DURING his seven years in charge of Dublin, Jim Gavin rarely said anything controversial but one cage he consistently rattled was Croke Park’s decision to stage concerts in the middle of the championship season.
Gavin was unhappy with sections of the surface during last year’s Dublin-Cork Super 8s clash, which took place a week after Westlife had played two sold-out gigs at Croke Park.
At a press event before Dublin’s 2018 Leinster final against Laois, Gavin questioned Croke Park’s decision to host two Taylor Swift concerts at the venue.
Gavin was almost exasperated when informed that Michael Bublé was set to play a fully seated gig at Croke Park three weeks later, which required the pitch to be re-laid again before the Super 8s began the following weekend.
Concerts are a huge money-spinner for Croke Park and the GAA. They are unlikely to close the doors to the world’s biggest music acts, but Gavin was always consistent in his criticism of the pitch being dug up and replaced in mid-season.
After the 2017 Dublin-Kildare Leinster final, Gavin said that the pitch had contributed to a black card picked up by Dean Rock. Coldplay had performed at the venue eight days beforehand.
“Going into a provincial final, is that the right thing to do to be replacing that part of the pitch, probably a fifth of the pitch?” asked Gavin afterwards.
“I could see both sets of players slipping in that part. It’s not a fault of the groundsmen - they were put in a situation to turn the pitch around - so it’s probably for the management of Croke Park to have a look at.”
Gavin’s repeated views on the topic clearly created tension between himself and Peter McKenna, Croke Park’s Stadium Director. Even after Croke Park necessitated three pitch replacements in 2018, McKenna insisted the surface remains of the highest standard afterwards.
“I stand over it from a technical point of view,” said McKenna in February 2019. “We test that pitch, all the metrics of it. The pitch is put down to the highest standards and we know exactly what the performance metrics of that pitch are in terms of stud turn, hardness and so on. The figures are there, and I am happy to show them to anybody.”
After the Westlife concert last July, the pitch was re-laid for the first time with grass harvested from the GAA’s own pitch-farm. In 2018, the GAA bought 50 acres in Naul county Dublin at a cost of €700,000, as they wanted to become self-sufficient in re-laying the surface in Croke Park.
Before the purchase, Croke Park had been importing grass, but being able to grow it an hour up the road makes it a lot easier than having the grass in transit for up to 36 hours, which obviously carries some risk.
Imported grass requires chilling and delays growth, whereas it’s a seamless process when it comes from the GAA’s own farm, especially when continued grass-growth makes for a quicker turnaround for matches.
That investment will never be more important this winter as Croke Park is gearing up for probably it’s most demanding schedule since the venue was redeveloped. Once the inter-county season begins in mid-October, matches will be restricted to three per weekend.
In terms of pitch preservation, the venue could not take more than three games over a weekend at that time of the year.
And in such a tightly condensed schedule, the challenge will be all the greater again with six All-Ireland finals – senior hurling, Joe McDonagh Cup, senior camogie, senior football, senior ladies football, Intermediate ladies football – taking place within the space of nine days in the run-up to Christmas.
Normal procedure has been thrown out the window, with the All-Ireland minor finals being removed from their traditional slot. The minor hurling final has been replaced by the Joe McDonagh final but there was bound to be other casualties due to the importance of pitch preservation.
Traditionally the camogie and ladies football finals were staged as a triple-header but triple headers wouldn’t work with the mingling of supporters and the impact on the pitch surface. In that context, the Intermediate and Junior camogie finals, and the Junior ladies football final will now be decided elsewhere.
Pitch preservation will be even more challenging because the grass doesn’t grow as well in winter conditions. Having their own pitch-farm does alleviate some of those concerns but McKenna said recently that there will be elevated difficulties in maintaining the surface, especially with so many matches in such an unusual time of the year.
“We have done a lot of work with our own pitch team and external consultants just to establish how the pitch will perform in wintertime,” said McKenna. “The weather is going to be colder, more inclement and the level of sunshine is way down compared to summer.”
Those factors, along with crowd restrictions, were taken into account when considering how many games the GAA could conceivably have in the stadium, and on a particular day.
There is still a lot of uncertainty around Covid-19, and whether games may even go ahead in the winter, but there is also bound to be uncertainty around the potential impact a heavy winter schedule will have on pitch surfaces in other venues.
Some of those surfaces could be re-laid with grass from the GAA’s pitch-farm but there is still every chance that provincial games will be moved to Croke Park, which will further increase the demand on the surface during a hectic two-month season.
And that may make it even more difficult to have the Croke Park pitch in the pristine shape it needs to be on All-Ireland final day.