Kevin Doyle can’t be sure. It has been 10 years, after all.

At first, he thinks maybe he sat out that historic first game of soccer at Croke Park. 

It’s only when someone googles an old match report and tells him that he hit the post in the second-half the fog clears over the day in March of 2007 when Ireland played Wales at GAA HQ.

Nobody has thought it an idea to make a documentary of that, or of the two-and-a-half year spell that the Republic spent domiciled on the northside while Lansdowne Road was being redeveloped. 

When we think of those times a decade on we envisage an oval ball, not a round one.

It was hardly the most auspicious of starts in the new surrounds: a bore of a 1-0 win for Ireland that came on the back of that 5-2 embarrassment in Cyprus and the cringing 2-1 win in San Marino. But this wasn’t just an era dominated by Steve Staunton’s struggles.

By the time the Republic returned across the Liffey to move into the new Aviva Stadium they had Giovanni Trapattoni in charge, Germany, Italy and France had all played in Croke Park and the home side had lost just one of 10 competitive games there. So it had its moments.

Still, the sense that soccer and Croker never fit hasn’t softened.

“Playing at Croke Park made it feel very strange,” said Doyle. 

“I remember at the time that it was hard to get your awareness of where the pitch was. If you stand on one side you can’t see the white line on the other side. It was hard to gauge. I remember that aspect at the time.”

Doyle is one of just three Irish survivors from that Welsh tie - John O’Shea and Aiden McGeady are the others - but another link with this Friday’s game will be Gareth Bale who was far removed then from the Real Madrid maestro we know now.

Just 17 and still a regular if highly-rated left-back at the time, Bale had made his 40th appearance for Southampton the week before in a 2-1 Championship loss to Colchester United played out in front of 18,736 spectators at St Mary’s. Two months later and he was a Tottenham Hotspur player.

Stephen Hunt revealed over the weekend Spurs had at one point been interested in signing him from Reading and that Bale was even considered as a counterweight as the Welshman struggled to find his feet at White Hart Lane. Doyle has a good sliding doors story about the superstar, too.

“I never heard that one,” he said of Hunt’s tale. 

“But I do know he was nearly coming on loan to Wolves or that we were trying to (sign him). I think someone got injured at Spurs - I can’t really remember - and the deal fell through. He’s an unbelievable player. I would hate to have to mark him, as anyone would. 

"It’s just that natural speed and now he’s one of the best players in the world. You watch all of Wales’ highlights - and we watched their set pieces - and he is in the box heading them, getting a lot of their goals and all the other stuff that you would not think about.”

Getting on the end of set pieces is something Doyle has been employed to do for over 15 years by seven clubs across three countries and two continents but his input has dwindled at international level. 

The Wexford man hasn’t played for his country since suffering a sickening gash to his leg in the friendly against Switzerland last spring and, though injuries elsewhere have upped hopes of an appearances this week, he has had issues of his own.

A concussion suffered in pre-season with Colorado Rapids led to him being stood down for a 10-day spell lately after he reported ongoing headache symptoms and it has raised his awareness of an issue that has gained prominence in other sports.

“I was knocked out cold twice (in the past) but this is back 10 years ago, it wasn’t an issue,” he explained. 

“You wake up, you are asked can you count to 10, where were you born and you are fine. Rightly it’s taken very seriously now. If you are knocked out you can’t come back on. 

"You hear stories about older players who have head injuries and that and are struggling so I am glad I learned before it was too late.”


Frits Potgieter is General Manager with Muckross Park Hotel and Spa.You've Been Served: Frits Potgieter, Muckross Park Hotel and Spa

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