Croke Park commercial and stadium director Peter McKenna has been overseeing operations at GAA headquarters for 16 years. And his excitement around All-Ireland final day remains as great as ever...
The last time Tipperary senior hurlers and Dublin’s senior footballers were crowned All-Ireland champions in the same year was in 1958. On September 7, Tipperary, captained by Tony Wall, beat Galway by 4-9 to 2-5 at Croke Park. Three weeks later, Dublin, skippered by the late, great Kevin Heffernan, were 2-12 to 1-9 winners in the football final. If Dublin win tomorrow, victory would mean Tipp and Dublin are champions in the same senior season for the first time in 58 years.
Q: Peter, you’re the Croke Park commercial and stadium manager. It’s a multi-faceted role?
Yes, and the only way you can do that is with a really good team. What we have found, here, is that the service-providers — gardaí, fire service, waiters, electricians, chefs — are all really connected to make a tremendous experience. That’s in a match-day environment and is similar to what we do with conferences. We could only contemplate doing this with really exceptional people doing the work.
Q: What are the main challenges on All-Ireland final day?
The best way to describe this is that we’re dealing with a mass movement of people. You’re effectively taking the population of Galway City and bringing them to Eyre Square, to use an analogy. Some people may get sick, so we need to have our medical facilities right, along with bathrooms, food, drink, and so on. People are coming for an experience, to get seated, and see the game. Then, they have to leave in a safe environment. We pride ourselves on organising that mass movement in a very seamless manner.
Q: Can you quantify how many people will be working on behalf of the Croke Park Stadium team on All-Ireland final day?
Close to 2,000. You’re looking at gardaí, stewards, security, waiters, chefs, cleaners, the pitch team, the event-control team. Add up the whole lot and it’s close to 2,000.
Q: Today is Saturday. How will you fill your time before throw-in at Croke Park, tomorrow?
I’m playing golf this morning, which is nice, and I’m looking forward to that. Then, in the afternoon, I’ll be looking for tiles for a kitchen floor! So, it’s a mixture of some leisure time and domestic duties. This is the 34th game we’ve had this year at Croke Park, and so all of the systems are in place. What you want is for everything to go as normal, and to be prepared if something exceptional occurs. Again, that’s not possible without an exceptional group of people working behind the scenes.
Q: Peter, I believe that you’re a chemical-engineering graduate from UCD. How did you evolve from that background to the position that you now occupy?
Yes, I graduated from chemical-engineering and then embarked on the Smurfit graduate training course. I worked on a number of different businesses and finished up running their communications business. The opportunity came up at Croke Park, which was still really in the building phase, and I worked closely with Peter Quinn on the Hogan Stand. That was 15 years ago. Sometimes, you have to pinch yourself, but it really is absolutely good craic and brilliant.
Q: What are the challenges of your job on a daily basis?
The challenges are really strategic, in terms of how to maintain and grow the business. I’m thinking of the conference business, the Monday-Friday business, as it were. You’re also looking at maintaining a good team of people and we’re also very conscious of the fan experience. We’re very lucky that the games at the highest level are just fantastic and we could have sold 120,000 tickets for the final, without doubt. Audience is not an issue, but we’ve got to future-proof where we’ll be in five to ten years’ time. We recognise that a 15-year-old supporter now will be 25 in ten years’ time, so the question is: how do we get into what they want as an experience? We need to ensure that the game, and the live experience, remains THE experience.
Q: I’m sure that it’s also a very rewarding role…from where do you derive most satisfaction?
I listen to the chatter around the place, like people saying ‘isn’t it a great venue?’ or ‘wasn’t that a great day?’ Collectively, then, there’s a feeling of a job well-done.
Q: Peter, in early 2014, it was confirmed that all debt on Croke Park had been cleared. That must have been a landmark moment for you and your team?
Yes, and the debt peaked at €250m, which was taken to zero. At the same time, we maintained a very strong refurbishment programme on the stadium, we built a hotel, and invested well in the area. We’re mighty proud of that, but that’s a point in time. Now, we’ve got to set other challenges: like where do we want to take Croke Park, to make sure it is still at the forefront of world-class venues? And where do we want to take the conference business, and continue to grow that? There are other opportunities outside of that realm to develop a return for the association.
Q: Have security protocols changed in recent years, given terror attacks?
We review with the gardaí before every event. Fortunately, with the All-Ireland finals, they’re not classified as high-security threats, because we don’t have an international component to them.
But with concerts or international events, we’d certainly take a more detailed review of that, where people are coming from and where tickets are sold. Ireland is in a very different part of Europe, and that’s fortunate. We have to be aware, but we don’t have to concern ourselves as much as you would with, for example, a big soccer match in London or rugby in Paris.
Q: What do you dislike most about All-Ireland final day?
I can honestly say that there’s nothing I don’t like. I just know that hundreds of people would love to walk the day with us. You’re in early for mass, breakfast, meeting the journalists and broadcasters. You’re talking to stewards around the pitch and then the day really flies.
Suddenly, it’s after 9 o’clock and you’re looking at the Sunday Game. I wouldn’t change a thing, but, obviously, if somebody got sick and had to go to hospital, you’d check in how they were doing.
Q: What is your favourite stadium apart from Croke Park?
The Camp Nou is gorgeous, the Stade de France has a real character to it, and Twickenham, as an all-round experience, is really good.
I also like the Etihad Stadium, in Manchester, but probably my favourite venue outside of Ireland is Murrayfield. The atmosphere in Edinburgh is similar to Dublin and it’s a really good city for an event.
Q: Do you get plagued for tickets?
(laughs) We do get a few queries and I try to look after people who have been supportive of the stadium and what we’re about during the year. I don’t have the same issue as Páraic (Duffy) would have. It’s just a nightmare of loaves and fishes.
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