McKenna confident that pitched battle can be easily won

Fifth Brooks concert leaves just four days to prepare for All-Ireland quarter-finals

General view of a groundskeeper repairing the damage done to the pitch after the U2 concert which caused the postponement of the Leinster hurling final. Photograph: Inpho

General view of a groundskeeper repairing the damage done to the pitch after the U2 concert which caused the postponement of the Leinster hurling final. Photograph: Inpho

 

News that Garth Brooks is to play a fifth concert at Croke Park brings the series to within four days of the All-Ireland football quarter-finals on the August bank holiday weekend.

Although pitch surface difficulties have been rare in the modern stadium there is a strong folk memory surrounding these events that makes the GAA community wary of the impact of what is after all ancillary commercial opportunity on the core activity of the association – the playing and staging of games.

In the middle of the 1980s the matter became hugely controversial. Twenty eight years ago next summer, Scottish band Simple Minds played a date in Croke Park on 28th June.

Initially there was controversy over whether contemporary music should be played at all on GAA grounds given the official guide’s aim to “actively support Irish music and dance” but as soon as the concert was over the issue became the pitch, which cut up so badly that 80 square metres had to be re-sodded.


Called off
It was announced within a couple of days of the performance that the Leinster football semi-final between Wicklow and Meath, scheduled for the stadium on the following weekend, would have to be called off and another venue found.

Even later in July when the Leinster hurling final between Offaly and Kilkenny was played the state of the pitch caused uproar.

Writing in this newspaper the late Paddy Downey commented: “Conditions all round were wretched. The pitch was still showing signs of the damage it had received at the pop concert on June 28th and heavy rain last week as well as drizzle which fell during the game made the whole surface soft and slippery.”

Despite speculation that the GAA authorities might introduce a rule to prohibit staging concerts on the field at Croke Park during the championship season, within nine months at a meeting of Central Council on 16th March a proposal that U2 be allowed to play two dates the following summer was, in the words of one report, “cheerfully accepted”.

Those concerts took place in early July and again there was collateral damage with on this occasion the Leinster hurling final due to be played the following weekend.


Not a ringing endorsement
Initially the talk of serious problems was played down with the late Ciarán O’Neill, then GAA finance officer, saying the day afterwards: “There was no major damage done to the field, which is at least as good as it was after last year’s concert,” – not a ringing endorsement given the trouble that had arisen 12 months previously.

Within 24 hours after further inspection the picture changed, as it was announced that “extensive re-sodding” would be required and that the likelihood of rain would make the new surface unplayable for the following weekend.

The Leinster final, again between Offaly and Kilkenny, had to be postponed and the backlash was swift. The GAA was accused by sources in Kilkenny of “money grabbing” having taken in £100,000 (€127,000) for the two days (the pitch repairs were funded by the promoter Jim Aiken).

The problem for the old stadium was that the surface was easily damaged and difficult to repair compared to the modern grass covering. Pitch technology has also evolved to make it a more straightforward task.


Entire pitch
Five years ago U2 played the weekend before the All-Ireland quarter-finals and the entire pitch was re-laid.

Although there were no complaints about its playability in the quarter-finals, the look of the pitch was poor because the rolls of turf brought in for re-laying sustained freezer burn marks from being kept too long in refrigerated trucks.

Stadium director Peter McKenna has been keen to emphasise that while he’s not guaranteeing that the Brooks concerts won’t cause a problem, he’s equally certain that the risk involved is manageable.

As the bulk of the stage isn’t on the playing surface only a small area of the pitch at the Hill 16 end will need to be relaid.

“We’ve developed quite an expertise in this,” he said yesterday. “The technique has been refined and even the transport methods have been tweaked so that what happened in 2009 wouldn’t happen again because we use chilled rather than refrigerated transport. We also harvest at night when the temperature is coolest.”

Croke Park has planning permission for three non-sporting events per year, which will be used up by the three One Direction dates earlier in the summer. The Garth Brooks shows take place under licence, which according to McKenna is “the more regularised way of staging concerts, as every event has to be submitted for approval”.

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