It was a privilege to be there to work on the live broadcast of the match, a much easier job than actually playing in it, which for all but the sprightliest of the legends on show looked like 90 minutes of hard
Speaking to Virgin Media, Gary Neville described the vast expanse of the Páirc as like a “farmer’s field, it goes on for ever” and some of the less-conditioned ex-players did resemble slightly confused livestock who’d just been disturbed from peaceful rumination.
However, aside from providing evidence of just how much David May has enjoyed his retirement, Tuesday’s unique event had a magical quality far beyond the actual match, in which both sides often exhibited the pace and movement of Easter Island statuary.
First and foremost was the fact it was happening at all. More than 42,000 people pitching up at an iconic GAA ground to watch a soccer match featuring some of the most famous names in the recent history of the sport — that’s not your normal Tuesday afternoon.
At the heart of it all was the desire to pay tribute to the life of Liam Miller and provide some comfort to his family in their terrible loss. It’s easy to parlay private grief into empty public sentiment, but the whole concept of the match, the work done by those who made it happen and the response from both the players who were asked to take part and the public who were asked to buy tickets spoke of a genuine sympathy with the bereaved far beyond platitudes.
Make no mistake, the star-studded line-up on show explained a large proportion of the massive attendance at the game, but that fact alone made the day feel special.
Granted, being growled at down the phone by Roy Keane would make most of us do whatever he was asking of us, but that the likes of Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and others gave of their time for the family of a player with whom they shared a dressing room for little more than a season spoke of a decency and fraternity for which professional footballers are rarely given credit.
The crowd began to arrive early and, by an hour before kick-off, the terracing looked almost full and many had taken their seats in the stands.
There was an atmosphere of quiet expectancy; small boys hovered with autograph books; whole families loitered together clad entirely in replica shirts; men taking the David May approach to growing old gracefully stood smiling with their memories.
What did they expect to see? Ryan Giggs, Ryan Giggs, running down the wing? Duffer twisting and turning, burning defenders inside and out? Scholesy arriving late to volley into the roof of the net? Big bad John Hartson bundling centre-halves aside to score?
No, of course not. Well maybe, just a little bit, but as the match got underway we were quickly reminded that time waits for no man (especially not big bad John, who sensibly stayed in his civvies on the bench) and that even the best of us will end up with bodies that won’t do what their brains want them to.
This realisation brought a certain melancholy to the mood. It seemed only the blink of an eye since we’d watched these players in their prime, when they seemed indestructible, unstoppable, so in control of the life force rather than subject to its merciless advance.
Yet, there remained flashes. The way Giggs rolled the ball with the instep of his left foot. Robbie Keane’s jink and side-step past a defender, like a crab evading a flailing octopus. Neville chirping and niggling, chugging up and down the wing. Paul Lambert probing and shifting the play. Kevin Kilbane’s willing runs, thrusting himself into wide-channel battle, as on so many Lansdowne Road nights long gone.
Then, cometh the hour and all that. When Roy Keane took to the field for the last 30 minutes, the game’s warm nostalgic glow, suddenly, if only for a few brief minutes, took on the jolting disorientation of actual time travel. Keane took the captain’s armband off Giggs, strapped it to himself like armour and off he went.
That familiar high-armed jog into position, head lowered menacingly, straight into the bowels of the midfield. The ball, no different to the rest of us, was quickly drawn to him. Control, turn, simple forward pass, move. A frisson of purpose came over his struggling teammates for a short period, as if muscle memory was reawakened by the return of their leader. For those of us watching, it was possible to trick ourselves that we were back in a simpler time, a better time, a time when Roy could bend the world to his will, not have it laughing at him in WhatsApp messages.
Nostalgia was once considered a disease, its etymology coming from the Greek words for ‘homecoming’ and ‘pain’, and there might seem something unhealthy in wallowing in these things.
Sociologists point to a rise in 1990s nostalgia as a desire in uncertain times to reach back to a period before the world went and got itself in such a crazy mess, which is no excuse for listening to Shed Seven and watching Friends.
However, there’s a sweetness to it, too; that once you recognise all this is transient, a cosmic flash-in-the-pan, how lovely it is then on a day like Tuesday to hold onto the things that made it special.
It was the terrible and cruel loss experienced by the Miller family that brought so many together in Cork this week, but perhaps the day reminded us that we are all passing through and, no matter how strong and powerful we are, that none of us will be around forever.
But we were here, and wasn’t it great that we were?