Special beds, 22oz steaks, and lots of avocados: home from home for Ireland’s sporting elite
Carton House is the training home to some of the country's elite sports teams, where it caters to the needs of professional football and rugby players
Ireland’s rugby squad train at Carton House. Photograph: INPHO/Morgan Treacy
How many Irish country house hotels can you think of that have two championship golf courses? A few. And how many of those also have an exact replica of the Croke Park pitch in their backyard? Only one.
“Sports teams account for 15 per cent of Carton House’s bed bookings and 100 per cent of our PR,” says Adrian McLaughlin, general manager of the Co Kildare hotel that is home to the Irish rugby team, players and support staff, for more than four months of the year, and has accommodated high-profile international squads including Real Madrid (with Cristiano Ronaldo), which visited for a pre-season training camp in 2009.
The hotel regularly plays host to English soccer teams, including Newcastle and Ipswich, to GAA squads including Tyrone and Dublin, and American football teams, such as last year’s visit from Boston College. It is those impressive facilities – the playing fields can convert to two full-size soccer or rugby pitches – that are one of the hotel’s main draws for sport’s elite squads.
But it takes more than an impressively manicured swathe of green to keep these sporting giants happy, and willing to make repeat bookings for training camps, or pre-match preparations.
The seclusion of the 1,100 acre estate is an advantage. And even within the grounds of the establishment, developed as a golf resort and hotel by the Co Tyrone Mallaghan family in 2000, players can train on the pitches, shielded by a massive fence, work out in the gyms and attend team meetings, before making their way to their bedrooms without having to come into contact with the public at all.
These guys, across most of the sports, they get what they want,” says McLaughlin. “That in itself is a challenge because the expectation rises, but not necessarily the budget
Rarely is the entire hotel block-booked by a sports team – Boston College was an exception; the football team reserved all 165 bedrooms for its visit last August – but a series of private corridors and passages leading from the gym and team rooms, and private dining facilities, means you’re unlikely to bump into your hero over the breakfast buffet.
Discretion, also a requirement, comes from the top down here. “I have a lot of team managers, players and extended associates of high-profile teams in my phone [contacts],” says McLaughlin, whose call of duty has extended to tracking down a player’s wedding ring lost in transit; arranging the wedding in New York of another; rushing forgotten passports to Dublin airport and football boots to a stadium, and “ensuring favourite pillows are kept secure”.
“You could very easily come here as a guest when there is a team staying and not know,” says Monica O’Byrne, director of sales and marketing.
The level of privacy required depends on the team, O’Byrne says. “The big teams, soccer players especially, they want to be able to come in and not be bombarded by people. In general, most of the high-performance teams have private dining facilities for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Some of them do walk around the hotel, but that’s entirely up to them.”
McLaughlin says he was asked to provide six new, extra firm, beds for the Irish rugby team this year, but in general the sports teams do not make out-of-the-ordinary demands of the housekeeping staff.
“We try to make sure that the same people get the same bedroom, if that’s what they want. There are the usual little idiosyncracies – some like feather pillows, some don’t,” O’Byrne says.
And do they share or have their own rooms? “It depends on the team. The American football teams, that’s a completely different discipline altogether, how they do things is very different. It’s college football, so coach is god . . . they have to be in bed by a certain time and their rooms are checked to make sure they’re all in bed. It’s very regimented.”
One of the most satisfying aspects of O’Bryrne’s interaction with this side of the hotel’s business is when a player, or member of the entourage, enjoys their stay so much they return for a personal visit. Manchester United and Ireland player John O’Shea, and Wigan player Christopher McCann both held their wedding receptions at the hotel, and Ipswich manager Mick McCarthy is a regular visitor in both a professional and private capacity. “He never leaves before he books in for next year,” says McLaughlin.
McLaughlin is a cousin of Northern Ireland soccer manager Michael O’Neill, whose players have also trained at Carton. “He just loves the facilities here.” And the Tyrone Gaelic football team “never pass the door without coming in”, McLaughlin says. “Mickey Harte is the owner’s brother-in-law, so there’s a very strong relationship with Tyrone here.”
Feeding the players well plays a major part in the hotel’s game plan for holding on to this lucrative business, and executive head chef Matt Murphy works with visiting teams’ nutritionists or coaches to tailor individual menus. But it is not a completely à la carte experience – there are budgetary constraints as well as nutritional considerations.
“These guys, across most of the sports, they get what they want,” says McLaughlin. “That in itself is a challenge because the expectation rises, but not necessarily the budget. I have had discussions in the last year with a very significant GAA team, a significant rugby team and a significant football team on our inability to continue to give them what they really want without them having to stump up on their budgets.”
The international teams want organic, and they want grass-fed beef. They ask for the sources and you have to be able to prove where you’re getting it from
So what might those daily food budgets be? “A football team could have a budget of say €70 per player for dinner; a rugby team would be more like €32 or €33. The football team might have a €15 lunch and a rugby team might have a €30 lunch. On average, you’re up to €100 a day for a rugby team player, and soccer would be €120/€130, depending.”
“Some of those soccer teams would be spending up around €210,” adds chef Murphy. “If they want king prawns fresh from the boat, we’re going to get them, but they’re going to have to pay for them,” says McLaughlin.
The king prawns would most likely get the nutritionists’ appproval, but in general fish can be a hard sell to the players, who have to eat proteins in volume, according to Murphy. “You can get them to eat a piece of hake or bream or red mullet, but they’re not going to load up on it, so we created a 10oz fishcake. It tasted good and they wanted to eat it, whereas if they looked at a 10oz piece of fish, they would not want to consume it.”
Steaks, usually ribeyes, are popular, and size matters. “You’re not going to give them an 8oz fillet, because they’ll eat three of them,” Murphy says. Peter Hannan’s Himalayan salt-aged beef is popular, with some of the players’ families supplying stock to the Northern Ireland meat merchant.
Not surprisingly, across all sports, the players’ diets are healthy and nutritious. Supplies have to come from traceable sources, and Murphy says he “tries to look for nitrate-free stuff”, but that requests for organic depends on the team.
“For some it doesn’t matter, provincial teams for example, but the international teams want organic, and they want grass-fed beef. They ask for the sources and you have to be able to prove where you’re getting it from.”
Just don’t stand in the way of a rugby player and his avocado though. “They eat a lot of them, they’re consumed as much as protein. We always have a lot of avocado – it’s hard to get it right – I would say we have about 5-10k of avocado constantly. It’s one of the things we’re always watching in the cooler to make sure we have it ripe.”
Chef Matt Murphy reveals what a player staying at Carton House for a training camp might get through in a day:
“They’ll have very lean bacon, probably about six rashers, and three to four eggs – they like standing in line waiting for the chefs to cook their poached eggs. At least half will have some vegetables too . . . sliced tomatoes, red onions, avocado. On top of that, wholemeal breads, and porridge – a good 8-10oz bowl with a lot of fresh berries and bananas. They like fruit smoothies too and have their own blenders to make them, at least a pint.”
“A meat dish, say sweet-and-sour pork chops, with 8oz of protein, with potato or a grain or pasta, and on the veg side – they’re good veg eaters – two greens.”
“For the rugby players, we might make something like fajitas at three or four o’clock, when they have a break. A couple of the teams do fruit smoothies.”
“Another protein, starch, vegetable meal. Desserts are a treat, usually it’s fresh fruit, they eat a lot of fruit. And we’ve been doing some desserts with natural rather than processed sugar, such as pineapple upside down cake (more pineapple than cake), with honey or maple syrup rather than sugar.”
“Not generally. They’re pretty well fed, we take care of them well enough.”