Nicola Coffey – The woman behind Tallaght Stadium

Shamrock Rovers, Europa League games and car boot sales – Coffey keeps them all ticking

Nicola Coffey, Tallaght Stadium Manager at the stadium in Tallaght, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Nicola Coffey, Tallaght Stadium Manager at the stadium in Tallaght, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

At the back of the press conference last week as a handful of new Shamrock Rovers signings were unveiled, Nicola Coffey stood and looked on with interest. She will be there again on Thursday night, busily working this time to ensure that Tallaght Stadium is just the setting rather than the story as Dundalk renew their campaign for a place in the Europa League knockout stages.

Coffey manages the 6,000 seat venue and so has a vested interest when Stephen Bradley signs a potential star; a Rovers revival next year would mean a lot more bums on seats every second Friday night. This evening, though, there will be barely an empty one on in the place and however Stephen Kenny’s men might fare against AZ Alkmaar, the priority is that nothing happens around the ground that draws attention from the action on the pitch.

Having been there for Real Madrid back in the stadium’s very early days, she is a little less daunted by these occasions than she used to be but clearly there is no room for complacency.

“That was a big one,” she recalls. “I had only come in April and we had them in July and it was . . . interesting. But it was a great grounding. When you have the big European clubs coming in now you don’t have that fear factor; you know the systems. You know what they expect and what you have to provide.”

“If you did not already, then there are plenty of people to remind you. Almost the moment that Dundalk had confirmed they would play their group games at the stadium, two guys from Uefa arrived to compile a very big book of things to be done.

Extravagant

“They came up with a 70 point improvement checklist,” she says with a grin. Some of them were for the club and quite a few were pretty minor but all needed to be seen to in what was a very short space of time.

“It’s good in the sense that it brings us up, we do work that we wouldn’t normally do . . . some of the stuff was quite extravagant; the likes of the new dug outs we definitely wouldn’t have done. But they look great. The floodlights had to be upgraded, the lux levels had to be brought up a little bit, and the media room for you guys and a working space.

“A lot of the things are smaller. There might have been something about the doping control room or the referee’s room. They can be small things but they all take time.

“And the Maccabi game was the first time that we had used allocated seating here for football; that doesn’t sound like a big deal but when you have 6,000 people who are used to coming in and sitting anywhere, suddenly you have got stewarding issues as you try to make sure people have the right seats, that they aren’t just coming in and chancing their arm. They are small things but they can make for very big problems.”

The FAI lend considerable support on the organisational front and while the club pays for some of the work, Coffey says her employers South Dublin County Council, who operate the stadium, have taken a decent sized hit for the greater good.

Investment

The council clearly remains enthusiastic about a development that was originally intended to be undertaken by Shamrock Rovers alone. Only a couple of weeks ago it was announced that work on a third stand costing around €2 million will start next year bringing the capacity to 8,000 with a fourth to follow at some stage (soon, she hopes).

But with Rovers generally only half filling the place just now and the big European nights too few and far between to justify investment on that scale by themselves, some would contend that there are better ways for the council to spend the money.

“Absolutely,” she says. “I understand that and I’m biased but I do think it’s worth doing, 100 per cent. The stadium is a good news story for Tallaght which is an area that has got more than its share of bad press. Ninety per cent of the people who come here probably wouldn’t be coming to Tallaght otherwise so there is a knock-on effect between the shops, the local businesses . . . If we can continue to build on that then it will be great.

And Coffey is convinced finishing the project – bringing it to a capacity of between 10,000 and 12,000 (20,000 when the pitch is used for concerts) will allow it to achieve its potential. The likes of mid-sized preseason friendlies and summer music festivals could, she says, generate significant income if they can be attracted on a regular basis. More immediately, she suggests: “Rovers can improve again and start bringing back the people who were here at the start.”

But even then the stadium’s bread and butter would continue to involve the rather more mundane day-to-day stuff. Inside there are the conferences, weekly card clubs and men’s mental health initiatives while outside there are car boot sales, contract parking and whatever local schools finals and club or charity games (rugby and GAA as well as soccer) that Coffey reckons the pitch can take in addition to its Rovers and other commitments. “The job is to keep the place busy,” she says, “and we’re a community resource which is a big influence on what we try to do but where the pitch is concerned it’s a balancing act because there’s only so much it can take.”

Supportive

It is, she suggests, a rather enjoyable way to make a living and the fulfilment of a dream of sorts. Like most of the players in Tallaght on Thursday evening, Coffey figured out early that sport was what she wanted to do with her life. Doing it, though, was another thing. If following the path to a professional career is difficult for young male footballers, just finding one can be a challenge for a girl with a gift for codes in which almost everyone is an amateur.

Her parents, she recalls, could not have been more supportive. As she approached the end of primary school she expected, along with almost all of her friends to go on to Coláiste Íosagáin in Stillorgan but they offered her an option and after seeing the sports facilities at Mount Anville decided to strike out on her own.

“For the first few days,” he recalls, “I was thinking: ‘Sweet Jesus, what have I done here? But once I got into it I was fine.” She thrived, in fact, and by the time she left in 2000 she was an underage handball international weighing up a longer term options in cricket and golf.

“From the time I was 18 it had been golf or cricket. I was on the fringes of Leinster; their development squads, while I was playing Irish under-21 cricket and got called up to the senior squad so one had to give.

“I suppose the team element of the cricket and the bit of craic decided it for me. I got to a European Championships, played at the World Cup in South Africa. It was amazing, absolutely amazing so I have no regrets.” That said, after long spells with YMCA and Pembroke a knee injury ultimately ended her cricket career a few years ago and she has since returned to the golf, playing off two out of Woodbrook Golf Club and targeting a win these days on the scratch cup circuit.

Humming and hawing

On the work front, meanwhile: “I just wanted to do sport, all sport, anything to do with sport and at that stage the main thing you seemed to be able to do was PE. I was offered a place in Strawberry Hill in London. I was kind of humming and hawing because I wasn’t really sure that that was the road that I wanted to do down. But there were no other real opportunities so it was that or I was going to do arts in UCD.”

Instead, she heard they were about to start a BSc in sports management and having resisted the temptation to drop out to become a teaching golf pro at one stage, she qualified four years later and took a job as a general manager, overseeing a handful of courses, for Carr Golf.

From there, Tallaght Stadium seemed to offer a springboard to greater things just as it does these days to the likes of Dundalk, whose one time player-manager, Ireland international Con Martin, was her great uncle.

“It’s been brilliant,” she says, “I got in here at the right time and had the opportunity to grow with the place. There have been the opportunities to do the other things [but] there’s a large part of me that would like to see the place finished out. After that, we’ll see.”

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