Before going into details about the stadium, I’d like to share my story about being in Ireland for 24 hours. For me, it was one of the best escapades I’d ever been on.
So. For a long time running up to the Republic of Ireland v Wales match at the Aviva, I debated about whether to visit Dublin. I’d booked the day off work a few months back and wanted to make the most of my holiday, even though I couldn’t get a ticket. Instead of going to Dublin, I booked a trip to Belfast. I planned on watching Nacho Novo play for Glentoran whilst Wales were competing across the border. However, as the day of the game edged closer, my Welsh desire grew stronger.
I remember thinking about our last qualification campaign. The nights against Belgium were so special and were also landmark occasions in us reaching Euro 2016. I didn’t want to miss a potentially significant night in Welsh football history. Plus, when are Wales ever going to be this decent again? I had to make the most of Gareth Bale’s talismanic presence at every possible availability.
The problem was, Belfast was all booked. I’m not rich enough to ever book different flights, so I did my research and found I could get a bus from Belfast to Dublin which would get me into the city centre about half an hour before kick-off. Whether I went to the stadium and tried to blag a ticket or watched the game with a group of fellow ticketless Wales fans would be determined once I got off the bus in Dublin. It took a while to reach that point anyways.
Much of the day was spent travelling. I went from Shrewsbury to Dublin via Birmingham and Belfast in the space of seven hours. I didn’t really mind it, in truth. I liked seeing all the Wales fans dressed up in red at Birmingham International. Then flying over the Isle of Man in a sub-hour flight. I even enjoyed overhearing a couple of people from north-east England talk about their weekend plans to get pissed while the Belfast countryside rolled by.
Playing U2’s The Unforgettable Fire in full from Belfast to Dublin was the best part though. As I cruised down through the heart of the Emerald Isle, A Sort Of Homecoming – one of my favourite U2 songs anyway – had never sounded more impactful.
When I got into Dublin the sun was setting. I looked out the window and, no word of a lie, the darkening sky had a tint of green in it. I couldn’t believe it! Even the sky in Ireland was green.
All my connections and ticket collections were timed perfectly. But slow traffic out of Belfast meant I missed kick-off by 10 minutes when I got into Dublin. That dictated my plans pretty resoundly. I quickly found a bar by the nearby Busaras Station that was playing the match. The only one I could find was a proper traditional Irish bar. It was full of old Irish men who all had tabs. I felt quite out-of-place, especially when I ordered a pint of lemonade. But at least I could see the match. Even if the picture was fuzzy.
The half-time whistle went without much goalmouth action taking place and I decided to switch locations with the tie still in the balance at 0-0. I called my dad, who was listening at home with my uncle. Both were pretty stunned to hear me say I was in Dublin but it made me feel very proud to represent them. They’ve only known dark days for Wales, so I felt very fortunate to be in my relative youth and follow the Euro 2016 semi-final side with them. Dad and I shared a half-time ‘come on’ with each other as I entered a bar full of Wales fans. I felt much more comfortable in there, knowing I could share the second half emotions with my fellow supporters, whatever happened with the result.
Ironically though, as I went to buy another soft drink, I ended up being offered a seat next to an Irishman. His name was Michael. We watched the entire second half together and chatted about everything from football to life in Ireland and also his days in Australia. He particularly tickled me with a comment about New Zealand being ‘just like Ireland’. With my girlfriend in New Zealand at the time, she always spoke about how epic the views were. ‘Don’t go to New Zealand,’ he said. ‘Australia is the place to go’.
To be fair, without Michael, the second half would have been a real snooze. The match finished 0-0, Wales holding on to a point after Neil Taylor’s red card for a leg-breaking tackle on Seamus Coleman. Bale was also booked and misses the next game in Serbia. It felt like our qualification campaign was stuttering to a halt. Certainly, my dad couldn’t hide his disappointment when I called him afterwards.
When we finished our call, I decided to make my way to the Aviva Stadium. Michael told me to follow the River Liffey onto the other side of the city so I took his advice. It was a beautiful walk alongside the river with plenty of nice bridges. The Samuel Beckett Bridge – in the shape of an Irish harp – was my favourite. All the Irish fans were pouring into the centre as I headed in the direction they were coming from.
Walking around the Aviva felt surreal. With all the residential houses that boxed it in, the stadium looked like a giant spaceship had landed in the middle of an estate. I could understand why the old ground used to be called Lansdowne Road. Named after the adjacent street which also had a train station stop on it, there felt like a real community vibe at Ireland’s national stadium.
I learnt that a few teams, as well as a few sports, feature at the Aviva Stadium. I knew the Irish football and rugby teams played internationals there but I didn’t know Leinster were based there, as well as Lansdowne FC and Wanderers FC. These two rugby clubs actually have their clubhouses at opposite ends of the ground and have used the Lansdowne Road stadium since 1880. American football has also been played at the Aviva, as well as major concerts. There are 51,700 seats.
About an hour away from the Aviva is Croke Park. I’ve wanted to visit this stadium for many years. There are two reasons for this.
One is the sheer size of the place. A capacity of 82,300 makes it the third biggest venue in Europe, behind Wembley and the Nou Camp (which, as a side note, means I’ve visited the entire top three now). There is a canal that runs pretty much underneath the Davin Stand and there you get a feel for the scale.
Unfortunately, with it being gone midnight when I arrived, the photos on my phone didn’t come out well at all. But being virtually under the stand was breathtaking.
Like the Aviva, Croke Park is located amongst residential houses. That gives you a real feel for the history of the place, which is the second reason I’d wanted to visit. Opened in 1884, Croke Park has seen many significant days down the years, including Bloody Sunday, where 14 people were shot and killed during a Gaelic football match in 1920. One player, Michael Hogan, was amongst the victims and the Hogan Stand is named after him.
The Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) uses Croke Park as its headquarters and promotes several sports such as Gaelic football, hurling, Gaelic handball and rounders. Gaelic games are the most attended sporting events in Ireland and are also shown around the world. Gaelic football, a strict all-amatuer competition, is the most popular sport in Ireland. To see a match played at Croke Park is definiely on my list of things to do.
Along with sport, Croke Park plays host to some of the biggest names in music for concerts that attract in excess of 200,000 people.
Best Of The Rest
To close, I’d like to give a special mention to the people of Ireland. Both the Northern and southern Irish.
I arrived at Busaras Station at 1am for my return coach journey back to Belfast. A handful of other people were waiting with me but as the minutes ticked by, there was no sign of the coach. We began questioning each other: ‘are you waiting for the bus to Belfast?’, ‘it’s definitely meant to be here at one, isn’t it?’.
The giant clock on the building nearby ticked by for two hours before the coach arrived at 3am. However, rather than continuing to walk around Dublin in that time, I decide to stay and chat.
A couple of them had been to the football so we talked about that. One man had just got out of the police station for being caught up in a ruckus and showed us his legal documentation. It turned a two-hour wait in quite chilly conditions into a real great experience.
The chances are, none of us will ever see each other again but we all shook hands after snoozing our way back over the border and wished each other all the best. I even talked to another guy on the bus to the airport who was getting the same flight as me.
Along with Michael from the bar, all of the Irish people made my trip so much more memorable. It’s definitely a country I’d like to experience again. Maybe for longer than 24 hours next time.