Monday 22 May 2017

Vincent Hogan: Aviva - the most expensive second home in history

Vincent Hogan

Vincent Hogan

I've been to see the new Aviva Stadium and, rest assured, it is every bit as breathtaking as they promised. The intimacy of the old Lansdowne has been preserved with stands that bank up in dramatic green tiers from the apron of an already seeded pitch.

When I was there, a few workmen dangled from the pipe-cleaner webbing of the roof like spiders doing their knitting, but the heavy lifting is all but finished now.

Health and Safety insisted that we dressed appropriately for the visit, so we were bibbed, gloved, hatted and goggled like a bunch of bee-keepers going to tend hives. But the builders are pretty much just tightening fittings and preparing to remove the cellophane from the seats now. It's like a new house about to be dusted down for its owners.

Snag List

The keys get handed over at the end of this month and, after that, it'll just be a case of getting that big lawn up to scratch. That and dealing with the snag list which, for a 50,000-seater stadium, presumably runs to the length of a clothes-line.

I was astonished to hear they had still to decide whether to insert soccer-style dug-outs at the expense of roughly 50 prime seats at the front of what used to be the old West Stand. Apparently, it was left to Giovanni Trapattoni to make that call which, I imagine, had a few blazers tapping their gout-ridden feet in impatient hope that he considered the arithmetic.

The IRFU and FAI are, of course, equal tenants here, but -- in 50 years' time (considered the natural life-span of a stadium) -- the site reverts to exclusive rugby ownership. It's essentially time-share with a twist.

They say irony is over-rated, but did you not detect an almost mischievous symmetry to the timing of the GAA's decision on Croke Park last weekend? Just a fortnight before the Aviva gets handed over, Congress decided that -- rather than re-chain Croker with ugly padlocks -- discretion for its use would be left permanently with Central Council.

In other words, the gates stay open. So, just as the Aviva gets a final clean, the very reason for building it went up in a puff of smoke. It's a bit like investing your life savings in a splendid house only to discover that you've inherited an even bigger one.

The relevant bodies will, naturally, argue to the contrary. But the Aviva, essentially, became unnecessary last Saturday, just as they got ready to tie the bunting. Now Bertie Ahern's taste for fine architecture is well documented, indeed his designs on a rather large pile in the Phoenix Park have been signposted for some time. But maybe nothing defines the chutzpah of the Celtic Tiger years quite like his determination to build a great Taj Mahal at the bottom of the M50. Remember his little gift of €60m to the GAA on the eve of their 2001 Congress?

Back then, a national stadium in Abbotstown was the Taoiseach's pet ambition, with just a single oily cloud spoiling his perfect landscape. That GAA Congress was about to vote on a motion relating to Rule 42, the rule debarring the Association from opening its doors to other sports. If the motion was successful, Croke Park was, effectively, in a position to host international soccer and rugby.

Good news if you liked the idea of sporting ecumenism. Rather bad if you were trying to justify the building of a second vast stadium in Dublin.

Of course, the Government's 'gift' was delivered without conditions, but there weren't many who interpreted it as anything but a nudge towards retaining the status quo. And that motion fell by a single vote the following day, the verdict delivered in a controversially shambolic 'show of hands'.

Had Croke Park opened its doors in 2001, the Aviva would almost certainly never have been built.

Instead, five years of hopeless inertia passed, in which time the IRFU and FAI had no option, but to make their own arrangements. And, when Rule 42 was eventually suspended in 2006, it was only to facilitate the redevelopment on Lansdowne Road. The Aviva has cost €390 million then and, believe me, the finished product is spectacular. But three of years of construction have, of course, coincided with the slow diagnosis of our national economy as a basket case.

If the IRFU had the good fortune to sell all their ten-year tickets before the sirens went off in the asylum, the FAI hasn't been so lucky. I don't pretend to know if they are still on track to meet their obligations. If not, they'd hardly be unique.

But there has certainly been the sense of an Association cutting its cloth to a radically different measure in recent months. The Brazil game at the Emirates was passed off as some kind of consolation for supporters 'cheated' of their World Cup dream by Thierry Henry in Paris. Yet, quite what consolation lay in inviting people to north London on a Tuesday night in February was never quite identified.

Discount

Of course, the GAA argued that they had made Croke Park available at a discount price, but maybe they were wildly over-pricing it to begin with. And, with the Emirates hosting, the FAI could at least ring-fence a clean profit of £250,000.

Such things matter in a time of deep recession and now I see that this year's 'warm-weather' venue for Trapattoni and his players -- prior to those friendlies against Algeria and Paraguay at the RDS in May -- has been revealed as Gannon Park in Malahide. It's like cutting back from Saint-Tropez to Butlins.

Yet, if that's what it takes to pay for the Aviva, they shouldn't be faulted for it. And, for those little sacrifices, they're certainly getting a nice new place to call their own.

But it may just be the most expensive second home in history.

Irish Independent

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