Lee Corso didn’t make the journey to Dublin this time but the veteran ESPN analyst could hardly contain himself on TV this week when he was asked for his memories of the original ‘Emerald Isle Classic’, played in a very different Lansdowne Road, back in 1988, writes Brendan O’Brien of the Irish Examiner.
Corso was only a year into his career as a pundit after almost three decades patrolling the sidelines in a variety of college football coaching roles and the trip to Ireland was a cultural leap for someone more familiar with life in the states of Maryland, Kentucky and Indiana.
A stadium standing amidst a residential neighbourhood knocked his socks off, the shrill roars of the natives when the opening kick-off soared into the sky tickled him terribly and the meal of boiled beef and potatoes the evening before the game was a gastronomic first.
“It was pretty good too,” he said back in the Stateside studios.
Corso wasn’t alone in embracing the experience. An estimated 10,000 Boston College alumni made the journey for that win against Army. Another 5,000 American visitors pushed to 47 the number of flights needed to transport the travelling circus across the pond.
“If they didn’t have a good time it was their fault not ours,” Jim O’Brien told the match programme for today’s game at the Aviva where Georgia Tech provided the opposition for a new generation of Boston College student athletes. “There was no downside.”
O’Brien, a former player with Boston College, was one of those who landed on the transatlantic idea in the first place and he recalled in today’s programme notes how the locals lapped up the cheerleaders, bands and the parachutist who delivered the game ball.
That ability to benefit visitor has been key to the concept.
This latest game between two Atlantic Coast Conference rivals, and the cultural and economic satellite events that have assumed flight paths around it all week, is the fifth such undertaking in under 30 years but the third since just 2012.
How did it go? Alright, like. Grand. No more.
The same Lansdowne Road venue was sold out four years ago when Notre Dame met Navy thanks to the arrival on these shores of an estimated 30,000 Americans supporting one of the game’s most storied and best supported colleges in the ‘Fighting Irish’.
Two years later and a more than respectable 53,304 people took in the Penn State-University of Central Florida season opener at Croke Park even if most here remember that as the game that occasioned an All-Ireland semi-final replay between Kerry and Mayo in Limerick.
There were 40,500 tickets sold for this fixture, leaving at least one-fifth of the seats empty for a defensively-dominated game shaped by the slippery conditions and won with 36 seconds to go by a four-yard touchdown run from Georgia Tech running back Dedrick Mills.
It was “throwback football,” as Tech coach Paul Johnson put it.
A 12.30pm kick-off probably didn’t encourage a walk-up crowd and the weather – a hazy, cold film of persistent rain that coated burgers and match programmes no matter how far back you retreated under the cantilevered stands – would have discouraged more again.
“That was a well-played game,” said Johnson’s Boston counterpart Steve Adazzio. “That was an ACC (conference) team out there, on opening day. Played in the pouring rain and in Europe. Some people will pick the negative out of it but that was a well-played game on both sides.”
Organisers can’t guarantee conditions or entertainment but they have been strategic in their targeting of suitable colleges for this fixture. Irish links have understandably been prioritised in order to maximise the travelling support of alumni and others eager to touch base with the old country.
Boston College looked a good fit.
Founded in 1863, there is far more of a tangible thread to their links with Ireland than the faux Irishness attached to Notre Dame. Founded by the Society of Jesus in 1863, Boston College’s expressed purpose was to serve the offspring of the city’s Irish immigrants.
Yet their team lacks the iconic status and appeal of the ‘Fighting Irish’.
And therein is the rub.
The American football community in Ireland is a knowledgeable and passionate one. The few gridiron stars who have visited these shores, including Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, have all said as much in recent years.
The problem is that their numbers are small and the lack of recognisable uniforms - as seen in the NFL - and star names to print on the back of them – make this a fixture with in-built limited appeal to an Irish sporting audience with no shortage of wannabe suitors.
Plans for another game in 2018 and annual fixtures from 2021 have been mooted before but it remains to be seen if it was a combination of the early off and the awful elements kept that the ‘sold out’ signs from being posted or if maybe the novelty of the whole thing is wearing off.