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Saturday 26th March 2011 ko 20.00

UEFA European Championship Qualifying Group B

REPUBLIC OF IRELAND 2 (McGeady 2 Keane 21)

FYR MACEDONIA 1 (Tričkovski 45)

Att 30,000 at Aviva Stadium, Lansdowne Road, Dublin

Entry €45

Programme €5

Parking €5

It had been a highly convivial afternoon in Newry but as I thrashed the tiny hire car on the motorway back to Dublin the tension was building. On one hand any trip to any capital is going to involve traffic, and we’d made the decision already to use both of Dublin’s toll roads (costing a total of €4.70) just to get there on time. Another problem was the fact that even though we’d been in Ireland since Friday morning, we still didn’t have tickets.

That was down to the marketing wizards at the FAI who decided to only sell tickets to this game bundled up with a ticket for a friendly with Uruguay the next Tuesday. That bundle cost €70 –  a lot when we weren’t going to be in the country to make use of the second ticket! Eventually the FAI relented, perhaps when they saw the level of ticket sales which put us in the weird position of finding out that two ticket vans would be parked either side of the stadium in of all places, Northern Ireland!

Having to factor in time for ticket purchases was an unwelcome development so it was fortunate we parked both quickly and conveniently at Clanna Gael Fontenoy GAA Club, in Dublin’s Irishtown district. The walk across did build up that sense of anticipation and the translucent panels of the stadium cladding were beginning to glow under the floodlights.

Of course the stadium is the way it is for a reason. Like Wembley is for the FA, the Aviva Stadium is the way you see it, on the site of its former self for a complex set of reasons. In the case of the Irish, Lansdown Road was very much the Irish Rugby Union’s stadium, but had become hopelessly outmoded. There were plans to build in Abbotstown, the plans showing the Stadium Ireland holding 75,000 with the nickname of the “Bertie Bowl” given its close assocation with the then Taoiseach Bertie Ahern. That got dropped mainly due to cost, and the proposal for Eircom Park in Saggart as a 45,000 capacity home for the football team only, suffered a similar fate.

So when Lansdowne Road finally shut in 2006 in saw the rugby and football exiled to the GAA’s Croke Park for 3 and a half years. That took some soul searching on the GAA’s part, “Foreign Sports” were forbidden at the home of Gaelic sports prior to then and it is a groundhopping regret that I was unable see a football match at Croke. 

Eventually the ground was rebuilt via a 50:50 joint venture between the FAI and IRFU with the venture owning a 60 year lease on the stadium, with the ownership reverting back to the IRFU on its expiry.

Rebuilding Lansdowne Road was a challenge, not least due to the railway line running to the west and the housing to the north. That housing in Havelock Square runs right up to the stadium perimeter, and the architects were forbidden from building anything taller than the terrace that used to be there. The result is clever use of transparent panels and some incredible cantilevering to make the best use of the space available. It’s an extreme version of the compromise made by the Welsh Rugby Union when the Millenium Stadium was built to allow Cardiff Arms Park to remain.

But the compromise at Havelock Square did give me possibly the favourite photo I’ve ever taken. My little camera spent this Irish tour dying, the vertical hold on the sensor was going and roughly only one photo in ten was coming out anything other than unusably blurred. But as we walked past Havelock Square I spotted a group of small boys kicking a football with the space age stadium as a backdrop. I’m sure you can read all you need to into the picture. 

We saw the Irish beat Former Yugoslav Republic (now North) Macedonia far more easily than the scoreline would suggest. Looking back, the game was something of a first for me, I’d never attended an international as a neutral before. But, and here’s the truth of those last 3 games. It didn’t feel like being a neutral, because I said at the start of the Bohemian piece, we have so much more in common than that would divide us.