Der­mot Crowe

Déise board’s plans to re­de­velop Walsh Park have run into some strong op­po­si­tion

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Sport - - FRONT PAGE - DER­MOT CROWE

Walsh Park has be­come the fo­cal point of much anger and ex­as­per­a­tion dur­ing the last year, with Water­ford un­able to play cham­pi­onship matches at home there this year.

LAST sum­mer, two days af­ter pri­vately in­form­ing the play­ers he was step­ping down as Water­ford hurl­ing man­ager, Derek McGrath gave an in­ter­view to WLR FM. Speak­ing to pre­sen­ter Ea­monn Keane, he con­firmed the end of his reign as man­ager af­ter five sea­sons. It took much soul-search­ing. His last day in charge ought to have been in Walsh Park against Cork on June 17, but that was a whole story in it­self. Walsh Park hasn’t staged a Mun­ster Cham­pi­onship game since 1996. In­stead Thurles be­came Water­ford’s tem­po­rary ‘home’.

His last day also co­in­cided with Michael ‘Brick’ Walsh’s fi­nal out­ing in the jer­sey af­ter a long ca­reer. He told Keane that he didn’t want to hi­jack Brick’s day so he waited un­til a few hours later in the Horse and Jockey out­side Thurles where the squad met for food and some drinks and then told the play­ers he would not be re­turn­ing.

Two days later, his ra­dio in­ter­view was mostly about hurl­ing, good days and bad, how they forged a bond and made last­ing mem­o­ries. He spoke of hav­ing reached sat­u­ra­tion level. He didn’t rule out go­ing back in the fu­ture. At one stage, Walsh Park, the di­lap­i­dated ground un­fit to host Water­ford’s two home games in the Mun­ster round robin se­ries, came up. He was asked if Walsh Park’s fail­ure to make the cut re­vealed a lack of fore­sight and pro­gres­sion. But he didn’t take the bait.

“I think I have said pre­vi­ously, I am a very de­mand­ing man­ager, both to the play­ers and the back­room team and to the board, so I can un­der­stand why they would see me as, not a nui­sance, like you know, but cer­tainly I have made sev­eral de­mands. And then if I don’t find a way, I will find an­other way. But in terms of help­ing us de­velop and the cul­tural land­scape if you like I think there’s im­prove­ments we all could make. Our­selves as man­age­ment. Our­selves as play­ers. The board. Ev­ery­one work­ing in one di­rec­tion which, par­tic­u­larly this year, we tried to do in terms of the whole Walsh Park sit­u­a­tion.”

He said that he had de­clared, when asked, Walsh Park as his pref­er­ence, but once it be­came clear they would have to look at al­ter­na­tives he was kept briefed by the county board. “I was keen to work with the board as best I could. Most of my deal­ings would be with Pat (Flynn), the sec­re­tary, I would have very good deal­ings with him, very good re­la­tions with him. We would of­ten have dis­cus­sions and ar­gu­ments and it’s been about is­sues. They’ve never been per­sonal.”

He was asked about his re­la­tion­ship with the board chair­man, Paddy Joe Ryan, with the im­pli­ca­tion that it had been strained. “I have a ten­dency to do my own thing. I have just worked with com­plete au­ton­omy I sup­pose and in­de­pen­dence. That’s the way I’ve done things . . . I won’t de­scribe the re­la­tion­ship as un­re­li­ably har­mo­nious but I have never had prob­lems or is­sues.”

Paddy Joe Ryan had been lined up to come on at the end and talk about McGrath’s con­tri­bu­tion, which he did. But in the mean­time there was a seis­mic shift in the tone. Amid all this diplo­macy and misty rem­i­nis­cence, it was like let­ting a cat loose in an aviary. The lis­ten­ers heard Tom Mur­phy. He has sup­plied a car to the county hurl­ing man­ager for over 20 years and is a long-time spon­sor and Water­ford sup­porter. Mur­phy let fly, call­ing for the Water­ford County Board of­fi­cers to re­sign en bloc. He spoke of a meet­ing in Dun­gar­van called by Derek McGrath to raise funds be­fore the 2017 All-Ire­land fi­nal and at­tended by Mur­phy, some other com­mer­cial in­ter­ests and two county board of­fi­cers. He claimed the board of­fi­cers re­jected ev­ery re­quest McGrath had made. “They said no to ev­ery­thing,” he stated.

A day later in the Mun­ster Ex­press,

Mur­phy wrote an open let­ter ex­plain­ing his stance. On his stun­ning de­mand for board res­ig­na­tions, he wrote: “I made this call as I be­lieve there is clear ev­i­dence that the county board lacks com­mer­cial acu­men, drive, am­bi­tion and vi­sion. I un­der­stand that WLR FM was in­un­dated with hun­dreds of mes­sages and texts sup­port­ing my view, with just a mere hand­ful not agree­ing. Fol­low­ing this in­ter­view I re­ceived two calls from mem­bers of the county board. One telling me that I was no longer wel­come in Walsh Park, the other telling me that my in­ter­view has set back GAA in Water­ford by 15 years.”

Mur­phy went on: “We have first-class play­ers and man­age­ment with third­class fa­cil­i­ties and sup­port. We were not granted by Mun­ster Coun­cil the ben­e­fit of a home venue in this year’s ‘round robin’ se­ries be­cause Walsh Park was deemed un­suit­able. How­ever, Roscom­mon and Kil­dare who found them­selves in a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion, stood their ground and had the ad­van­tage of play­ing at home.”

And then he came to the thorny is­sue of the WIT sports cam­pus at Car­rig­anore, a po­ten­tial al­ter­na­tive, and the topic that won’t rest.

“Our en­tire struc­ture needs rad­i­cal change. Walsh Park must be one of the worst county grounds in Ire­land . . . (Car­rig­anore) is a huge loss to the busi­ness com­mu­nity in Water­ford city and county. Imag­ine the lift a con­cert or event with up to 25,000 peo­ple at­tend­ing would give to the lo­cal busi­ness com­mu­nity, ho­tels, B&Bs, restau­rants, pubs, shops, fill­ing sta­tions etc. Has any­one both­ered to con­sider the ben­e­fit that Kilkenny re­ceived from the Bruce Spring­steen con­cert in Nowlan Park?”

Mur­phy wrote that he had taken per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity in Au­gust 2017 to raise €35,000 to­wards the All-Ire­land hurl­ing fi­nal ex­penses “so as our se­nior hurl­ing panel and their part­ners could travel to the All-Ire­land hurl­ing fi­nal in the ap­pro­pri­ate com­fort and style of their op­po­nents on the day”.

He added: “Any­one who at­tended this fundrais­ing meet­ing on the 14th Au­gust last year will at­test to the fact that it was a bat­tle with the county board rep­re­sen­ta­tives present to meet the needs that the man­ager was try­ing to at­tain.”

IN 1996, Ken McGrath made his Mun­ster se­nior cham­pi­onship de­but against Tip­per­ary, a time when the county’s hurlers didn’t have much to be hope­ful about. But it would prove the start of some­thing, mod­est as it was. A year be­fore Water­ford had been torn apart by Tip­per­ary in Cork. On this day they were com­pet­i­tive, los­ing by three points, helped by a par­ti­san home crowd in an at­ten­dance of 15,000.

While they lost they were at least more op­ti­mistic leav­ing the field and ex­it­ing the cham­pi­onship. They had also un­earthed a player who would be a di­a­mond and linch­pin in their teams of fol­low­ing years when they reawak­ened as a force in the game.

The day had an added sig­nif­i­cance. It brought the cur­tain down on Walsh Park as a venue ca­pa­ble of host­ing matches of that stature. No Mun­ster se­nior cham­pi­onship match has trou­bled its turn­stiles in the 22 years since. The venue be­came the fo­cal point of much anger and ex­as­per­a­tion dur­ing the last year, with Water­ford un­able to play cham­pi­onship matches at home. The Water­ford board that came un­der fire for ne­glect­ing the ground is now de­ter­mined to push ahead with a €5m re­de­vel­op­ment, cur­rently at the plan­ning stage.

As far as the board is con­cerned, that’s where the fu­ture lies, in a re­de­vel­oped ground that can ac­com­mo­date 16,000. If it passes the plan­ning stage, con­struc­tion will take at least 12 months. The project is cur­rently fac­ing plan­ning ap­peals and the best Water­ford can hope for is that they will have the venue avail­able for home games in the Mun­ster Cham­pi­onship the year af­ter next.

But is it the best op­tion? There is a body of opin­ion, strongly rep­re­sented by in­flu­en­tial fi­nan­cial back­ers other than Mur­phy, which ar­gues a golden op­por­tu­nity is be­ing missed in not choos­ing a green-field site on the edge of the city at Car­rig­anore where a first-class sports cen­tre is lo­cated with gen­er­ous park­ing space, ad­ja­cent mo­tor­way ac­cess, ready­made mod­ern dress­ing rooms, gyms, cater­ing and con­fer­ence fa­cil­i­ties.

Water­ford IT, which owns the lands at Car­rig­anore, is keen on the idea, willing to pro­vide a free site to de­velop a new sta­dium for the GAA. A state­ment from WIT, seen by the Sun­day In­de­pen­dent, out­lines its po­si­tion.

“WIT has of­fered to al­low Water­ford GAA build a sta­dium of their choice on the ex­ist­ing cam­pus and will en­ter into an agree­ment to al­low Water­ford GAA use of this sta­dium when­ever they wish. In ad­di­tion, WIT is pre­pared to put all their ex­ist­ing fa­cil­i­ties at Car­rig­anore, in­clud­ing play­ing pitches, all-weather pitch, in­door arena, gym­na­sium, meet­ing rooms, video anal­y­sis rooms and cor­po­rate hos­pi­tal­ity fa­cil­ity, at the dis­posal of the GAA. Also there are in ex­cess of 1,000 car park­ing spa­ces on the cam­pus which would be avail­able to the GAA for their use. It is un­der­stood that there is a com­mit­tee ex­am­in­ing this propo­si­tion at present.

“The cur­rent pro­posal for Walsh Park can­not match the fa­cil­i­ties at Car­rig­anore to any ex­tent. Car park­ing at Walsh Park de­pends solely on street park­ing mainly in res­i­den­tial ar­eas. The pitch is much smaller than Thurles pitch or Páirc Uí Chaoimh and can­not be ex­tended with­out com­pro­mis­ing spec­ta­tor ac­com­mo­da­tion. The spec­ta­tor ac­com­mo­da­tion on the north­ern side can­not ever be cov­ered due to the prox­im­ity of hous­ing nor can flood­light­ing be in­stalled at any time for the same rea­son.

“The of­fer of WIT fa­cil­i­ties is a on­cein-a-life­time op­por­tu­nity for Water­ford GAA and the GAA in gen­eral. It is an op­por­tu­nity not to be dis­missed with­out ex­ten­sive con­sid­er­a­tion. It would be a fa­cil­ity that would pro­vide for Water­ford GAA for many years to come un­like the cur­rent pro­posal for Walsh Park which is a stop­gap mea­sure with no long-term vi­sion be­ing con­sid­ered.”

Car­rig­anore, now re­garded as un­suit­able by the board, emerged as a vi­able op­tion ten years ago when the cur­rent board sec­re­tary Pat Flynn was chair­man. He an­nounced to del­e­gates to­wards the end of 2008 that a fea­si­bil­ity study into build­ing a sta­dium at Car­rig­anore cam­pus (ini­tially pro­posed by the Port­law club two years be­fore) was to be con­ducted. He said at the time that “the mer­its of this are very pos­i­tive” and that it will be “for the ben­e­fit of fu­ture gen­er­a­tions”. In July of that year the county board con­firmed that it was go­ing to fully ex­am­ine build­ing a new 16/20,000-seater sta­dium at Car­rig­anore. It never ma­te­ri­alised.

BY THE time Ken McGrath made his grand in­tro­duc­tion in 1996, ma­jor works had been com­pleted at Walsh Park with a new stand built with a ca­pac­ity for 5,000. Two years ear­lier, Fra­her Field in Dun­gar­van had a £500,000 re­vamp. Be­tween the two pro­jects, over £1m was spent and a large debt left be­hind which the board has been grap­pling with for most of the time since. Un­pop­u­lar club levies were in­tro­duced to help re­duce the board’s debts. In 2015, it was re­ported that a fi­nan­cial pack­age worth around €500,000 from the provin­cial coun­cil had vir­tu­ally wiped out the board’s re­main­ing loan re­pay­ments.

In de­fend­ing the de­ci­sion to opt for Walsh Park over Fra­her Field and Car­rig­anore, Paddy Joe Ryan has re­ferred to the old county ground be­ing the pre­ferred op­tion for both the Mun­ster Coun­cil and the GAA. When Water­ford sought to have Nowlan Park as its pre­ferred venue to host their ‘home’ games ear­lier this year in the Mun­ster Cham­pi­onships, Ryan said the provin­cial coun­cil in­sisted that ex­ist­ing reg­u­la­tions made this un­ac­cept­able. All neu­tral games had to be played at venues within the prov­ince. Ryan ef­fec­tively said that their hands were tied. The anom­alies in this line of ar­gu­ment quickly sur­faced. The re­play of the Le­in­ster se­nior hurl­ing fi­nal took place in Thurles, to use one ex­am­ple.

Those con­cerned about de­vel­op­ing Walsh Park high­light is­sues around park­ing, the ab­sence of flood­lights and the ab­sence of any com­mer­cial rev­enue streams through host­ing events like con­certs, as well as the size of the pitch. A study of Water­ford’s form in league and cham­pi­onship matches at the venue against top divi­sion op­po­nents over the last 20 years threw up some in­ter­est­ing re­sults. In Walsh Park, Water­ford’s win rate was no­tably lower than big­ger pitches in Kilkenny, Cork and Thurles, where large ar­eas tend to suit the ex­pan­sive game they’ve tra­di­tion­ally liked to play. Even with the re­de­vel­op­ment, Walsh Park’s play­ing sur­face can­not be ex­tended.

The cost of Car­rig­anore is in dis­pute, with the county board say­ing it could cost as high as €36m at one stage, al­though other es­ti­mates show it would be fea­si­ble to build a 16-20,000 all-seater sta­dium there for €15m. Dun­gar­van’s Fra­her Field in the west of the county, which had flood­lights, has also been ex­am­ined. Sources say that to build a 15,000 all-seater at Fra­her Field would cost around €10.5m, and it is also a dis­tance away from Water­ford’s main pop­u­la­tion base. Walsh Park, if it were to be an all-seater, which is not in the cur­rent plans, would cost around €5m and have a ca­pac­ity of 12,500.

The board went with Walsh Park, claim­ing it had the back­ing of clubs. This is also in dis­pute, with sources say­ing that it was pre­sented to them as the only vi­able op­tion and they ac­qui­esced. There was no de­bate of any sig­nif­i­cance on this among the clubs of Water­ford. Es­sen­tially, it was an ex­ec­u­tive de­ci­sion.

An ap­peal was lodged against the Walsh Park plan­ning de­ci­sion on Septem­ber 19 and 18 weeks is al­lowed from that date to deal with ap­peal is­sues, which would take it into Jan­uary. If it gets the go-ahead, the plans are for a three-sided sta­dium — one end will be spec­ta­tor-free. The new ground would have 9,630 seats, and ter­race ca­pac­ity of 5,770. The sec­ond side­line stand would be fully open to the el­e­ments due to de­sign re­stric­tions.

THE for­mer Min­is­ter for Sport, Martin Cullen, a na­tive of Water­ford, be­came em­broiled in the de­bate in July when he came on WLR FM, claim­ing up to €25m had been of­fered to de­velop a top-class sta­dium dur­ing his time in of­fice a decade ago at the Car­rig­anore site but the board showed a lack of in­ter­est. He said ef­forts by him to have a for­mal meet­ing with the county board were in vain.

“An in­cred­i­ble op­por­tu­nity was pre­sented to them,” he said. “Can you imag­ine any other county in Ire­land hav­ing the Min­is­ter for Sport in their con­stituency and not even invit­ing him to a meet­ing? Does that make sense to any­body?”

He said he met with other GAA boards and sports bod­ies but he “could not get Water­ford County Board to come to­gether and meet with me”.

This fol­lowed claims from both Ryan and Flynn that the money re­ferred to by Cullen was never avail­able to the Water­ford board. In re­sponse, Cullen said that dur­ing his time as sports min­is­ter, he was “pour­ing” money into GAA clubs and other sport­ing or­gan­i­sa­tions and ap­proached Water­ford County Board about de­vel­op­ing a 25,000-seater sta­dium.

“The county board wanted 100 per cent fund­ing for Walsh Park, which was not be­ing given to any other place in the coun­try,” he said. “For some­body to blame and use some­one else for their own fail­ings and inad­e­qua­cies is quite ap­palling and it re­flects more on them than it does on me.”

This is dis­puted strongly by Pat Flynn and Paddy Joe Ryan. When con­tacted on Fri­day night, Ryan said that their ver­sion was the true one and al­lud­ing to an ac­tion be­ing con­sid­ered over com­ments he claimed “de­famed” board mem­bers.

Econ­o­mist Jim Power, who has been an in­stru­men­tal fig­ure in the Water­ford Sup­port­ers’ Club in Dublin, says a chance was missed ten years ago with Car­rig­anore. He is adamant that it can’t be missed again or Water­ford will suf­fer in the long term.

“I think that is a mas­sive mis­take for a num­ber of rea­sons,” he says of Walsh Park’s re­de­vel­op­ment. “Part of the plan­ning is that you can­not have any con­certs, and there are no flood­lights, so im­me­di­ately from an eco­nomic per­spec­tive, pump­ing that much money into a venue that will be used only a few times each year doesn’t make sense. Its rev­enue-rais­ing po­ten­tial will be cur­tailed. Whereas if you look at the WIT op­tion it is an in­te­gral part of Water­ford life and sport­ing life and bring­ing the GAA into the mid­dle of that would be se­ri­ously good for Water­ford GAA.

“Look at how Lim­er­ick has tied in with LIT and UL and the suc­cess that has led from that. To me, it is a no-brainer. This has to be seen as a long-term in­vest­ment, not based on ‘short-ter­mism’ which Water­ford GAA has been hounded by for a long num­ber of years now.

“This isn’t pit­ting Water­ford County Board against the rest of us. We all have much in com­mon, we are all very pas­sion­ate about Water­ford GAA. We sup­port it, we fund it. But I think the WIT of­fer needs to be given se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion, to be put on the ta­ble.

“I think it would be a mas­sive mis­take eco­nom­i­cally to plough ahead with the re­de­vel­op­ment of Walsh Park. Given where it is lo­cated it is go­ing to be im­pos­si­ble to turn it into any­thing other than a sec­ond-rate county ground.”

PADDY JOE RYAN takes a call on Fri­day evening. He is asked why Car­rig­anore was ruled out of the equa­tion. “Croke Park and Mun­ster Coun­cil were only com­mit­ted to one venue: that’s Walsh Park,” he says. “Be­cause of where it is in the city we will have a 16,000 sta­dium with 11,000 seated and 5,000 stand­ing. 11,000 cov­ered will be plenty for a county like Water­ford. We won’t fill it twice a year. We might fill it twice ev­ery five years maybe.”

Did they give you an ul­ti­ma­tum? “There was no ul­ti­ma­tum. No, they are pro­vid­ing fund­ing and they were in favour of Walsh Park, it is a venue where you have train ac­ces­si­bil­ity, plenty of car park­ing in the city. To walk up from the main car park on the Quays is only 20 min­utes. That’s a short walk to a sta­dium.”

He is asked if they came un­der pres­sure from Mun­ster Coun­cil and Croke Park to choose Walsh Park. “They are anx­ious to re­de­velop Walsh Park. I mean the ba­sic struc­tures are there. We don’t have to do a to­tal re­vamp. I mean Gal­way (sta­dium) is in Salthill, the city, and Kilkenny is in a built-up area, and Cork is as well. They are all the same. En­nis is in a built-up area. Lim­er­ick. Tip­per­ary.

“It is their pref­er­ence. But they are pro­vid­ing the fund­ing and we have to cut our cloth ac­cord­ing to our mea­sure. We spent the last four years clear­ing a huge debt and we are back in the black. I am not go­ing to put our clubs mil­lions and mil­lions into debt for a fa­cil­ity (Car­rig­anore) that will never be used. I mean, the big­ger the sta­dium the big­ger the main­te­nance costs, the big­ger ev­ery­thing. Un­der my watch we are not run­ning up a debt. I am not in­ter­ested in run­ning up debts. There is no de­mand for it.”

On the is­sue of flood­lights not be­ing al­lowed, he said that there were “bril­liant flood­lights in Dun­gar­van, top-of-the-range flood­lights. Flood­lights can de­stroy a good pitch and we want a good pitch. We have a lot of clubs with flood­lights.”

He spoke of is­sues over cost (€25m, though this is dis­puted) at WIT and the fact that the GAA would not be the prop­erty owner. “We would only be ten­ants there, we don’t own the land there.”

Is there no rolling back on this? “Look we are down the road, we are wait­ing for plan­ning per­mis­sion to do Walsh Park, to get the go-ahead and start Walsh Park asap. We have looked at ev­ery­thing else. We have talked to ev­ery­one else. We have met ev­ery­body. Our big­gest con­cern is that our neigh­bours at Walsh Park are not dis­com­moded and they are looked af­ter.”

He said the clubs had made the de­ci­sion to run with Walsh Park hav­ing con­sid­ered the other op­tions. Did they have enough time to con­sider it? Did you present it as the only op­tion?

“We showed them the other op­tions and what it would cost.”

But you were ad­vo­cat­ing Walsh Park? “Oh God we were. We were work­ing on it for three or four years. Some­body has to lead.”

He also took is­sue with the claims of am­ple park­ing at Car­rig­anore. “If you have a crowd of 5,000 you’d need space for 3,000 or 4,000 cars like. When we play club games there the car park is full. With maybe 500 peo­ple.”

On Martin Cullen’s claim of a missed op­por­tu­nity, he would not be drawn. “I don’t want to com­ment now, all I am say­ing is . . . there may be a bit more about that later on.”

Ryan is in his sec­ond term as chair­man, hav­ing served for ten years in his first spell in the chair. Next year will be his last year in the seat. In be­tween those two stints, dat­ing back to 1994, he served as the county’s rep­re­sen­ta­tive on Cen­tral Coun­cil and Mun­ster Coun­cil.

“The main thing, let me fin­ish by say­ing, I am in my 14th year next year and we are go­ing to win the All-Ire­land next year,” he re­marks lightly.

It could hap­pen, he hears in re­sponse. “Not that it could hap­pen at all, but f ***** g will hap­pen. I’ve said it will hap­pen.”

The fate of Walsh Park and im­pact on the fu­ture of the county’s GAA in­ter­ests may oc­cupy Water­ford minds be­fore then.

‘You can­not have any con­certs and there are no flood­lights’

Clare pose for a team photo ahead of last year’s Mun­ster Se­nior Hurl­ing League match against Water­ford at Fra­her Field and (above) Walsh Park, which is un­suit­able to host cham­pi­onship matches

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