A team of Robbie Keanes

Football (Soccer)
Ireland v Oman (International friendly)
Aviva Stadium, Dublin
31 August 2016 (7.45pm)

“We all dream of a team of Robbie Keanes, a team of Robbie Keanes…”

The roughly sung tune of the Yellow Submarine reverberates around the carriage as the DART heads towards Connolly Station in the centre of Dublin.

Keane has just played his last game for Ireland, ending a career of 18 years and 146 caps, and spanning four World Cup and five Euro Championship campaigns. It’s fair to say he is one of the country’s greatest footballers, although I note that in Ray Houghton’s All Time Ireland XI in the programme, the striker that the boys in my train carriage are eulogising, doesn’t make the team at all, let alone all of it. John Aldridge and Niall Quinn get the nod ahead of him upfront. I admire the integrity of the editor; I’d have been tempted to squeeze him in as a sub on this day. But who cares about Ray Houghton’s opinion right now because tonight everyone thinks Robbie is the golden boy.

It was a weird football match. It was most certainly a, “I was there” occasion. At least until the 56th minute when Keane was substituted amid much hugging and cheering. After that it became, “I wish I wasn’t there” when, with Ray Houghton’s Ignored One no longer there to entertain us, the sheer awfulness of the opposition became clear for all to see.

Oman. Apart from the keeper Ali Al Habsi, who made his name with some very athletic displays for Wigan in the Premier League (he’s now with Reading), I defy you to name a player from that nation. And apart from mentioning the Middle East (the three boys in row H, who have just finished a geography exam, were the only ones in the stadium who could actually pinpoint exactly where) I defy you to name a single fact about the country itself.

Well, I’ll give you one. They are awful at football at this level. Quite why anyone in the Irish FA thought this would be a good warm-up for Monday’s European Championship qualifier against Serbia is anyone’s guess. Quite why anyone thought this was a good warm-up for anything is anyone’s guess. But there is more. Ireland played Oman in a friendly two years ago. As they say, fool me once…

The three guys in front of me leave in the 70th minute after a particularly dire patch and a steady stream of people follow them so that Keane’s farewell speech, along with obligatory child chewing the microphone, is seen by a good few thousand less than came in through the turnstiles at the start.

On the way to the game I get off the train at Grand Canal Dock, one stop before Lansdowne Road, not only because there are a couple of pubs I want to try en route but also because it’s next to Google’s operation in Ireland. It’s only a day after the European Commission has declared that Apple, another multinational operating in Ireland, must pay back-taxes of €13 billion to the Irish government (just think what you could do with that!) because European state aid rules have been broken. I’m expecting to see some action. But there are no helicopters circling for the next multinational prey, and there are no lorries delivering huge quantities of shredders. It’s all rather disappointing. I had discovered the company’s location using Google Maps and my iPhone, the great corporate warrior that I am.

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The national anthems are always a stirring moment. Especially when a sponsor unveils a giant shirt. The game was quite exciting (honest) but it sort of lost its purpose for a lot of fans once Robbie Keane was substituted. We can see you sneaking out…

Although Oman are awful to the point of being little more than training cones for the Irish players to run around, they do have one redeeming ‘quality’ right from the start: Robbie Keane will be able to score against them and add to his tally of 67 goals, therefore joining the great Gerd Müller as the leading international scorer in football history.

Robbie Brady scores a cracker of a free-kick in the 13th minute but no one in the stadium wants anything else but a Robbie Keane goal. Except perhaps manager Martin O’Neill, and he is probably willing it as well so he can substitute him and get on with his preparations for Monday.

Keane has his chances and the “oohs” and “ahhs” hum round the Aviva Stadium each time he gets so much as a sniff. The guy next to me turns and raises his eyebrows as if to acknowledge that this is the only reason we are here on this unusually warm evening in Dublin. On more than a one occasion an Irish player who is in a better position in front of goal gets out of the way or passes to Keane. It’s starting to resemble playground football where you want your best friend to score.

But, to much relief, he does score. And, what a goal. It has echoes of Pele’s first goal against Sweden in the 1958 World Cup Final. I tried copying it often enough in my garden when I was growing up. The ball lands at your feet, a bit too close to your body for comfort, but you flick it over the defender’s head making him look like a mug. But before he has realised what has happened you shimmy around him and slot the ball in on the half volley. A goal worthy of number 68 Mr Keane.

So that’s it. Robbie Keane is now up there with Gerd Müller with the most goals scored for his country. Although I should point out that Müller (whose goals I also tried to recreate in my garden) got his 68 goals in just 62 appearances for West Germany and there was no opposition like Gibraltar and Andorra to get easy goals against in those days. And certainly no friendlies against Oman.

But who cares. Tonight, in one Dublin train carriage at least, we are all dreaming of a team of Robbie Keanes. Whatever Ray Houghton thinks.

Ticket: seat high up on the halfway line (€22, which includes €2 service fee with Ticketmaster).
Beer: Five Lamps, a craft beer from Dublin in Slattery’s (€6 for a pint). Guinness in the stadium (€5.50 for a pint).
Food: a large hot dog in the stadium (€5.50).
Getting there: the DART runs to Grand Canal Dock and Lansdowne Road.
Score: Ireland 4 Oman 0.

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Sunsets. Ah, that’s why all these multinationals move to Dublin.

Football? Which paint colour?

Football (Soccer)
Dundalk v Legia Warsaw
Champions League Qualifier (first leg)
Aviva Stadium, Dublin
17 August 2016

The landlord in the Ha’penny Bridge Inn doesn’t like football (or soccer as he calls it). According to him he’s never watched it.

“It’s like watching paint dry.”

Of course, I want to ask him how he knows it’s like watching paint dry if he’s never watched it but I suspect he might throw his hot soup over me. Anyway, when I was a painter and decorator I used to enjoy watching paint dry because it meant I could get the next coat on quicker.

I stare at my Guinness. Eventually he lifts his head and asks, “Is it a big game then?”

“Probably one of the biggest ever for an Irish club,” I tell him. “After all, it’s not every day they move a Dundalk game to Lansdowne Road. They’re expecting over 20,000.”

He says he didn’t even know the game was on. And why should he? He’s got a nice pub right by the river at the entrance to Temple Bar. What’s another 20,000 people when you can fill your pub up with the flow of tourists the city normally gets anyway?

I head off to Temple Bar pub. If I’m going to be ripped off for my beer I might as well do it where they at least pretend to know the difference between football and paint. Anyway, if there’s one thing a football match deserves, it’s a couple of pre-match pints. Even if kick-off is seven hours away.

Dundalk start well. I’m impressed. They knock it about with composure as if they are made for this Champions League stuff. No Irish team has ever made the group stages of Europe’s big money competition and I must admit I don’t fancy their chances against Legia Warsaw, the seasoned Polish team ranked 182 places above them. But they start with confidence, as they should, having impressively knocked out the Belarusian’s BATE Borisov – ranked 200 places above them – in the previous round.

The rain is persistent and I’m wet through. People are still finding their seats 20 minutes into the first half. Crowds like this (it is 30,000 apparently) don’t happen to League of Ireland sides too often and it’s clearly confused the timekeeping of most spectators.

I suspect a lot of them are still in the Sandymount Hotel, an ideal watering hole near the ground. They serve the beer in plastic glasses mind.

Plastic glasses and rain. Add in the pointless, waste-of-time body searches en route to the ground (flares were later let off inside), the small group of young lads in ill-fitting jeans, who are so twitchy from the Bolivian marching powder that a strong coffee would bring them down, and the faint whiff of weed in the air and it’s fair to conclude that this is a proper football match. Watching paint dry indeed.

From what I saw there was no boredom among the large crowd. The only problem was that none of us football tourists knew any of the Dundalk songs, so apart from the odd “come on Dundalk”, there was not much noise coming from the stands. The hardcore Lilywhite fans (in a reversal of national colours Dundalk were in white and Legia Warsaw in green) in the lower South Stand were doing there best but it was the Polish fans crammed together in the opposite end of the ground who were having the party. Flares were left off (I mentioned the pointless searches, right?), giant flags were let loose, and shirts were taken off en masse and helicoptered around heads.

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A naming rights deal means the 51,700 all-seater stadium will be called the Aviva Stadium at least until 2019. Away fans do love to cluster together, even when given the worst part of the stadium for viewing. Giant flags ensure no-one can see anyway.

All the time they sang more songs the rest of us didn’t know, although the tunes were at least recognisable, such is the global nature of football chants. My favourite Polish song that I didn’t know was chanted to the tune Seven Nation Army (originally by White Stripes) because I could easily insert their team name into my head thanks to it having the perfect number of syllables for the riff: “Oh Leg-i-a War-saw, oh Leg-i-a War-saw”…

Sadly Dundalk concede a penalty to a harsh decision in the 56th minute, but apart from a few minutes of chaos in the defence following this they continue to look pretty composed. Unfortunately they rarely look like offering a threat themselves, and this gets worse as the game goes on with the impressive Daryl Horgan starting to get sucked deeper in search of the ball. I’m surprised the number seven is not playing in England, and even involved in the national set-up.

But, as an excellent piece in the programme by Dundalk fan Kenneth Sloane points out, it’s been a long time since a League of Ireland player has played for Ireland. In fact the last one to play in a competitive fixture was Pat Byrne when he was with Shamrock Rovers, although Glen Crowe made two appearances in friendlies in 2002 and 2003. Current Dundalk ‘keeper Gary Rogers has recently been involved in manager Martin O’Neill’s squad as back-up.

Sloane’s piece also  expresses a hope that Dundalk’s performance will impress people enough that they will want to watch more League of Ireland matches. Well, despite them conceding another goal late on the answer is yes it does.

Ticket: seat in the corner pretty high up (€17, which included €2 service fee from Ticketmaster).
Drink: Guinness in the Sandymount Hotel (€5 a pint).
Getting there: DART to Lansdowne Road.
Score: Dundalk 0, Legia Warsaw 2

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The Aviva Stadium looking from Beatty’s Avenue across the River Dodder. It might be called an avenue but it’s no more than towpath, not ideal as those with red route tickets scuttle one way as others with purple route tickets squeeze the other, all wishing they had left the pub earlier. No, we’ll never listen.