James McDermott: My glorious home run will Finnish where it started

It’s taken a global pandemic but a 30-year run of attendance will end on Sunday

Michael Pentland aged 10 from Belfast watches the  Carling Nations Cup match between Wales and  Northern Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in 2011, where the attendance was 529. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

Michael Pentland aged 10 from Belfast watches the Carling Nations Cup match between Wales and Northern Ireland at the Aviva Stadium in 2011, where the attendance was 529. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho

 

I blame Liam Brady. As a soccer-obsessed child I was desperate to attend an Ireland match but faced one insurmountable problem. The old Lansdowne Road was so decrepit that it did not even have floodlights so matches were played on Wednesday afternoons when I was invariably in school. But then it was announced that in May 1990 Ireland would play Finland in a testimonial match for the retiring Liam Brady.

A final chance to see Brady pulling on the green jersey could not be passed up and made skipping school almost a civic duty. The game itself was a disappointing 1-1 draw in which Brady was substituted after just 27 minutes. Yet it was good enough to make me want to return, which I did for every single Republic of Ireland home fixture for the next three decades.

On Sunday, Finland return to Lansdowne Road but for the first time in 30 years I won’t be there to welcome them back. If you had told me a year ago that our Government would ban supporters from attending Ireland matches on public health grounds I would have assumed that this was to protect the sanity of long suffering fans forced to endure an apparently endless series of games against Denmark. Instead it is a global pandemic that has seen the public banned from attending all sporting events.

Over the years I have attended many international matches with paltry attendances. The Wales v Northern Ireland fixture in the 2011 Nations Cup (which bizarrely was played entirely in Dublin) attracted an attendance of just 529 to Lansdowne Road and remains the only international whose attendance I confirmed by counting it myself. But on Sunday for the first time the stadium will remain entirely empty.

Perhaps most audacious of all was the Barcelona fan who in June sneaked into their fixture with Real Mallorca before spectacularly blowing his cover by staging a pitch invasion

The FAI bean counters will no doubt despair as they look out over a deserted Aviva but where one person sees a closed stadium another sees a chance to create history. In 2002 fans of the Charleston RiverDogs baseball team turned up to their match against the Columbus RedStixx to discover the stadium gates padlocked shut. This was “Nobody Night’ when the RiverDogs attempted to break the world record for the lowest ever crowd at a baseball game. After the official attendance of zero was confirmed at the bottom of the fifth innings the gates were thrown open to allow supporters in to celebrate one world record that can never be broken.

At the other end of the empty stadium attendance spectrum are Slovan Bratislava, who last October were forced to play their Europa League game against Wolves behind closed doors. However, the club noticed a loophole in Article 73 of the Uefa disciplinary regulations that permitted accompanied children, aged 14 and under, from local schools to attend such matches free of charge. Within days Slovan had gifted 21,000 tickets to children and become the first team ever to play a behind closed doors fixture in front of a capacity crowd.

Shamrock Rovers supporters watch the Europa League first qualifying round against Ilves Tampere from a wall at Tallaght Stadium. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Shamrock Rovers supporters watch the Europa League first qualifying round against Ilves Tampere from a wall at Tallaght Stadium. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Even closing the gates does not necessarily prevent everybody from watching the match. The desire of Irish people to find a way around every rule is not limited to members of the Oireachtas golf society. In recent weeks photographs of GAA fans standing on everything from ladders to the roof of strategically parked cars to support their club side have become commonplace. Last week another Finnish side visited Dublin with Ilves Tampere playing Shamrock Rovers in the Europa League.

The hosts progressed 12-11 following an extraordinary penalty shootout watched live only by a handful of supporters perched on a wall at Tallaght Stadium. If fans are prepared to go this far to see the Hoops play an obscure side from Finland one shudders to think what they will do for upcoming visit of AC Milan. I suspect that Shamrock Rovers might soon find they have 8,000 fans experiencing a sudden desire to volunteer as matchday stewards.

Even these attempts to view the action appear positively half-hearted compared to the fans of Italian side FC Crotone whose stadium is overlooked by a hospital with upper floors that provide an excellent view of the pitch. Doctors began to notice that long neglected patients would enjoy a sudden influx of visitors on big match days. The problem proved so great that the hospital introduced a strict ‘patient-only’ policy when Juventus were in town. Even this was not enough to deter one fan from seeking admission by faking a serious illness. Now any new patient turning up on matchday faces a stringent medical exam and if admitted is likely to be allocated a bed on the ground floor.

At 5pm on Sunday for the first time in decades I will transform myself into what every true supporter instinctively resents – the armchair fan

Then there is the Manchester City fan who travelled all the way to Moscow to rent a room in a grim tower block to get a birds-eye view of his sides behind closed doors Champions League game against CSKA. But perhaps most audacious of all was the Barcelona fan who in June sneaked into their fixture with Real Mallorca before spectacularly blowing his cover by staging a pitch invasion. In a rare example of selfie-isolation the games only spectator then snatched a photo with his hero Lionel Messi before being arrested by police who rather unsportingly deleted his treasured picture.

A member of the public is dragged away by security guards after invading the pitch during the La Liga match between RCD Mallorca and FC Barcelona at Estadio de Son Moix in Mallorca, Spain. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images
A member of the public is dragged away by security guards after invading the pitch during the La Liga match between RCD Mallorca and FC Barcelona at Estadio de Son Moix in Mallorca, Spain. Photograph: David Ramos/Getty Images

Perhaps unsurprisingly Germany responded best to the pandemic. Top of the class are Bayer Leverkusen, who had the foresight to recruit a pandemics officer four years ago. Equally impressive is how Germany dealt with the absence of fans. Leading the charge were Borussia Mönchengladbach who chose to embrace literally the flat atmosphere of an empty stadium. They allowed supporters to pay €19 to have a cardboard cut-out of themselves attend their matches with all proceeds going to charity. Sportingly they also allowed some “away” fans into the stadium and as both sets of fans were two-dimensional no segregation was required.

Unfortunately attempts by teams closer to home to replicate the success of this exercise proved problematic. While crowd trouble at Elland Road is hardly a novel concept you might have thought that having your entire attendance made out of cardboard might guarantee its absence. Sadly in June Leeds United had to apologise when Osama bin Laden was spotted in the stand for their game against Cardiff City with the club promising in future to step up security checks on their cardboard fans. Perhaps they should have followed the example of Danish Superliga club Aarhus who created the world’s first virtual grandstand (a ‘Zoom with a view’) that enabled 10,000 of their fans view the game via a video conference call.

Thankfully the FAI have decided to avoid all such gimmicks. And so at 5pm on Sunday for the first time in decades I will transform myself into what every true supporter instinctively resents – the armchair fan. There are of course many advantages to watching a game on television. It’s free, you can bring drinks to your seat and there is no queue for the bathroom. But despite these home comforts I would much prefer to be in my usual spot in the Aviva.

A number of years ago the GAA ran a hugely successful promotional campaign with the inspiring slogan ‘Nothing Beats Being There’. Frankly ‘Nothing Beats Being There Except Watching the Game at Home on Television Whilst Socially Distancing With No More than Six People from Three Different Households’ doesn’t quite have the same catchy ring to it.

 - James McDermott is a UCD law lecturer and a fervent  soccer supporter.

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