The Donegal man whose company helped get Stadium Australia ready for Ireland’s World Cup opener

Declan Sharkey

Seán O'Connor

Two months today will mark an historic occasion in Irish women’s sport.

A road that began in Tallaght and stopped off in Glasgow will end in Sydney on July 20 as Vera Pauw’s side take on the Matildas in their World Cup opener at the 83,500-capacity Stadium Australia.

The Group B clash was originally to take place in the smaller Sydney Football Stadium, but unprecedented demand for tickets saw the clash moved to Stadium Australia.

The venue sits 20km west of the city centre, was built for the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney and will be the largest crowd Ireland have ever played in front of.

Stadium architecture practice Populous were tasked with redeveloping several parts of Stadium Australia to get it ready for the World Cup, with the Homebush venue also pencilled in to host the final on August 20.

Amber Barrett’s famous play-off strike against Scotland sealed Ireland’s ticket to the World Cup, but another Donegal native played a big role in getting the colossal venue ready for Ireland’s first match at a major tournament.

“We were hired originally to deliver the stadium for the 2000 Olympic Games,” senior principal architect and director at Populous Declan Sharkey, who has been with the company for 14 years, told the Irish Independent.

“The capacity then was just under 120,000. The venue has been really successful when you look at the Olympic Games, the 2003 Rugby World Cup, the AFL, as well as all of the concerts it holds.

“We were brought in a few years ago to look at a multi-million dollar upgrade, and it was an opportunity for us to redefine the stadium. I remember after that goal, Amber said now they have something to dream for. It was our responsibility to turn those dreams into a reality.

“There was a big focus on how we could make the facility current. What we did was take the four changing areas and turn them into gender-neutral areas, with simple changes like urinals changed to cubicles, cubicles being put around all of the showers and increased vanity areas.

“There’s a new, sophisticated lighting system there, too, that will allow teams to take over the changing room and feel like they belong during the World Cup.

“In 2021, we designed and delivered the world’s largest straight-run video screen measuring 120m long and 10m high. I’m confident the Irish fans, combined with that screen, will create a superb atmosphere in July.

“Ireland fans going to the match can expect a contemporary stadium with an incredible atmosphere. It’s designed to make it a true home for the Women’s World Cup. The opening game is incredibly exciting and to see it at full capacity will be amazing. We all know what Irish fans bring in terms of atmosphere.”

The opening game isn’t the only connection Populous has to these shores. The practice have also designed the Aviva Stadium, worked on Croke Park and the 3Arena and are currently redeveloping Casement Park, with the latter part of Britain and Ireland’s bid to host Euro 2028.

“Growing up in Donegal, I spent my weekends watching Match of the Day and the Sunday Game religiously, so being able to combine my passion for sport with my profession has been perfect,” added Sharkey.

“When we got a site as prestigious as Lansdowne Road, we had to respond with a design that was appropriate. It was very challenging, but we always say when we’re given constraints, it often results in the best designs.”

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