Aviva Stadium at 10: The long road to the first game and what the next decade might hold

It's 10 years today since a Leinster/Ulster side trounced a Munster/Connacht selection in the first game played at the Aviva Stadium. Brendan O'Brien looks back at the long road it took to get there, and at what the next decade might hold for the venue
Aviva Stadium at 10: The long road to the first game and what the next decade might hold

One of the Aviva Stadium’s iconic moments was undoubtedly Jacob Stockdale’s spectacular try in Ireland’s historic win over the All Blacks in November 2018. Picture: Inpho/Tommy Dickson

If a camel is a horse designed by committee then 'The Aviva' is a creation that owes its unique appearance and very existence to a panoply of politicians, administrators, architects and engineers, to an emotional bond with its storied address, to the baggage of too many years lost to endless discourse and dithering and, last but by no means least, to simple, cold economics.

That it got done in the end may be the biggest result in its history.

The area itself was corset tight, hampered by the adjacent houses and the obvious needs of their occupants, as well as a railway line that left little or no room to breathe for a modern venue. And this was a new gaff that needed to be all things to everyone. It had to cater for football and rugby, concerts and conferences. That it is serving now as a Covid-19 testing centre only highlights its flexibility.

It shouldn't really have worked. It defies belief now that there was a point in the discussions when Gaelic games, with their infinitely larger playing surface, were mooted as another potential user, even if we can still lament the fact that the 'Big Three' team sports can't use one or other of the capital's two great sporting cathedrals as and when it suits.

“From a building point of view it was very challenging because it was a small site,” says Martin Murphy who was on the ground back in 2007 when the project started and is still stadium director. “We are within the community and it was a lot of disruption for the area at the time. It posed a lot of challenges with building and those constraints of working around the railway and being mindful of the local community.

It was a fascinating project from that point of view but we had fantastic young Irish engineers and Sisk as the main contractors and it was such a unique project. You got a sense that everybody wanted to be able to say, 'I helped build that' so they could bring their kids and their grandkids there. It was unique in that perspective.

That its construction should be complicated was in keeping with the job required just to turn the first sod. We had Eircom Park and the Bertie Bowl and the associated story that was Croke Park, Rule 42 and GAA delegates disappearing to the jacks. For years Ireland had dithered on the edge of a decision over a first 50m swimming pool. This called for an even bigger plunge and plenty had cold feet.

The IRFU's search for a new home began as early as 1994 when current CEO Philip Browne and a busload of blazers drove out to Newlands Cross, a venue they only sold two years ago for €27m, to take the area's temperature. Eleven other locations, among them Abbotstown and the Irish Glass Bottle site in Ringsend, underwent the same physical.

And all the while the old Lansdowne was falling apart.

A fire on the North Terrace saw thousands miss out on the game against New Zealand in November of 2005 but reservations lingered long after the decision was made and plans unveiled in 2005. “I will have my doubts until the day it opens because I just think it is in a very built-up area,” said Bertie Ahern late in 2007 when the demolition work was already done.

Yeah, no bitterness there.

An Aerial view of the Aviva Stadium during the first match to be played there. Picture: Inpho/Norman McCloskey
An Aerial view of the Aviva Stadium during the first match to be played there. Picture: Inpho/Norman McCloskey

Among the many issues amid all this, and one that still begs teasing out, was the capacity. What did the IRFU need? What did the FAI need? Were those needs compatible? What was doable on that pinched point down by the Dodder and what could be envisaged in West Dublin? Was there any right answer?

Stay and curb your ambitions. Go and lose that historic city centre canvas.

The Office of Public Works noted in 2003 that a stadium of up to 65,000 could be accommodated for less money out in Abbotstown where the National Sports Campus now sits. It also called for a capacity limit of 45,000 on any new build in D4, the same spec once proposed by the FAI for the derailed Eircom Park project.

The IRFU's preference was for a stadium that could cater for 55,000 but the geography dictated otherwise. In the end, the design was reconfigured, at a significant jump in price, to settle for just north of 50k and allow for more corporate and premium seats so that the numbers in the books could add up and ensure delivery of an asset that was a driver of income rather than a drain on it.

“If you look at the trends of the last ten years we could fill it for England every time and probably France and then there is the big soccer matches against the Germanys,” says Murphy. “But there is such a wide variety of events held here that it would be a struggle to fill so 50,000 is the right number.”

That's not what your average punter wants to hear when they are struggling to magic a ticket for that big Six Nations tie, or a crucial Republic of Ireland qualifier. It is, though, the sort of clear-eyed thinking that has always been shared by Browne who has been consistent in his assertion that the capacity, officially listed at 51,700, suits them to a tee.

“We've struggled at times to fill Croke Park and the clubs have borne the brunt of that,” he explained ten years ago after a tenancy at the 82,300-capacity ground where their average crowd was well over 77,000. 

The ultimate aim of this facility is to be the financial engine that drives our sport. This will drive rugby and soccer for the next 50 years and we have no concerns of the ability of this facility to do this for us.

That this hasn't been the case for the FAI is not the Aviva's fault.

Rugby has found itself more at home than its delinquent housemate, not just because of the difficulties the FAI experienced in trying to shift their ludicrously priced Vantage Club tickets in the midst of a recession, but on the field where the oval boys have won almost three-quarters of their games. The Boys In Green have failed to succeed in even half of theirs.

It took time for the place to be embraced by Joe Public but ten years on and it seems fair to say that the Aviva Stadium has bedded in. There are no public disputes with the neighbours of the kind that dogged the GAA with Croke Park for so long, the DART still trundles underneath but without rattling the stand above to the rafters, and it has been the backdrop for some epic days.

All the southern giants, the All Blacks included, have retreated to those luxurious dressing-rooms on the back of a beating. England have suffered three of them. Shane Long saw off the Germans, Notre Dame and Navy put on as much of a spectacle as Michael Bublé or Rihanna and there have been Champions Cup finals, a Europa League decider and regular big nights with Leinster.

Shane Long celebrates his goal against Germany in 2016. Picture: Inpho/Morgan Treacy
Shane Long celebrates his goal against Germany in 2016. Picture: Inpho/Morgan Treacy

Even the corporate moniker flows easier off the lips. The question now is what next?

Chief architect Rod Sheard gushed about his shiny new toy when the place was finished. The first truly “responsive” stadium in the world, we were told. A “bright, translucent creation”, a “shimmering jewel” equal to any stadium on the planet even if it is one that bears a similarity to a well-scrubbed bedpan thanks to the dip in height at the Havelock Square end.

One of the thoughts when the Aviva first opened was that it made Croke Park, itself not long finished, look old with its faded blue seats and draughty walkways. Time is not kind to stadia. Old Trafford, once the mecca of English club grounds, is badly outdated. Porto's Estadio de Dragao, state-of-the-art when Murphy was doing his research in the noughties, is in dire need of a revamp.

The opening of the Tottenham Stadium in London has raised the bar again in these islands. Even Liverpool's new stand in Anfield bears testimony to a heavy American influence and that penchant for size and style which they do so well in the States will be apparent again when the erstwhile Oakland and LA Raiders move in to their new Allegiant Stadium in Nevada.

The Aviva can't match those but it hasn't stood still. New floodlights and LED screens had been fitted for Euro 2020 games that were due to be held there earlier this summer. They will happen next year instead when Spaniards, Swedes and Poles will no doubt delight in the ground's proximity to the city and it's watering holes and wonder what exactly is the story with that weird glasshouse behind one goal.

It's not perfect, it never could be given everything, but it is impressive and unique. And it's home.

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