Republic of Ireland v Switzerland
Aviva Stadium / International Friendly / 25th March 2016
“Yeah. I think the Irish are going through a major image change. I mean, the old image of Leprechauns, shamrocks, Guinness, horses running through council estates, toothless simpletons, people with eyebrows on their cheeks, badly tarmacced drives – in this country, men in platform shoes being arrested for bombings, lots of rocks, and Beamish. I think people are saying ‘yes, there’s more to Ireland than this.’ A good slogan for the tourist board…’Deres more to Oireland dan dis.'” – Alan Partridge
I’d never crossed the Irish Sea to visit the land of my grandmother’s ancestors, but I vowed at the start of this season that I’d finally get myself to the Emerald Isle before the season was out. On learning I couldn’t make it down to Cardiff in time after work on Thursday evening for Wales’ international friendly v Northern Ireland, I figured I’d look for elsewhere to venture for my Easter weekend break. And this is what led me to Ireland with Republic of Ireland having a Good Friday friendly organised against Switzerland. This seemed as good a time to visit as any…or was it…
Flights, accommodation and match tickets were all booked for 48 hours in Dublin, but one topic I had forgotten to research pre-booking was ancient Irish Catholic laws – I obviously always double check ancient Catholic laws before visiting a destination. Big mistake. I had no idea until weeks before flying over that Ireland comes to a standstill in regards of alcohol sales on Good Friday with shops, restaurants, hotels, bars and pubs all being forbidden from selling any. Bugger. Not exactly what you want to hear before going away for the weekend, especially as I’m a big fan of beer as regular readers of these pages may have noticed by now.
My spirits were slightly sunk by this revelation, but I soon learned that alcohol is allowed at ‘events’ on Good Friday – and it seemed that the international football friendly came under the banner of ‘event’. So in a strange, almost paradoxical turn of events, it seemed that I would find alcohol within the football ground, but not outside of it. Sorted. Now I just had to work out what to do for the rest of my alcohol-less Good Friday in Dublin?
I arrived into Dublin on Thursday night and like many others it seemed, my first port of call was the off license to buy a crate of beer in preparation for the day of forbidden alcohol-selling the next day. It was 9pm by the time I was all checked into my hostel and ready to hit the town, but instead of venturing too far I headed into the nearby Celt Bar. I wouldn’t budge from here all night as I remained drinking Guinness (which really does taste nicer in Ireland than over here), banging my hands on the table to folk songs I didn’t know the words too and enjoying the company of American/Irish lads Sean and his dad, who were visiting Ireland from their native Oregon (bonus points for them for wearing flat caps too). You see, this was also a historic weekend in Ireland, as it was the centenary year of the Easter Uprising meaning that Dublin was bracing itself for quite a party to celebrate the nation’s 100 years of independence.
It was during my chat with my American friends that they mentioned that they had been to see the grave of the famous Irish revolutionary leader Michael Collins. This is when I dropped in the fact that Michael Collins is actually somehow related to my great-grandfather (who hailed from Clonmell in Tipperary) and thus making me a distant relative of his. I figured that very few – if any – of my family would have visited Michael Collins’ grave and this was how I found myself making the pilgrimage to Glasnevin Cemetery at 9am the next morning with a Guinness-induced hangover.Already I felt my weekend ‘culture’ box had been ticked, especially as I’d visited Irish’s main sporting cathedral, Croke Park, en route too.
Aside from the city’s suburbs, I felt I’d not really seen Dublin properly yet, so I carried on my Ulysses-esque journey through the streets of Dublin towards the city centre. It was slightly soul-destroying to walk past pub after pub after pub and not to be able to go in, but I couldn’t really complain with the sun was shining down on Dublin. Instead of investing my money in more Guinness, I instead treated myself to an Irish tweed flat cap. Beautiful.
Following my wandering of the streets of Dublin on this pleasant Friday afternoon, I returned to my hostel and its large lobby area, where I found many people drinking cans of beer from their crates purchased the night before. I figured I may as well join the party, whilst I read the Irish Times and looked into how I was actually going to get to Aviva Stadium. Not that the Aviva Stadium was going to be my first port of call today…
As mentioned earlier, alcohol was not prohibited at venues hosting ‘events’ and so the week leading up to my Dublin trip had seen me try to find somewhere else within the Irish capital hosting an ‘event’ of some sort. My hunt for an ‘event’ appeared fruitless and I was beginning to admit defeat – that was until I spotted a small advert on the Football Association of Ireland website: ‘Good Friday – Greyhound Racing at the Shelbourne Stadium with Tony Cascarino – 3.30pm’. Then I spotted those two beautiful words: ‘BAR OPEN’…BAR OPEN! Had I ever been to greyhound racing before? No. Do I have any interest in greyhound racing? No. I’m not even a keen gambler, but here I was booking my reservation to be at the Shelbourne Park on Friday afternoon. Plus, there was the added bonus that Shelbourne Park can be found almost next door to the Aviva Stadium. This was all working out nicely.
At 3.30pm I began my walk along the River Liffey and then veered south towards the part of Dublin housing the Aviva Stadium and my first destination, Shelbourne Park. About 30 minutes after leaving my hostel, I found myself outside the greyhound stadium and, unsurprisingly, the majority of people queuing to enter were Irish football fans, who were also taking advantage of the open bar.
Within, I found a large bar area and doors looking out onto the track. Walking out track side, you are greeted with a quite awesome view of the Aviva Stadium towering over the streets of South Dublin around it. It really is a wonderful sight. But, I wasn’t here to ogle at football stadiums quite yet and so I headed to the bar for some Guinness.
Before visiting Dublin, everyone had forewarned me of the beer prices being astronomical, however, I hardly found it cheap, but pints of Guinness seemed to be costing on average about €5 – roughly £4-4.50 a pint – which isn’t too far off what I could be made to pay in a decent bar in Manchester. Here at the race track, beer was €4.50 Euros and so even cheaper than what I had experienced so far.
I ended up befriending some top Irish lads, who’s talk was dominated by their excitement about going over to France to watch the Euros in the summer; this is still a sore subject for me as being a teacher is forcing me to stay on these shores to enjoy the tournament (although I appreciate being a Welshman watching on in England may prove interesting…).
Soon the racing was beginning and I decided that I had to put on at least one bet; usually, you wouldn’t find me gambling, purely because I don’t trust myself as I am aware that I can have a bit of an obsessive personality and I’d hate to trigger some sort of gambling addiction – I’ve already got an expensive football addiction to maintain. As the names of the dogs racing in Race 1 were reeled out, I happened to be on the phone to my dad and so I put the onus on him to pick me a winner. I wanted to pick dog number 2 largely because it was called Sparky and had at least a small, tenuous link to Wales (Sparky being Mark Hughes’ nickname). However, my dad was adamant that I should pick number 6 as it was wearing black and white. He assured me ‘the black and white dogs always seem to win’ I’m almost certain that my dad is no expert on greyhound racing, but he seemed more confident than me and so I put a rather pathetic €3 on Olivias Pixie to win (even though the lack of apostrophe in the dog’s name irritated me). Out to the track I headed to cheer on my dog.
The day at the track had been advertised as ‘with Tony Cascarino’, but I figured that meant that the former Irish striker would be up in the box and maybe would show his face briefly. So, I was surprised to find him standing in front of me as soon as I walked out the door. The press at the track first wanted Tony to pose for photos with several of the Irish fans wearing their brand new Ireland football shirts, before I then had the opportunity to approach Casc, mumble something about being Welsh before grabbing my double thumbs up photo with him. I’m a big fan of all things Tony Cascarino, so Cascarino has to rate highly on my list of celebrity double thumbs up grabs.
Away from meeting one of Eire’s footballing legends, I had a greyhound race to watch and up onto the terrace I headed ready for the first race of the afternoon. Once it got underway, I was loving it, especially as Olivias Pixie shot out the traps and led the race by quite a distance until the home stretch. It was here my dog fell behind only to pull it back at the finish line and clinch me a win with a photo finish. I won! Well, I suppose technically my dad had won with my money. For my measly €3 I won €7 back. Big bucks! I did ponder putting my winnings on another race, but I decided that I wanted to leave the stadium and my career gambling on greyhound racing with a 100% win record.
Back inside, I regaled my Irish pals with my encounter with Cascarino and talk turned towards his glittering spell playing out in France for Marseille and Nancy, as well as some of the ‘provocative’ sections of his critically acclaimed autobiography. I also spent a lot of the conversation lavishing praise on the new Irish football shirt, which I think is a beauty (although I’m a sucker for any football shirt with a collar).
About 6pm, I began the walk from the track to the football stadium and I noticed that already there was a fairly decent crowd heading to stadium almost 2 hours before kick-off. The FAI had made no secret of the fact that the football game this evening would be one of the few places in Dublin selling alcohol and it seemed that the natives were going to take advantage of this.
I alluded to it earlier, but the Aviva Stadium looks superb from outside and it is definitely a bit of a Etihad Stadium-clone (without the twirly tower walkways). It’s noticeable almost immediately how clear the whole structure is with many of the walls being made up of glass panels. Apparently, I was told, this is to provide more light to those houses that are dwarfed in the shadows of the stadium. This is also apparently the reason why one side of the ground suddenly dips from a three-tiered structure to a small one-tiered stand behind the one goal, as to provide the houses to the north of the ground with sufficient light.
Traditionally, Republic of Ireland played the majority of their games at Lansdowne Road since the 1980s with many of the nations’ games being played at Bohemians’ ground Dalymount Park before that; completely inadvertently while waking through Dublin, I’d actually stumbled upon Dalymount Park earlier in the day and the idea of that ground hosting international football is laughable – although I found its ramshackle appearance more than endearing.
In 2007 Lansdowne Road was demolished to make room for a new glittering home for Irish sport: the Aviva Stadium. The new stadium’s first game came was in 2010 with a Manchester United taking on a League of Ireland XI and winning 7-1; the honour of scoring the first goal at the stadium belongs to Park Ji-Sung. The stadium is the home of Irish rugby alongside the football team, as well as having hosted the 2011 Europa League final – won by Andre Villas-Boas’ Porto. Plus, as you would expect from a new stadium, the usual mega stars have played at the venue with acts such as Madonna, Robbie Williams and Roger Waters, amongst others, having already playing there during its first 6 years of life.
When building the stadium, one of the chief headaches was the positioning of the train station so close to the new stadium. This is why ‘The Podium’ entrance was created – a series of raised staircases that take you over the shell of the train station and to the entrances to the West Stand, the stand I’d be sitting in this evening. There were tents outside selling beer, Guinness and even whisky, but I opted to avoid the queues here and head straight up to the upper tier concourse where I could already see fans gathered with beers in hand, looking out across Dublin.
The concourse was busy, but here’s where I give the Aviva my first round of applause: I’m not sure whether they had panicked because of the alcohol ban and so brought in a ridiculous amount of staff to work, but queuing for the bar and food booths on the concourse was non-existent. Even during the busy half-time period I I got served immediately on going to the bar. Obviously, I continued with the Guinness and headed over to one of the tables looking out across Dublin; the stadium’s ‘transparency’ does provide you with some cool views whilst you sip away at your Guinness.
I soon got talking to the two lads next to me who were adorning Irish colours, but talking with cockney accents (much like Tony Cascarino I suppose – although I believe he’s from Kent). It turned out that this was father and son, James and Conor, and James originally hailed from my adopted hometown of Manchester, although he’s very much of Irish heritage. I began telling them about what I was doing there and this very blog, when James declared,”Well feel free to mention us – it’s James and Conor Morrissey, spelled double ‘r’ and ‘double ‘s’.”
“Oh the same as the singerMorrissey,” I remarked.
“Yes, he’s my cousin.”
And this is how I ended up drinking Guinness with Morrissey’s cousin on the Aviva Stadium concourse. Interestingly, they also informed me how they and Morrissey are related to Irish football legend Robbie Keane – information supported by a quick piece of Googling. I probably began to do the lads’ heads in with my questioning of all things Morrissey, so as the time ticked over 7.30pm, I headed through entrance 523 and up to my seat in the heavens of the Aviva Stadium.
Just as on the outside of the stadium, the Aviva was equally impressive inside. The stupidly small North Stand is dwarfed by the other larger stands and this provides a sort of strange horseshoe shape to the stadium. It’s different, but ‘different’ is good in my eyes and it certainly adds a touch of quirkiness to the place. For tonight’s game against the Swiss, the 51,700 seater stadium would attract 35,540 fans and it seemed that folk were sitting where they wanted to, so up I went to the higher seats to get a more birdeye view of the action below.
Soon the teams were out on the pitch and lining up for their respective anthems. This gave me the opportunity to scan the lineups and it was apparent straightaway that both teams were missing key personnel: the Swiss were missing the likes of Shaqiri and Lichtsteiner, whilst the Irish were without Robbie Keane and Lost Boyos favourite Jon Walters, who I was particularly gutted wasn’t playing – without question a future Ballon d’Or winner (sorry, bit of an ‘in joke’ that one).
In the local press Martin O’Neill had said that tonight’s game was an opportunity for some fringe players to make a last ditch attempt to grab themselves a spot in Ireland’s Euro 2016 squad. One such player was Blackburn’s Shane Duffy playing at centre back alongside Ciaran Clark. He certainly wouldn’t have done his chances any damage by winning a header from a second minute corner, which was then intercepted by his centre back partner Clark to head home from close range. It was 1-0 to the Irish with many fans still not in their seats.
I hoped the early goal might spring the game into life, but sadly it fell immediately into the default setting for an international friendly: slow paced and few chances. Undoubtedly the lack of chances came from a shocking performance by the Swiss, who virtually did nothing all game to test Ireland, but also Clark and Duffy in defence were superb.
The only really talking point after the early goal came in the 27th minute when Kevin Doyle, now plying his trade in the MLS for Colorado Rapids, went down in the box after an innocuous challenge and didn’t get back up. The stadium sensed it was something serious when the stretcher came on, but fortunately Doyle had not broken anything or done anything similarly serious. Via social media, Doyle would show the extent of his injury: a ridiculously deep and grisly gash to his ankle.
Ireland almost made it 2-0 when Shane Long rose above the Swiss defence to meet captain for the night Seamus Coleman’s cross, only to see his header cannon back off the crossbar with Yann Sommer beaten in goal.
Half-time: Republic of Ireland 1 – 0 Switzerland.
Within seconds of arriving back on the concourse I had a pint of Guinness (the service again involved a mere few seconds of queuing). Spirits were buoyant on the concourse, although the tepid football on show had stagnated any sort of atmosphere within the ground. In fact, I was almost certain already that there would be no more scoring this evening.
I shuffled around the ground to the south-west corner for the second half and moved myself closer to the front of the upper tier. Within minutes, I decided that I preferred the higher vantage point from earlier and headed back towards the top again. There was very little happening on the pitch so moving further away from the action had no impact on me missing anything noteworthy. Although terror did fill me when I witnessed the overly-bearded Roy Keane stand up from the bench, before clearly changing his mind and slowly walking back to his seat instead of verbally assassinating someone. He really does terrify me, even when I’m three whole tiers away from him.
The second half hosted the usual reel of substitutions you find in international friendlies and it was probably fair to say that the Swiss coped better with all the changes. The away team had the majority of possession, but did very little with it, thanks largely to the imperious showings of Duffy and Clark.
There were a few half chances for Switzerland’s Blerim Dzemaili, but he made little of his opportunities. It was Irish debutant Euan O’Kane, of AFC Bournemouth, who had the best chance to kill off the game when he picked up on a loose pass, before going through on goal and curling his sidefooted effort just wide.
Full-time: Republic of Ireland 1 – 0 Switzerland.
Despite the odd belter of a game, 2016 is beginning to be real cruel to me as I’ve recently been punished by a series of underwhelming games. Sort it out footballing gods!
The clear winner on the night, aside from Ireland obviously, was the stadium for me. For a fairly new stadium, it doesn’t reek of the usual blandness and it really is a beautiful spectacle. Irish football should be proud of their home (as should the rugby team who also play there).
My walk back through the streets of Dublin proved a frightening one, as I now had Roy Keane’s gaze eyeing my way all the way home; fortunately it was in the form of a Che Guevera-style flag draped around the shoulders of an Irish fan walking ahead of me and not the former Ireland captain stalking me or anything. ‘Che Keano’ as the flag dubbed him.
More drinking was had in the hostel, where I got chatting to a German lad, who had been to the game and repeatedly expressed his disbelief at how quiet the atmosphere had been at the game; I did try to explain to him that that was generally the norm at meaningless international friendlies, but he was having none of it and emphasised his disdain once more. More beer was had and a chinese and then it was off to bed.
Fortunately for me, the next day Dublin’s drinking holes were very much open again, so I could experience the delights of Temple Bar and all the Guinness that comes with that before flying home that evening. This also provided me with a chance to meet up with Lost Boyos Irish fan Adam Kelly. Since he had made the effort to come and meet me and show me around Dublin, I made sure he was rewarded. When I bought my ticket for Ireland v Switzerland, I received a ticket for the Tuesday night friendly v Slovakia too; I was leaving Dublin 3 days before the Slovakia game and so I let Adam have the ticket. My argument was that over the years I’ve regularly stumbled upon free tickets off generous football fans, so I figured this was my way of carrying on that good football fan karma.
Dublin had been fun and I’m still not sure how it has taken me this long to cross the Irish Sea. I explained to Adam that I had inadvertently stumbled upon the home of his club, Bohemians FC, on Friday morning – it’s basically a beautiful, ramshackle old dump of a ground, but evidently the sort of ground I instantly fall in love with. When I come back Bohemians and their Dalymount Park home are definitely top of my list.
I didn’t see any horses running through any council estates, so I suppose Partridge was right and the Irish really have undergone an image transformation. And a great one too from what I saw over my 48 hours spent there. So until next time Ireland, all the best!
Highlights: lots of wonderful Guinness, visiting Michael Collins grave, awesome new flat cap, greyhound racing (and winning there too), Tony Cascarino, Irish fans were friendly, the Aviva Stadium is awesome, the service at the stadium.
Low Points: poor game, typical international friendly atmosphere.
See all my photos from my 48 hours in Dublin here.