The locals call her Ol’ Croker.
J.J. Daly, a tour guide who’s conducted hundreds of walking tours through Croke Park — Ireland’s most cherished and historic sporting venue — carefully instructed his latest batch of wide-eyed tourists not to walk on the stadium’s massive pitch. It’s an honor specifically reserved for Gaelic athletes, bound to their county teams by birth, each second of their athletic conquests on the stadium’s immaculate, perennial ryegrass field taken in by nearly 83,000 fans who pack the steep grandstands for each hurling or Gaelic football match.
Beer is served at Ol’ Croker. But drinking isn’t allowed inside the actual bowl — a curious fact to a foreigner who passes pub after pub after pub en route to the parking lotless venue on Jones Road. Daly, dressed in a raincoat to shield himself from Dublin’s seemingly unpredictable spats of drizzle and downpour, put some context to the rule:
“The Irish do their drinkin’ before and after the games,” he said. “No one wants to get up during a match anyway.”
Taxi drivers and bartenders all have distinct memories — their first game inside, a wild goal or particularly boisterous crowd. There are black and white and color photographs all over the city of heroic Croke Park moments. Now, there are signs all over Dublin for the upcoming contest — one that will pit Penn State against Central Florida in a game unlike many Croke Park regulars have ever seen.
And the men and women whose responsibility it’s been to prepare Ol’ Croker for Saturday’s Croke Park Classic have been plenty busy getting the old girl ready for the event Gaelic Athletic Association officials estimate will pump nearly 40 millions dollars into Ireland’s economy.
“This game is a massive boost to the economy of Dublin and to the economy of Ireland,” Peter McKenna, the Commercial and Stadium Director for the GAA said. “Sixteen thousand Americans, 4,000 Europeans.”
In addition, McKenna estimated that nearly 35,000 local Irish people have bought tickets for the game.
“I think you’ll see a huge crowd, well over 50-, 55,000,” Paraic Duffy, the GAA’s general director, told the Centre Daily Times. “I think it will be unique. I’ve been to Penn State to see a game and I’ve been to UCF to see a game so I hope we get that replicated here, that college atmosphere here in Dublin.”
For the last year, Croke Park officials have been working to do just that.
Head of Stadium Operations Alan Gallagher was with Duffy to take in the Penn State-UCF game last fall at Beaver Stadium. Later in the season, Gallagher and Duffy traveled to Orlando to learn more about the American game.
It’s been Gallagher’s job to make sure Croke Park and it’s massive pitch — nearly three times the size of an American football field — is suitable and ready.
“Both UCF and Penn State have been very, very helpful. Certainly on the side visits, we’ve met with the grounds guys and we’re lucky,” Gallagher told the Centre Daily Times. “Being honest, it’s the attention to detail. The devil’s in the detail for a lot of this. We’re used to American pitches. We’re used to having different games here. We’re used to putting paint on and pulling paint off.”
After a few tries and plenty of research, of course.
In addition to using laser sights to perfectly align the gridiron the Nittany Lions and Knights will play on, Gallagher and his full-time staff of four groundskeepers had to experiment with different paint mixtures.
Why? Croke Park must be reconfigured as soon as possible following the Penn State-UCF game as the GAA is in the middle of its Gaelic footballl playoffs. It just so happens an all-Ireland semifinal between Dublin and Donegal is scheduled on the pitch for Sunday.
Considering this possible scenario, Gallagher tried an initial paint mixture in February. His crew painted partial lines on the Croke Park pitch but from high atop the stadium’s roof — which is accessible to tourists wishing to view the city skyline — it was too feint. It also looked blotchy through TV cameras, Gallagher said.
A second attempt was made in June. After Penn State and UCF operations staff members made their site visit to Dublin and brought the proper stenciling patterns each team would use for its end zone, Gallagher’s team mocked them up. The paint came off but residue was visible after the Gaelic football lines were repainted. They tried again in early July.
“Try 3 was perfect,” Gallagher said.
That mixture was used for the recent Gaelic games so it would be easier to wash off — simply with sponges and buckets — to prepare for the Croke Park Classic. In addition, Gallagher changed the cutting pattern of the grass as he felt Croke Park’s usual diagonal striping would contrast poorly with the horizontal yard lines on American fields.
There was also plenty of concern for how to protect the iconic pitch from the rigors of college football — facemasks digging into the grass and 300-plus pound athletes wearing heavily spiked cleats. Gallagher’s solution wasn’t a tough one. Since Croke Park’s pitch is mostly sand-based, he was able to vacuum out plenty of the moisture in the center of the field in order to stiffen it up.
“It’s harder than normally what we would play for a Gaelic game,” Gallagher said. “That is really what we’re hoping that that will save the turf. We’re lucky with the system, rain won’t have much of an impact. Our moisture levels at the moment are below what it would be for a Gaelic game. So it’s harder.”
Meanwhile, the stadium received plenty of visible upgrades in preparation for the game. Croke Park Classic banners had already been hung across the stadium’s ribbon boards while Penn State and UCF related advertising signs were stretched over the lowest 10 rows since the angle from those seats will offer virtually no view due to the decreased dimensions of the playing surface.
The sound system has also received an overhaul. Gallagher leaned back against the fence separating the first row of seats from the sideline and pointed toward the sky as “Zombie Nation” — the techno pump-up song played often at Beaver Stadium — pumped through the public address system on Friday.
“It’s just the scale of what is American football,” Gallagher said. “You’ve heard some of our rehearsals with sound. That would not be a traditional Gaelic football or hurling sound setting. So it’s new, the entertainment. It’s looking at the branding. The TV setup. Even our locker rooms. Normally we would have two teams on one side of the stand. A team is traditionally 30 in a panel. We have 120 (college football) players and they’re big. So all of that kind of came. Learning that.”
With all of this experience, there’s no need to learn how to convert the stadium back for Gaelic football. Gallagher already has a deadline to prepare for the next day’s highly anticipated matchup between Donegal and Dublin.
A team of four contractors will scrub the paint away. Two teams of four will bring down the flourescent yellow goalposts — Gallagher’s not sure why but they could not order traditional yellow ones — and two more teams will reinstall the Gaelic posts. Another team will be on standby in case anything goes awry.
He expects the process to return Ol’ Croker to her familiar, beloved configuration will be as smooth as ever.
“We will start that roughly a half an hour after the game is over,” Gallagher said. “Our objective is to have everything done onmidnight by Saturday. And then on Sundaymorning, we’ll give it a final cut early and mark it for our Gaelic games.”