Kerry preparing to hand over the keys to new Centre of Excellence

It has taken many years longer than it should to build a permanent home for Kerry GAA, so getting full value for their €8m Centre of Excellence is less a target than an imperative, writes Tony Leen.

Kerry preparing to hand over the keys to new Centre of Excellence

When someone from Kerry hears a Cork man praise their “simple, common sense”, it’s usually time to assume the brace position.

Only that Paul Daly, the site manager for KPH Construction, main build contractors on Kerry’s new €7m GAA centre of excellence, isn’t joking.

“You couldn’t have nothing but admiration for the way they’ve planned this project,” said the Buttevant man.

“The 600 sq metre gymnasium is the central core of the development and everything works out from that in a symmetrical spiral. From hallways to dressing rooms to the pitches. No dramas. How many times have you seen lads in finished areas trekking around in muddy boots? That won’t be here.

“If something is the right thing to do, that’s what they’ve done. It’s tricky to build, but it will be so usable, there isn’t an inch of unused space.”

The chair of Kerry GAA, Patrick O’Sullivan is nodding in approval. Or relief, maybe. The handover of Kerry’s GAA laboratory is due in May next year and won’t be a morning too soon. The Kingdom and its players has waited 15 years for such a facility. They have won five All-Irelands since the notion was first mooted by O’Sullivan and Kerry chairman of the time, Sean Walsh, often using borrowed training facilities as far flung as Mallow, Cork City, Rathkeale and the University of Limerick. Frankly, it had become an embarrassment for the home of football.

In the week Cork GAA launched its finance plan for the redeveloped Páirc Ui Chaoimh, up to 40 construction workers in Currans, near Farranfore, were leaning into the first arctic breezes of the winter at an exposed 48-acre site to have the hub of Kerry GAA ready for the first of May.

A dedicated facility with six sand-based pitches and specified drills area spread around the 3,100 sq metre centrepiece over two floors. There are ten dressing rooms catering for 30- and 40-player groups, medical rooms, physio rooms, office areas, coffee shops and referees room. An elevator to the first floor opens out onto an expansive vista across the development and houses the players lounge, senior and under-age eating areas, video analysis room and kitchen.

Step out onto the wraparound balcony for uninterrupted views of the main pitches, including Pitch 4, where Kerry game-plans for the 2017 Championship will be hatched.

“You might think 48 acres gives you loads of space, but every inch of the site has been utilised,” Paul Daly says.

“They have utilised every bit of the land and with the volume of teams from development squads to senior football and hurling, they need the six pitches to give the players and the teams every advantage.”

The design has undergone several tweaks, not just for the purpose of cost but to take on board the considerations of the key stakeholders. Said Patrick O’Sullivan: “The development officer at the time Tim Murphy (soon to be O’Sullivan’s replacement as Kerry GAA chairman) is a Quantity Surveyor and spoke at length to Kerry players and ex-players, managers and ex-managers, current medical and past medical staff to establish precisely what the players wanted and needed.

“A simple thing is the players’ lounge area. One of the issues they had was if they finished work in, say Killarney, at 4.30pm, where could they go, what could they do before training. Now they can go ‘home’ so to speak, because this is the home of Kerry GAA. They can sit down, go on their laptop, unwind, have a coffee or medical checks,” says O’Sullivan. “Everything is geared towards the players, towards giving management the best possible chance to make Kerry successful.”

The downstairs gym is almost 600 sq metres in size, and from end to end could be employed as a 35m running track. Encircling it and ancillary rooms is an orbital corridor and outside that is a necklace of spacious and breathable dressing-rooms.

This project has had enough dark days to eliminate the need for flood-lighting, though they’ve installed it for the first four pitches of the development just in case.

“This goes back to the time when the National Leagues games were before Christmas,” O’Sullivan reflected, “and Sean Walsh and myself were travelling to games up north, seeing all the clubs there with the facility to train and play at night-time. They were streets ahead. We identified lands in different parts of the county, but for one reason or another — price, permission — we couldn’t get a site over the line.”

Jerome Conway was the chairman 11 years ago when Kerry — with a €650,000 leg-up from Cáirde Chiarraí — purchased the land at Currans, a conveniently located plot equidistant from all the main urban points in the county.

Then the recession struck.

“We would have been three years further down the road but for the financial meltdown,” the chairman says ruefully. “Croke Park put a stop to all such developments as everyone hunkered down and waited for the worst to pass. We had to undergo a rigorous audit before we got the green light to proceed.”

Kingdom tentacles spread across the Altantic and a committee under John O’Dwyer did not delay in tapping it, raising over €2m of the total €8m cost (Kerry also has a €1.1m stake in a major sports science development at IT Tralee). Kerry Group signed a seven-figure endorsement too.

“That gave us great confidence to drive on,” O’Sullivan agreed.

And greater confidence for the future? “It creates the proper environment for success,” said the chairman. “For instance, all player medical records will be housed under one roof, from Development Squads up, so our specialists can track history and improve pre-habbing.”

Cladding is more Paul Daly’s concern. The centrepiece first floor with spine walls was a complicated piece of engineering involving 200 cubes of concrete and 60 tonnes of steel. “That had to be done in one go, no joins, one opportunity to get it right. If anything buckled, cracked or spins, you’re in bother.”

He slept well that Saturday night.

He stamps the concrete first floor to underline the impressive sand content and drainage capabilities of the pitches. “The slightest shower of rain, you can see the water running through the gulleys. Plus we’ve had a good run of weather. By May 1, it will be fully functional, ready to go.”

Meanwhile the funding drive continues, with €1.5m still to find. Tonight a black tie €1,000-a-table banquet at the INEC in Killarney honours the seven All-Ireland winning football teams from 1997 to 2014. Proceeds are exclusively for Currans and the high performance unit at Tralee IT.

A statement?

“A statement from the clubs,” O’Sullivan adds. “This is their commitment to the players and the future. The Board is only an extension of the clubs. This is a home for Kerry GAA. Players can come in and leave gear, footballs, sliotars. It’s their place of work and rest.”

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