It’s a decade since soccer made its Croke Park debut when Ireland faced Wales but the occasion didn’t have the same impact as rugby’s appearances at GAA HQ.

WHEN Ireland host Wales at the Aviva Stadium tomorrow it will be 10 years to the very date the same sides met in a European Championship qualifier in Dublin.

March 24, 2007 should have been a red-letter day in the history of Irish football, as Croke Park played host to ‘the garrison game’ for the first time in front of a record-breaking crowd for a soccer match in this country of 72,539.

Yet, it somehow didn’t feel like such a big deal at the time and, if it’s remembered much at all 10 years on, it’s for the fact a goal from that era’s great green hope, Stephen Ireland, delivered the three points on the day, the win going a little way to relieve the pressure on embattled manager Steve ‘Stan’ Staunton.

Now coaching with Shamrock Rovers, Damien Duff, who played that day, says the move to Croker didn’t feel to him like a landmark event.

“For me, no, a pitch is a pitch,” he says. “I remember it was a difficult time for Stan. The performance even now gets a bit of stick but we won the game. We ground it out, like Irish teams have done over the years. Stephen Ireland only made a few appearances over a few years but he delivered that day.

“It was just another game. It was obviously beautiful playing at Croke Park, the size of it and the amount of fans there. But, for me, it still couldn’t beat Lansdowne Road, with the fans on top of you and the North and South terraces. So, yeah, it was nice to play at Croker but, for me, nothing — not even the new Aviva — will beat the old Lansdowne atmosphere-wise, and anyone that’s been to the three I’m sure would agree.”

One of the reasons the FAI’s temporary occupation of GAA HQ failed to register significantly on the seismograph was that the IRFU had simply got there first. The Rubicon had really been crossed one month earlier when a nation held its breath for ‘God Save The Queen’ and then exhaled in the form of possibly the most bellicose rendition ever heard of ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’.

And with Shane Horgan decorating a memorable occasion with that almost absurdly fitting Gaelic try in the corner, the win against England not only eclipsed what had actually been the first ‘foreign games’ contest at Croke Park — the opening Six Nations defeat to France — but also ensured that, when soccer finally took its bow there, it had an almost impossible act to follow.

And not just because the Welsh — whose team, managed by John Toshack, included household names like Ryan Giggs and Craig Bellamy — were more like old friends than old enemies, either.

The biggest problem for the Irish team going into the game was entirely self-inflicted, Staunton’s men having already made life embarrassingly difficult for themselves in their Euro 2008 qualifying group, with the infamous double whammy of a humiliating 5-2 defeat in Cyprus and an equally red-faced 2-1 win eked out in the 94th minute against European football’s whipping boys, San Marino. The poisonous mood of the Irish fans who were calling for the heads of Steve Staunton and John Delaney at the final whistle on that chilly night in Serraville was still heavy in the air in Dublin when Wales came calling the following month.

And bar one moment of quality — when Stephen Ireland fastened on to a Robbie Keane through ball to take the ball around Welsh keeper Danny Coyne and score from an acute angle — there was precious little about the fare on offer to change people’s perceptions, even if Ireland did now have three more points on the board.

Republic of Ireland’s Stephen Ireland rounds Welsh goalkeeper Daniel Coyne to score the winner in the 2008 Euro qualifier at Croke Park.
Republic of Ireland’s Stephen Ireland rounds Welsh goalkeeper Daniel Coyne to score the winner in the 2008 Euro qualifier at Croke Park.

The Guardian’s match report summed up the downbeat mood, suggesting “the crowd who witnessed a dour encounter might just hope it is another 106 years until football is played at Croke Park again. An occasion that promised to be rousing and passionate proved, ultimately, to be bland and moribund.”

For Steve Staunton, the conditions hadn’t helped. “There was a hell of a wind blowing straight down towards the Canal End,” he said after the game, at least bequeathing to posterity a post-match quote we never thought we’d hear from an Irish football manager.

But that was the about the size of the history-making on a day when the dubious present and an uncertain future were all that exercised the Irish football public’s mind.

“I don’t expect people to stop criticising me just because we have won a game,” was Staunton’s defiant response. “Everyone thinks they are an expert and likes to have an opinion of what I should or shouldn’t be doing. We just have to win the home games and see where that takes us.

“We have a few points in the bag now and the table is looking a little bit better for us, but there is a hell of a long way to go in this qualifying campaign. This young squad is growing stronger, day by day, week by week, month by month. And the more criticism they get, it’s making them stronger.”

Four days later, they were as good as his word, a Kevin Doyle goal delivering another 1-0 win, this time against Slovakia, on a night when the floodlights blazed, the crowd got behind the team again and, briefly, Croker felt like it could be a proper home for the Irish team.

But the nascent recovery had fragile roots.

I

n September, Stephen Ireland got his third goal of the campaign in a 2-2 draw in Bratislava. But by the time Ireland lost 1-0 to the Czech Republic in Prague four days later, the player who bore his country’s name was out of the picture, his blossoming international career ending in the bizarre and poignant saga of ‘Grannygate’.

The following month, the Irish seemed to have restored a measure of stability to their wildly see-sawing fortunes with a scoreless draw at home to Germany but, once again, within a matter of days, they succumbed to self- destruction, a Steve Finnan goal in the 92nd minute rescuing a point against Cyprus but doing nothing to lessen the opprobrium heaped on the heads of players and manager at the final whistle, as Croke Park resounded to deafening boos. That was Steve Staunton’s last stand — he was no longer Ireland manager by the time the final game of qualifying came around a month later, a dead rubber 2-2 draw with Wales in Cardiff, played out in front of a half-empty stadium, with Don Givens filling the caretaker role while the search began for a new manager which would end, early the following year, with the appointment of Giovanni Trapattoni.

Of the Irish squad for this Friday’s meeting with the Welsh, Kevin Doyle (who came on as 59th minute sub) and Aiden McGeady (who was called from the bench in the 90th) are both survivors of the Croke Park game against the same opponents.

But the only man who played 90 minutes that day — and who appears a certain starter again tomorrow night — is John O’Shea, then of Manchester United, now of Sunderland.

At Ireland’s training base in Abbotstown this week, the veteran centre-half, who was playing right-full for Ireland 10 years ago, reminded journalists he’d come up against a 17-year-old Welsh left back that day, a highly rated Southampton player by the name of Gareth Bale.

Someone asked O’Shea how that went. “We won 1-0,” he replied.

The first football match at Croke Park might not have lived too long or too fondly in the memory but, at least as far as the final scoreline is concerned, it’s fair to say that Irish supporters would not be at all unhappy to see history repeat itself tomorrow night at the Aviva Stadium.

It was beautiful playing at Croke Park, the size of it and the amount of fans there. But, for me, it still couldn’t beat Lansdowne Road


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