Seven years on from their last visit, Manchester United return to Dublin tonight and the decline in form of the former Premier League kingpins hasn’t diminished their support in Ireland.
United and Alex Ferguson were in their prime at the time of the 2010 game to mark the stadium reopening following its rebuild, going on to claim their fourth title in five years that season.
Only one more crown has been delivered since, Ferguson’s parting gift in 2013, but the 51,000-capacity Lansdowne Road will be a sea of red for the International Cup friendly against Serie A oufit Sampdoria (7.45pm).
The wish of FAI chief executive John Delaney to have, as he said “the Rooneys and Fergusons”, coming back to Dublin 4 didn’t materialise, bar the player’s appearance for England in a friendly, as the Football Association of Ireland struggled in the early part of the decade to cash in on the asset they jointly-own with the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU).
Disappointing turnouts for the “Dublin Super Cup” led to broadcasting giants Endemol withdrawing, and matters didn’t improve after Iconic Worldwide Events replaced them as partners in 2012.
It wasn’t until the arrival of Celtic and Liverpool that an upturn in attendances materialised, generating the levels of revenue needed by the association to start chipping away at their whopping mortgage.
While diehard Irish supporters decry such high-demand exhibition matches during an era League of Ireland games continue to prove a hard sell, outside of Cork anyway, the opportunity for kids to get up close to the stars they worship from afar in the English Premier League is a cash-cow the FAI cannot afford to ignore.
As with Saturday’s occasion between Liverpool and Athletic Bilbao, it’s not the continental participants that are attracting fans in their droves.
Both United and Liverpool come at a high price for the organisers but they seem likely to field strong-looking sides.
Although the result will be immaterial, tonight’s fixture will at least be remembered for the United debut of new €45m signing Nemanja Matic, having finalised his move from Chelsea in the last 48 hours.
Nobody in the stadium should expect the same effort by the midfielder as he’ll exert during Serbia’s trip to Lansdowne on Tuesday four weeks but the first taster of his potential partnership with Paul Pogba will be one of the plotlines to monitor.
“We know that we have a lot of fans in Dublin and we hope to be able to give them a great match because they will surely pack the stadium,” said United goalkeeper Sergio Romera, poised to play some part against his former club.
“We hope to be able to show our fans in Dublin we want to fight for all the competitions that United will play this year.”
Midfielders Juan Mata and Ander Herrera should also feature, having returned last week from knocks, but Luke Shaw, Ashley Young and Marcos Rojo remain sidelined.
This will be the last outing for the Red Devils ahead of the UEFA Super Cup clash with Real Madrid on Tuesday.
Jose Mourinho’s side then open their Premier League campaign on Sunday week against West Ham United.
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