By Eoghan Cormican
It will be 2020 before the Waterford hurlers play a Munster championship home fixture at Walsh Park.
The proposed €5m facelift of the venue will not be complete in time for the 2019 Munster SHC, meaning Waterford will again play their two home games outside of the county next year.
Officials don’t expect the redevelopment of Waterford GAA’s premier ground, which will increase capacity to 18,500, to be finished until the autumn of 2019, at the earliest.
Despite an affirmation by the county board in January that Walsh Park would be ready for provincial championship action this summer — it hasn’t seen since 2003 — the executive conceded defeat earlier this month on the prospect of welcoming Cork and Tipperary to the venue in June.
Plans for the regeneration of Walsh Park have been drawn up, with the county board to consult with local residents in the coming weeks before applying for planning permission.
The main stand will be completely refurbished, with the existing wooden benches removed and bucket seating installed. The media and broadcasting areas are to be revamped, while a corporate section is to be built into the 6,000-capacity stand. There will be an uncovered terrace at the Keane’s Road end and a covered terrace opposite the main stand. If they were to seat the latter, it would reduce capacity to 16,000. At the city end, the proposal is to build a complex which will include dressing-rooms and the Waterford GAA offices. There will be no spectator access at this end of the ground.
“We are anxious to finalise our plans, talk to the residents in the area and get an agreement. The residents will be our main focus for the next while, as we don’t want to make their lives uncomfortable,” said Waterford chairman Paddy Joe Ryan.
“The big thing is to get our plans through the council and then start the redevelopment work. Unless the planning process goes through quickly, Walsh Park won’t be ready for the 2019 Munster championship.
“We are almost in April and the development, once we have received planning permission, will probably take 12 months. This is a job that will have to be done properly.”
Ryan estimates the entire project will cost between €4m and €5m. Waterford GAA will apply for funding from Munster Council, Central Council and the Sports Capital Programme.
Clubs in the county will also be required to contribute: A senior club will have to fork out a levy of €2,000 per annum, with €1,500 due from intermediate clubs, and €1,000 for a junior club. This levy, to be introduced in 2019, could run for a period of five years.
“People say, why didn’t the board redevelop sooner? I spent the first nine years (1995-2003) of my chairmanship paying for the debts stemming from the redevelopment of Fraher Field and Walsh Park. Of the last three years, two-and-a-half of those have involved paying off debt. We are now in a position to seek financial assistance, because all our old debts are cleared, we owe nothing to nobody.”
Ryan continued: “We’d be hoping for huge support from the Government, because other stadiums that have been built in this country have received Government assistance. Naming rights, of course, will be on the table.
“There is a moderate expectancy on our clubs to pay a certain amount every year. We don’t want to put a strain on our clubs, because they are finding it tough. In my time, clubs have never been found wanting and I don’t believe they will be found wanting now.”
Ryan says the recent removal of the Western Boundary wall at the Keane’s Road end put paid to whatever “small hope” Walsh Park had of hosting both of Waterford’s Munster championship home fixtures this summer. The executive’s preference was then to play Tipperary at Nowlan Park, with the Kilkenny County Board “only too delighted” to accommodate this fixture.
Munster Council cited a regulation whereby a change from a home venue can only be to a neutral venue within the province. Their game against Tipperary goes ahead at the Gaelic Grounds, their meeting with Cork taking place at Thurles.
“We are big beneficiaries of Munster Council. We are depending on Munster Council for financial support for when we redevelop. We didn’t want to be seen to be bending the rules to suit ourselves. We just have to go along with what was decided.
“Our supporters were disappointed, because Nowlan Park is a lot nearer than the Gaelic Grounds is. Nowlan Park for Waterford versus Tipperary would have been a central venue, more so than Limerick. The biggest disappointment is the cost factor for supporters who have to travel for four consecutive weekends.”
On the club front, Ryan is determined to have the Waterford SFC completed in time for the Munster club championship. In 2017, Waterford missed the Munster deadline. The county football final took place on December 3, a week after the Munster club final.
“We have been lacerated in previous years for not having our championships wrapped up in time for Munster. That will not be the case in 2018. We have a new structure for the senior football championship — it begins next month — and this will deliver a winner in time for the provincial competition.”
This story first appeared in the Irish Examiner.