A crowd expected to be in the region of 40,000. Giovanni Trapattoni looking on. And Manchester United providing the opposition.
There might be no shortage of reasons why this evening’s game at the Aviva Stadium should be memorable but if Damien Richardson has one message above all others for his Airtricity League players, it’s a simple but insistent one: play the game, not the occasion.
“At last we have a place that we can call home and the quality of the stadium is exceptional,” he says. “But in professional football you very quickly cut your way through the wrappings to get at what’s in the box and what’s in this box is a game of football. My job is not to enjoy the occasion, I am here to make sure that I and the players to do their job properly.”
Of course, the veteran manager understands the symbolism of the event and expresses pride at being the Irishman chosen to lead out the first home side in a soccer match at the gleaming new theatre of dreams on Lansdowne Road. But Richardson has also been at pains in the build-up to the game to remind his charges that they must concentrate on the challenge of proving themselves against some of the heaviest-hitting talent the Premier League can muster.
“My honest opinion is that it’s unrealistic to think we can topple Manchester United but realism and football don’t always go hand in hand,” he reflects. “Football can be the most unrealistic business. I’ve seen what good attitude and good perseverance can do in a game. One thing’s for sure: we won’t be doing a damage limitation exercise against United. That would not do anybody any favours.”
Richardson has a keen grasp of the deep roots Manchester United have sown in Ireland, having himself been present as a young fella to watch the ‘The Busby Babes’ hit Shamrock Rovers for six in Dalymount Park in 1957, an experience retrospectively cast in shadow by the Munich disaster. However, he also understands that the bittersweet nature of United’s Irish connection mean the majority in the crowd tonight rooting for the away side.
“It’s deeply ironic, but sad? No,” he says. “I would rather play in front of 40,000 people — the majority of them supporting Manchester United — instead of 15 or 16,000 essentially supporting our own.”
Accomplished Bohemians midfielder Paul Keegan, who captains the Airtricity League team tonight, is relishing the big kick-off.
“You don’t need much to get yourself up for a game like this,” he smiles. “40,000 is the most we’re definitely going to play in front of this season and I think all the lads are really looking forward to it. Obviously the league is your priority and the thing you want to win but a game like this doesn’t come around that often.
“Obviously this is an occasion — the new stadium, a big crowd and all that. But I think once the game gets started all that goes out the window.”
It’s a flying visit to Ireland for Manchester United, who will jet in to Dublin today and loosen up at Carton House in Kildare before flying straight back home again after tonight’s match.
Yet, manager Alex Ferguson is insisting that this evening’s game is a vital part of United’s pre-season preparations which will gather intensity with the Community Shield game against Chelsea on Sunday.
United yesterday announced their 18-man squad, and even allowing for some big names absent through injury and the need for additional rest, it’s a formidable panel: Tomasz Kuszczak, Ben Amos, Rafael Da Silva, Fabio Da Silva, Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling, Jonny Evans, John O’Shea, Michael Carrick, Darren Fletcher, Darron Gibson, Nani, Ji Sung Park, Antonio Valencia, Dimitar Berbatov, Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney, Javier Hernandez.
Stephen O’Donnell has been forced to withdraw from the home side with a knee injury to be replaced by Dave Mulcahy.
And, following a first training session in the Aviva Stadium, Damien Richard last night announced his side for this evening’s game. It’s Gary Rogers (St Patrick’s Athletic), Brian Shelley (Bohemians), Gavin Peers (Sligo Rovers), Ken Oman (Bohemians) Conor Powell (Bohemians), Ryan Guy (St Patrick’s Athletic), Paul Keegan (Bohemians), Shaun Williams (Sporting Fingal), Killian Brennan (Bohemians), Joseph Ndo (Sligo Rovers) and Paddy Madden (Bohemians).
The match, which kicks off at 7.45pm will be refereed by Cork’s Alan Kelly.