I got into Dublin just after noon with a hangover to match the Irish economy. ‘Greed is the knife & the scars run deep’ someone had spray painted by the side of the road into the city, glass edifices and sleek, modernistic bridges lining the out-of-town end of the Liffey. 'Buddhism and the financial crisis,' said a sign on a lamppost outside Trinity College, 'Resist Minister Button's Attacks,' began a United Left Alliance flyer pushed into my hand outside the GPO. It took thirty minutes on the bus to the Spire of Dublin on O’Connell Street and a couple of hours longer to loop around the city’s tourist sights: Grafton Street, St Stephen’s Green, Merrion Square and the Aviva Stadium…well, it just happened to be on the way.
I’d been to the Aviva – or Lansdowne Road as it was called at the time – once before. Newcastle had pipped Sunderland to the summer signing of Jon Dahl Tomasson, bought to play off Alan Shearer in a new formation which left Les Ferdinand surplus to requirements after 41 goals and a pair of second-placed finishes in his two seasons at the club. The undisputed star of a four-team tournament featuring Celtic, PSV Eindhoven and Derry City, the Danish international’s purple patch would last for all of a week until Shearer’s ankle ligaments and Newcastle’s hopes for the season were simultaneously ruptured at Goodison Park, the team shorn of a centre forward as Ferdinand agreed to sign for Spurs the very same day. Pressed up front alongside Faustino Asprilla, Tomasson vomited in the tunnel before the opening game of the season, missed a one-on-one after ninety seconds and scored just three goals in twenty-three games, one of them mishit and another deflecting in off his arse while he looked the other way.
Newcastle being Newcastle, these things are always predictable. “Howay, let’s gan back to Temple Bar,” someone suggested as the final whistle blew. (We didn’t know then that Temple Bar’s pubs were only for wankers. Or maybe we did and were proving the point.) “Nah, hang on, this might be the only chance we get to see us lift a cup,” someone else replied with infinitely more logic than he’d shown in attempting to chat up a burger van girl in the half time break. “Are ye from ‘roond here, like?” he’d begun, liberally coating his burger in onions and sauce. “Yes,” she said, hesitantly, trying out an answer to a question she didn’t understand. “Whereboots?” he asked, aiming for a sauve expression as he lifted the bun in the general direction of his mouth, boiled onions splattering the concrete. She looked puzzled. “Erm, no, I’m wearing trainers.”
Opened in 1872 as an athletics stadium, the old ground later hosted Irish rugby and football internationals. James Joyce spent part of one summer living in a terraced house by what’s now Entrance Number One; Sammy Davis Junior and Frank Sinatra held concerts on a pitch graced by Brady and Stapleton, Johnny Giles and, erm, Eamonn Dunphy. But by the summer of 1997 Lansdowne Road was as hopelessly unfit for purpose as Newcastle’s front line a few weeks later. “An old grey building,” Ray Houghton once described it, “leaky and it wasn’t a great place to bring your family and friends.” When they knocked it down a decade later the only thing that remained was the DART station, the lines cutting directly behind the south stand. 410 million euros, 50,000 seats, 150 CCTV cameras and 69 bars, “a shimmering form of transparent 'shingles' rises in the east and west to position the majority of spectators in the desirable side locations of the pitch,” if you believe what architects tell you. It’s an infinitely more impressive structure than the old stadium, though to me it looked more like an avant-garde contemporary art museum than a football ground – a factor which might go some way towards explaining the size of those crowds at the Celtic Nations Cup.