller Séamus Ó Mídheach chairs the meeting.

The IRFU, FAI, Gardaí, Dublin Fire Brigade, HSE, three security firms and Jury’s Croke Park are all present. It runs smoothly with, notably, no intelligence of problematic or ticketless French supporters travelling to Dublin.

Security predicts no problems.

Unless something remarkable occurs in Paris on Wednesday it seems soccer’s relationship with Croke Park is over. In the case of that eventuality, McKenna thanks the FAI for their co-operation over the past two and half years.

Back to the night vigil.

There are plenty of characters roaming the underbelly of the stadium, such as Phil Kerrigan; the Mayo man is part of the furniture in Croke Park at this stage, and is responsible for the massive cleaning operation. By early morning he seems content.

The stadium is painstakingly cleansed; Hill 16 is quickly blitzed as the barrier separating the French supporters is removed. Inch by inch, every corporate box and all 76,000 seats are checked.

The soccer posts are quickly dismantled and pitch markings wiped clean by Magi-paint. The phone company’s advertising hoardings make way for the stout merchants.

The rugby posts are both up by 11.15pm, a gentle wind barely hindering their stance, unlike the previous evening when it howled for hours.

Alan Gallagher, my guide in Croke Park this week and into the wee hours of Sunday morning, answers his mobile at about 11pm. There he is below on the pitch overseeing matters alongside head groundsman Robert Ellis while I take the opportunity to type out my actual sports report.

The corporate visitors are gone by midnight as are much of the on-site staff after the disappointing defeat to France.

Some 150 general and ground staff, keep the collective head down and plough away in the cold.

Make that 151.

It’s actually quite peaceful when the cavernous amphitheatre empties. Only the occasional echo from the team of divot-men down below breaks the silence.

There is calm, especially considering the decibels of the 74,103 crazed football supporters just two hours earlier.

An ideal time for reflection.

Saturday’s visit of Thierry Henry’s French side – certainly not Domenech’s, we are informed – gave McKenna’s team a mere 14 hours to transform the massive crater off the Jones’ Road into a presentable international rugby arena for Brian O’Driscoll’s Grand Slammers to make their first home appearance since that historic achievement in Cardiff last March, against Australia.

McKenna is an unashamed perfectionist. Turns out he has surrounded himself with like-minded people. Nothing was left to chance because the sporting world was watching.

“I have worked in stadiums all over the world and you can’t get people to work together like they do here,” said Hayden. “That’s why this is possible.”

Hayden has just returned from an advisory capacity in South Africa as they brace themselves for next summer’s World Cup. He was also in the Ukraine recently ahead of the 2012 European championships and is a regular visitor to Wembley.

This achievement will become the standard for any stadium seeking a quick turnaround between major field games.

“I give a lot of presentations to other stadiums and they always ask about Croke Park,” Hayden continues, “They find it amazing that 90 matches a year are played on one pitch. When I was in the Ukraine and South Africa I spoke about the work being done in Croke Park.”

1am meeting: The rain arrives, but the Met Éireann satellite images show it will soon move on. It is a clear, crisp night and everything is on schedule. Gallagher has persuaded French television to remove their trucks before morning, making room for the BBC, while a slight hiccup with FAI debris is addressed and removed. The mood is focused.

A former captain in the Defence Forces, Gallagher was recruited by McKenna in 2006 when the need to expand ahead of the inevitable arrival of international events saw him head up what has become a compact yet efficient operations wing.

It’s always darkest before the dawn. Not to mention coldest. But the sight of the sun breaking through gaps in the Cusack Stand, on what has now become a normal rugby international morning, makes the experience worthwhile.