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Croke Park's Peter McKenna

Peter McKenna - Croke Park's Stadium Director KEIOC are pleased to have interviewed Croke Park’s Stadium Director Peter McKenna.

The capacity of the stadium is 82,300 making it Ireland's largest and the sixth largest stadium in Europe. The stadium is home to the GAA, the Gaelic Athletic Association. Until recently the stadium had chosen to host exclusively Gaelic games, however while Lansdowne Road is being redeveloped, the GAA have agreed for Croke Park to also host non-Gaelic sporting events such as football and rugby.

There are some similarities between Goodison Park and Croke Park. Croke Park is six years senior to Goodison, both are situated within a landlocked residential area and both are within walking distance to the city centre to benefit from the city centre’s traffic infrastructure, hotel demand and tourist hotspots. Both are entrenched in history for their own reasons; Goodison Park is renowned for being the country’s first football exclusive stadium whilst Croke Park was the backdrop for the tragic events on ‘Bloody Sunday’. It is Ireland's answer to Wembley and in Peter McKenna's own words, it is the "cultural heart and soul in Dublin".

Firstly Peter, thank you for taking the time to answer our questions.

City Livin’

What are the benefits to the stadium of being located in a city?

A good example is Arsenal’s Emirates stadium which is inside the city limits. It is a design which is very complimentary to what was a rundown area in Islington. It’s a superb operation and they have responded very well to the demands of being within a city confined with parking restrictions on match days local to the ground and they also use the train service.

One thing to bare in mind is for the super bowl which is invariably held in city centre stadia, the city actually bids to take the super bowl because it’s that lucrative. You’re talking about all of the attendant benefits that come with Everton supporters coming into the city in terms of hotel rooms, restaurants, bars and taxis. There is a real knock on effect and benefit to it. I’d be a strong advocate for city centre stadia, I think historically they’ve worked very well; the San Siro is a good example*. There are ones that are outside the city centre like the New York Giants stadium which is in New Jersey and the Olympic stadium in Sydney which have been proven not to work.

First of all the benefits from a carbon footprint point of view is that more people would walk to it by definition. Everton are going to gather their support from Liverpool in the main and people will want it in a city centre location where they can take public transport or walk to it. If the stadium is outside the city then you are forcing people to find an alternative transport arrangement to get there.

There’s a far greater atmosphere and a far greater benefit to the local community, I think that should not be over looked in terms of where the location is. A good sympathetic design could really enhance parts of the city where over time, when industry changes they have become derelict and the last thing a city needs is big financial service centres shut down. At 6’o clock there’s no animation left on the street, there’s no fabric there where people can engage and enjoy. You can not in my view separate where people work, play and live. You can’t disconnect those, I think they have to be seen as all part of the one.

Some great developments are taking place for example in Saint Petersburg (Zenit’s proposed stadium) and Singapore (Singapore Sports Hub) they are actually making the stadium a centre piece of the whole new district being built. They are cracking examples of where planners have looked at all of the stadia worldwide and said “no, the stadium needs to be relocated in the city limits because it animates the city and the location where the stadium is”.

(Mr McKenna stated that he was not aware of the transport plans and that he did not believe himself to be a transport planning expert, KEIOC briefly told Mr McKenna about the park and ride/walk and the railway station and how KEIOC feels it is inadequate for a 50,000 capacity stadium.)

Kirkby is a new town by all intents and purposes; it was only established 30-40 years ago. I share your view [on the transport plan not being adequate]. Everton are doing almost what Twickenham (the town) have done. They’re taking people out of London and through all the consequential hassle there and they have to come back again. You’re (Everton) just removing animation from one of the great cities. I can’t understand it; it doesn’t seem to me to be sensible.

*Prior to recording, Mr McKenna had also stated that the Telstra Dome in Melbourne was an excellent city based stadium.

The GAA were rumoured to be buying a site out in Abbottstown, near the M50 - would that not have made more sense, to relocate to a green field site and provide perceived modern facilities, including a greater scale of car parking facilities than those currently available at Croke Park (or not as the case may be)?

We (the GAA) are certainly heavily involved in Abbottstown and we have a number of pitches there which we use for team training, centres of excellence and so forth. Croke Park as it stands in the north of the city is a location you just wouldn’t swap.

It’s interesting, ten years ago when we were buying the site here (Croke Park), it was the part of the city to live in, the northern part of the city and we rejected a number of potential sites, say in Ballsbridge which would now be the celebrious part of Dublin because we felt it was so important to have the stadium here. I don’t think we’d change that although there are issues, our fans needs to be respectful to the local community (Croke Park is in a residential area) and we need to be a net contributor back into the city. That kind of partnership (the relationship between nearby residents and the stadium) can be worked on.

How can a crowd in excess of 80,000 disperse without major traffic congestion - is it any better or worse, in your opinion, that a green field site adjacent to a nearby motorway?

We find that fans move into the fabric of the city very quickly, it takes eight and a half minutes and the stadium is cleared.

The question is when you leave an out of town stadium, people then have long queues to get back onto the public transport and back into the city centre. You see that in Twickenham with fans queuing for the trains. It keeps people dwelling around the area where as when you are in a city centre location, people will gravitate back to a comfortable locality, have a pint or whatever and go and talk about the match. It’s a far more civilised way if I may so of attending a sport event. It’s what people do, they live, work, and play in the same area. That would be the mantra that most planners are coming to now, you shouldn’t have to disconnect people that commute a long distance to work and back again, or a long distance to a sporting activity and back again.

What is the opinion of the local community on the stadium?

I think it would be mixed if we were to be fair, a number of people will find it as a tremendous imposition that disrupts their enjoyment of their home and so forth.

On balance to that there are benefits to having a big stadium here in terms of local employment; bars, restaurants, managerial roles and it is a good policy of reinvesting in the community, we will establish community facilities and pass them onto the community.

The balance will always have tension there but an agreement can be maintained with good dialogue and people working with a similar agenda.

Is that why you issue a quarterly newsletter to the residents?

[Croke Park issues a newsletter that is sent to residents living nearby Croke Park every three months informing them of events at Croke Park including draws for free concert tickets, resident open days and the local council saw fit to create a Community Liaison Committee for the stadium.]

Yes, that’s part of our way of communicating with people making sure they have access to tickets for all events, even the sell out events.

Multi-Use

The stadium is the head office of the GAA, it’s a multi-use arena. What non GAA events does the stadium host?

We had over two million people enter Croke Park in 2007 that covers Soccer, Rugby, our own Gaelic games; football and hurling and concerts. During the day we have a number of conferences and events like that.

For non-sporting events, who are your major competitors?

We wouldn’t have a major competitor in the area at the moment. Lansdowne Road is being redeveloped, there is no sporting competitor. That will change in 2010/11 (Lansdowne Road is expected to be ready by then).

It wouldn’t be the same rivalry as say Liverpool, Everton and Tranmere Rovers. They wouldn’t have that level of activity. Croke Park is probably closer to like Wembley in that all teams play here; it is not a home ground for anyone.

If the stadium was not based in a city centre would these events still be successful?

Yes, but not for conferences. People would not make that travel distance because you are adding to that commute, again. I think to our sporting events you wouldn’t attract the same numbers, you’d start clogging up the arteries because everyone would have to travel. When you are based in a city centre location 30-40% of people will walk or take public transport.

I do not know if you have heard of ‘The Everton Collection’ – it is the largest collection of club related football memorabilia in the world and it includes the ‘birth certificate’ of Liverpool FC and the oldest known Manchester United programme – Everton versus Newton Heath. Croke Park is the home to the GAA Museum which receives visitors from all around the world. Why was the decision made to have a museum at the stadium and not store the artefacts in the local records office as Everton FC have chosen to do?

We felt that as Croke Park is the home of our association, it was the right and fitting place to host our artefacts and archive material. We are really pushing forward now to establish the museum as one of the first sporting archives in Europe at least. I think it’s very important that material like that is kept in a proper curatorial environment at the home of the sport not like some second or third removed museum.

We are passionate about this and we attract over 82,000 people every year to our museum.

Redevelopment

What was the capacity of Croke Park prior to redevelopment?

Our maximum capacity was 90,000 but that was before the Taylor Report and other pieces, our redesign was really to get inline with health and safety standards as they were emerging. Our capacity now is 82,300.

Why did the GAA choose to redevelop over a period of fourteen years, at great expense, Croke Park when cheaper options "out of town" were potentially available?

Again it’s because Croke Park is the cultural heart and soul in Dublin. We felt that our stands and various parts of the stadium were iconic and an important part of the city, as much as the GPO (General Post Office) and other historical monuments. Therefore it was important to keep the home of the GAA here. We wanted to maintain our games and keep playing in the stadium as it was being redesigned and redeveloped so we built it in phases – we never lost a match (no games were relocated during the phased redevelopments).

What was the most challenging obstacle that had to be overcome for the redevelopment process?

Perhaps it was building over a canal and a railway while they were both operational. That was probably the most challenging obstacle.

Was there much opposition to the plans from the residents?

Yes, we went through a very detailed planning process. I think democracy is very important, people had points to make and the design was modified as the process went on. It would have been a robust planning process. We made changes and modifications to the design in response; it’s all part of the process.

With Croke Park now a spectacular redeveloped site, still landlocked, how have the GAA managed to attract a vast increase in corporate revenue?

Croke Park has a railway on both sides of the stadium, it is landlocked in the sense we don’t have a major road running along one side of it.

We have had an increase in corporate revenue but that could be more to do with the change in the economy in Ireland, Croke Park 's redevelopment would have started almost coincidental with the Celtic Tiger (a term for the recent rapid economic growth in Ireland) so standard activities would have gone up.

There’s no doubt that if you have the right facilities, people will come to it.

One of the methods that suggest Everton would be able to afford a redeveloped Goodison Park is by building a hotel as part of a newly built stand, what effects if any has the Jury’s Croke Park hotel had on the stadium, has it helped bring in corporate revenue?

The hotel is an essential part of the visitor experience. People who are travelling distances can stay near to the venue. It’s very successful in Chelsea and it’s very successful with ourselves. Ours is disconnected from the stand, I think it’s important to have a physical disconnection from the hotel and stand. That’s just for operational reasons but in terms of a 365 day utility for business conferences etc. a hotel is essential.

Redeveloped Croke Park

HOK

[KEIOC briefly explained the situation with the site on Scotland Road and how HOK have stated that a stadium can be built there.]

Why were HOK Sport chosen as the designers?

We went through a ‘credentials and selection’ process and HOK are very experienced; they have become more and more focussed on stadia. In fact if I am right they are the guys behind the Singapore district and city centre design.

Do you think Croke Park's success has influenced the owners of Lansdowne Road in their choice of HOK Sport?

I think Lansdowne has the same issues we had, it had become tired and not compliant with current health and safety legislation so it needed to be redeveloped. There is no doubt we would have given an impetus to the fact that you can redevelop and be successful, we probably gave an overall encouragement.

The GAA will be competitive with rugby and soccer (at Lansdowne) in the same way that Everton will be competitive with Liverpool and Tranmere Rovers [as each have their own venue].

I think Croke Park’s success is part of why Lansdowne Road chose HOK but their overall portfolio will be the reason. HOK have done some fine constructions and designs. They are very creative people who have learnt an awful lot over their twenty year span which they bring to bare in every design that they do.

If you were in charge of redeveloping Goodison Park, how would you go about the project?

I don’t know enough about Goodison Park's circumstances and it would be unfair to mislead you.

Opinion

Dineen-Hill 16 is a terrace stand that has the capacity for 9,000 supporters, at the football matches the terrace is made converted to an all seater and the capacity is reduced. At one point Everton expressed an interest in trialling the re-introduction of standing terraces in top-flight football in England. You have overseen many events at Croke Park during your seven year tenure and know what is involved in managing crowds safely. Do you believe it can be safe to stand at a football match?

That’s a very difficult question; there are certain category B and category C games that would benefit from terracing. I know the Bundesliga (German football league) have terracing which they can turn into seating accommodation. I think that there will be category A games that may need more attention and terracing may not be appropriate in those circumstances.

And finally, in your opinion, would it be detrimental for Everton FC to move out of the city?

Personally, that’s looking at it across the water. I would say yes, Liverpool is one of the sporting capitals of Europe and to take one of the great clubs out of it and put it in a non city centre location would be a mistake. There is such a massive history there; there’s been great football and great European nights. Why [move out of the city]? Long term Everton are going to detract from what is a great source of entertainment and expression that stadiums are. I think Everton needs to make a courageous decision to stay in the city.

KEIOC thanked Mr McKenna for taking the time to be interviewed and he wished the KEIOC campaign good luck.