IN A column in the Irish Examiner on Monday, Tadhg Coakley, the writer, novelist and former All- Ireland minor hurling winner with Cork, wrote about the rewarding blend of new and old inside the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh on Saturday evening.
The old was the familiar sense of tension Coakley felt as he approached the ground, the buzz of the gathering crowd, the adrenaline rush of anticipation under a misty and darkening sky.
The new was the great Cork ladies football team gracing the new stadium for the first time, and the rewarding sense of inclusivity that brought to the evening. The venue’s hosting of a male-female double-header was also new, as was the Cork footballers finding themselves in Division 3 of the National League.
Saturday was a first on many fronts but the novelty of the evening was added to by the pristine state of the pitch.
“From start to finish, hardly a sod was broken, even by the heavier men in the second game,” wrote Coakley. “Even in the middle of winter. Even under the South Stand. The flawless surface allowed us to focus all our attention on what mattered: the games happening on top of it.”
For so long, that hadn’t been the case in the new Páirc Uí Chaoimh. When the Cork footballers and hurlers played there for the first time in January 2018, in an opening round league double-header against Tipperary and Kilkenny respectively, parts of the pitch under the South Stand resembled the Sahara desert.
When the pitch staged another double-header a month later, against Cavan and Waterford, the pitch had disintegrated into a much worse condition.
The shadow created by the South Stand had caused a problem, one which was first mentioned in August 2017, when Páirc Uí Chaoimh hosted the All-Ireland hurling quarter-finals.
The lack of growth during the winter was always going to exacerbate the situation for early league games and the matter came to a head last February during another double-header when players were losing their footing on the disintegrating turf. In the second game that afternoon, the hurlers’ meeting with Wexford, the sliotar kept falling into the remaining divots pockmarked around the pitch.
The pitch was subsequently stood down for the remainder of the league so that it could be ready for the championship. Preliminary results from the Sports Turf Research Institute (STRI), whose client list includes Fifa, Uefa and the All England Lawn Tennis club at Wimbledon, indicated that the pitch would ultimately need to be replaced later in the year but intensive remedial work and good spring weather helped ensure that the surface met the approval of STRI before the championship.
After the Munster championship, the stadium was closed so that work could immediately begin on the new pitch. That meant moving Cork’s only home Super 8s game, against Roscommon – which was a dead rubber anyway by the time it was played – to Páirc Uí Rinn.
The immediate commencement of work on the pitch was required to ensure league fixtures could take place in 2020. The pitch was dug up, the sub-structure was replaced and a new pitch was laid.
A deep dig also revealed fundamental drainage problems, which were addressed, before the stitching of synthetic material into the surface began in September.
Then nature had to take its course; from the first sowing of seed, a minimum of four weeks was required, before an optimum grow-in would require eight to twelve weeks in normal grass-growing conditions.
Now, after all this time, it appears that Páirc Uí Chaoimh has probably the best pitch in the country. “I was sorry I didn’t bring my slippers,” said John Maughan, Offaly manager, after last Saturday’s game against Cork. “I had a big pair of boots on me having read about Páirc Uí Chaoimh. It was immaculate, immense, wonderful.”
Cork football manager, Ronan McCarthy, reiterated as much: “We were quick to criticise it in the past but we have to do the other side of it now and say it is absolutely perfect for playing football. It is a credit to everyone involved in it.”
Last Saturday evening was an important match for the Cork footballers, on a number of fronts; it was a first opening round league win since 2016, and a first home win in the competition since February 2018, with those two points the only home points secured from a possible 14 over the last two seasons. More importantly, it was Cork’s first Páirc Uí Chaoimh victory in five and a half years.
“We never had Páirc Uí Chaoimh as a base,” said McCarthy. “I don’t want to overplay this but there will be a slight benefit as the year goes on. We will have four games here in the league. It is a place we can start calling home.”
This evening, the Cork hurlers return to Páirc Uí Chaoimh for the first time since playing Waterford there in last year’s Munster championship. Similar to the footballers, they will be hoping to use the new pitch in the new Park to their advantage going forward.
Modern and elite sport has changed from a live viewership perspective, especially in big stadiums. Supporters, especially those attracted from the corporate sector, often attend games now as much for the experience than the actual game itself.
The hard-core supporters are only ever interested in what happens on the pitch but the quality on show is always more attractive — for everyone — when the surface looks as smooth as a snooker table.
And it certainly is now in Páirc Uí Chaoimh.