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Thursday 21 August 2014

Hot dogs, jazz and razzmatazz - US just does it better

Published 02/09/2012 | 05:00

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Eamonn Sweeney went to the Aviva Stadium yesterday and was beguiled by the spectacular display put on by Navy and Notre Dame

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There are some things the Americans just do better. Jazz, Westerns, the hot dog, chat shows, skyscrapers, sandwiches with a stick poking out the top of them. And, above all, razzmatazz. Especially sporting razzmatazz.

The Emerald Isle Classic between Notre Dame and the Navy at the Aviva Stadium was such a unique occasion because we just don't do sport in the same way on this side of the pond. It was a perfect example of that part of the American sporting soul which will always have more in common with Busby Berkeley than Matt Busby.

So we had a march into the stadium by a group of midshipmen from the Naval Academy which was simultaneously impressive and reminiscent of a Pet Shop Boys video, a hyperactive leprechaun mascot urging the Notre Dame support to greater heights of frenzy at every opportunity, a rather excellent and very loud hard rock soundtrack every time there was a break in play, a guy on the PA who sounded like Jack Nicholson does when he sticks the hatchet through the door in The Shining and shouts "Heeeeeere's Johnny", and the Notre Dame marching band playing a medley of Irish jigs and reels while forming itself into a shamrock shape.

We sure weren't in Croke Park anymore.

It's easy, of course, to pour scorn on the American way of sport and to wonder what all this pageantry and spectacle has to do with the actual game. And it's undeniable that someone with a low tolerance for ethnic kitsch, heavy metal riffs and extremely attractive young women doing high kicks while a man with a red beard and green rigout capers beside them with an expression on his face which suggests that Darby O'Gill never had it so good, might have found the proceedings to be a bit of a trial.

But personally I had a ball. And judging from the noise inside the Aviva, which probably won't be this cheerful again for a long time given the current state of our soccer and rugby teams, so did the rest of the crowd.

Then again most of them were Americans. They had come in their thousands, 35,000 of them to be precise, and strolled to the stadium with a good-humoured insouciance, like members of the largest Bunratty Castle tour group in history. The sheer good nature of it all was quite something. You only had to think of what the city would have felt like had we been dealing with 35,000 English soccer fans to marvel at the benignity which seems as integral a part of American sport as razzmatazz.

But, relaxed air notwithstanding, there was serious business to be transacted inside the stadium. Some of the pre-match coverage seemed under the illusion that because this was a college football game and was taking place at an Irish venue, we were going to witness an exhibition match which wasn't terribly important in the scheme of things.

The reality is that top-level college football is a huge deal in America. Notre Dame play in a stadium almost exactly the same size as Croke Park and sell it out every time they play. And even then their crowds are dwarfed by those of two upcoming opponents, Michigan and Penn State, whose stadia hold well in excess of 100,000.

With college teams having just 12 regular season games a year, the Aviva was hosting a major sporting fixture. Notre Dame may be the Cavan of American football, great several decades ago but well off the pace now, but they remain a name to conjure with. And their match-up with Navy has historic significance as the oldest fixture in American college sport. This wasn't some meaningless pre-Premier League season knockabout we were talking about.

Sadly for Navy, however, this was probably the most one-sided contest they'd been engaged in since the invasion of Grenada. And while they won that one, the boot was on the other foot this time. Notre Dame's running backs George Atkinson III, who's run 10.36 for 100m and Theo Riddick, who's majoring in film, television and theatre, romped through the Navy defence at will, bagging a couple of touchdowns each by the third quarter.

When the PA blared out Mick Jagger singing "it's allright, in fact it's a gas" after Atkinson III had run 56 yards for his first score, the Navy players looked disinclined to agree with him. The Navy band retaliated with some expertly played tasteful Latin jazz but even that didn't seem to help.

Score of the game, midway through the second quarter, went to Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt. Tuitt weighs 303 pounds and as a defensive end spends his time making tackles and occasionally rumbling towards the opposition quarterback in menacing fashion. What he wouldn't expect to happen is for the ball to be fumbled into his path 77 yards from the opposition line with a clear field in front of him. But off he set on an epic journey which made Noel Mannion's famous run against Wales look like a simple sprint.

As the chasing pack closed on Tuitt and he struggled to extract every last ounce of pace from his 21-and-a-half stone frame, the lad from Monroe, Georgia, looked like one of the slow motion athletes from Chariots of Fire. But he made it for a score he'll almost definitely never repeat in his college career. Big Stephon Tuitt will remember Dublin for a long time.

Navy did manage a brief rally at the start of the third quarter with a touchdown from their best player, the rather appropriately named for the day that was in it wide receiver Shawn Lynch. But it was business as usual soon afterwards as Notre Dame piled on the agony to the tune of Ozzy Osbourne and Lenny Kravitz on the PA and the riff out of Gary Glitter's Rock And Roll from the Notre Dame band to run out 50-10 winners.

By the end they were playing Dynamite, which was a pretty decent summing up of the whole occasion. And perhaps the nicest thing about it all was the sense that we'd seen the genuine article. A part of Dublin had become an American arena for the afternoon to such an extent you almost expected to see yellow cabs in the street as you left the stadium. They'd even imported some American weather with them for the day.

Y'all come back soon now, d'you hear?

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