“The redeveloped Páirc Uí Chaoimh will be a flagship venue for the GAA,” says Cork County Board secretary, Frank Murphy.
“This stadium will be the focal point for large events, it will serve as a high-profile venue for major championship games and it will be a strategic asset for Munster.”
Murphy immediately sets out to knock the argument that a fourth major stadium is not required in the province, certainly not one to the tune of €70m. The above comments, though, are much more than any pre-rehearsed defence strategy.
Blackrock native Murphy had just taken up his current position as county board secretary when construction began on the present stadium, back in 1974.
One significant problem existed, however, and four decades later it was the very same problem that would prove the stumbling block to the stadium’s redevelopment.
The Cork board did not own one blade of grass in the showgrounds beside from the stadium.
“The existing stadium was built on a narrow strip of land. It was not of the size we would have liked, but that is what we had to do with,” explains Murphy.
No redevelopment was possible, or, indeed, credible without the acquisition of additional land and so the county board spent more than 10 years endeavouring to purchase the 6.82 acres surrounding Páirc Uí Chaoimh. The green light flashed early last year, €1.87m was handed over by the board and so began the process of pushing forward with the project.
Central in their desire to acquire additional land were plans to construct a centre of excellence, incorporating a full-sized all-weather pitch.
“Until such time as we owned the land around the stadium, everything else was at a standstill,” added chairman Bob Ryan.
Not quite. Work was taking place in the background so when the purchase of land finally received the thumbs up, the board could move swiftly in lodging a planing application.
Two years ago the five-man steering committee — comprising of chairman Bob Ryan, secretary Frank Murphy, treasurer Pearse Murphy, vice-chairman Ger Lane and former GAA president Christy Cooney — met with the design team, spearheaded by project manager Seamus Kelly of Malachy Walsh and Partners.
The steering group had consulted extensively with clubs and inter-county players in Cork as to what this facility should house.
Moreover, visits had been paid to Croke Park, the Aviva Stadium and Thomond Park to learn “the ins and outs of a modern stadium”.
The information was logged, those stadiums’ more impressive features to be blended together in the Páirc Uí Chaoimh facelift; the steering committee, however, were determined to ensure theirs carried a certain uniqueness.
Particular detail was paid to the main dressing rooms, which Murphy and Ryan agree will be “the best in the country”.
Asserted Ryan: “Take for instance the Croke Park dressing rooms which have the dressing room itself, two separate rooms for shower and toilet facilities, a room for physio, a room for management and a warm-up room. The refurbished Páirc Uí Chaoimh will have all this in hi-spec.
“We consulted with medical people, players, all the stakeholders who would be using the stadium. We noted their input and then sat down and finalised the plan. The clubs wanted a modern, comfortable stadium, with all the modern facilities. That was our goal.”
Murphy would oversee no redevelopment unless a centre of excellence was included in the blueprint.
“Here we had land right beside Páirc Uí Chaoimh that we have been seeking to acquire for a decade. When the opportunity arose to develop a centre of excellence, it was obvious this should be the sight.
“While it is only one field, and more counties will be able to develop more than that, it is a full sized all-weather field which will be available to our county teams and development squads.”
A 1,000-capacity stand will face on to the all-weather facility.
To guarantee the high-performance, team assessment, rehab and medical facilities would serve both the main pitch and all-weather surface, project manager Seamus Kelly says there was only possible location for the centre of excellence — underneath the Southern Stand.
“Cork teams have had situations in the past where players are undergoing rehab in different locations to where training is being held because the facilities weren’t available,” he noted.
“The objective was rehab facilities as well as playing facilities would be available to players under the one roof.
“Another key component was the City Council’s desire for Marina Park to compliment the stadium and vice versa. It was agreed there would be a 13-metre open space between the stadium and the second playing pitch, which allows people to walk through the park. People will have access to the first floor of the stadium on a daily basis. It is hoped to put a coffee shop there where people can sit, read a newspaper and look out at the public park. That wouldn’t be normal to other stadiums. The stadium is unique in that it is part of a public park and we designed that facility into it.”
As for the detail of the refurbished stadium, many questions prevailed.
What would the capacity be set at, an all-seater stadium or keep the existing terraces, one covered stand or two, how many tiers to each stand, keep the bowl effect or embark on a more conventional shape?
Murphy admits his desire was for an all-seater stadium. Reality and finances would dictate otherwise. Capacity was set at 45,000 and he defended this figure in the wake of recent criticism.
“It simply wouldn’t have been cost effective to build an all-seater stadium. It wasn’t within our capacity.
“When Páirc Uí Chaoimh opened in 1976, its capacity was 50,000. The capacity has been reduced as a result of recent safety reports to 43,500. Put simply, we are increasing by 1,500 [to 45,000]. Undoubtedly there will be far greater comfort in the two seated areas than exists at present.
“The terraces will have the same capacity, but there will now be entrances to both terraces two-thirds of the way up as opposed to ground level which is the present system and has proven difficult.”
It was agreed the northern stand would be roofed in the redevelopment, but to keep its existing one-tier structure.
The Southern Stand, meanwhile, will take on a three-tier structure with the middle tier morphing into a corporate level with 2,000 capacity.
“When the stadium was designed back in 1974, provisions were made for a roof over the presently uncovered stand. That is being implemented now, by reusing the structural steelwork from the existing cover stand and transferring it across to roof the existing uncovered stand,” outlines Kelly.
“The main focus then was the existing covered stand and the fact that it had to be brought to a new level, incorporating 13,000 spectators. The existing capacity is 9,500. Many options were explored and we came up with a three-tiered plan over the player accommodation level which is the ground floor. Our thinking was that the ground floor should be for the players and everything above that for the fans.”
Tier one will hold 6,000 spectators, tier three’s capacity set at 5,000. Both levels will be furnished with shops, bars, toilets and kiosks, with the main canteen and conference facilities on level two.
A handball alley was initially considered for the ground floor but discarded with as plans progressed.
Added Kelly: “Outside of the playing facilities you have to consider waste management storage and storage for equipment. There is also the Garda control room, the TV room and the press room. Not everything can go in.
“There was also the requirement that on match days there would be no dedicated parking within the grounds. A multi-story car park was out of the question. It is fair to say the county board would have liked a dedicated car park close to the stadium.
“ The whole issue of traffic was thrashed out and a plan was set out for the various attendances that will come to the park.
“On match day there will be provisions for 300 cars but there will be no car park. A feature is that there will be an internal street under the stadium where vehicles, team buses and what not, can get in and have no impact or interaction with the public.”
And so back to Murphy and his relief that this project is finally on the runway.
“The existing stadium has served its time. Croke Park underwent similar renovation and is now the pride of the association. It is one of the most beautiful and unique stadiums in Europe. We have to move with the times.
“It is great to see our vision finally being realised.”