Saturday 29 April 2017

Stephen Ireland, a 17-year-old Gareth Bale and 72,530 - A lot has changed since Croker showdown with Wales

Ireland and Wales ahead of Croke Park clash in 2007
Ireland and Wales ahead of Croke Park clash in 2007

Jack O'Toole

Ireland will take on Wales this Friday night with Martin O’Neill’s side looking for their fourth win in five games as they welcome Chris Coleman’s side to Dublin.

After dropping points to Austria in Vienna, and Georgia and Serbia in Cardiff, Wales will be desperate to get a result against Ireland and they will be buoyed by the return of Real Madrid superstar Gareth Bale.

Bale has been instrumental for Wales under Coleman, and has scored seven goals in his last 10 games in international football, including four already this campaign, but he wasn’t always the clinical marksman for Wales that he is today.

In fact, this week 10 years ago, he was a fresh faced 17-year-old lining up at left-back in a Wales team that played the first ever game of soccer at Croke Park.

Stephen Ireland’s 39th minute strike was the lone difference between the two sides in front of 72,539 fans at the home of GAA, and while Ireland and Wales are both in significantly better places now, than they were then, the thought of playing international football at Croke Park was still a very sensitive subject for many at the time. 

The excitement for international soccer at GAA Headquarters was certainly palpable in the lead up to Ireland’s Euro 2008 qualifier with Wales, but that eagerness had well and truly worn off by the time Ireland drew with Germany and Cyprus in back-to-back home games a few months later.

However, Irish soccer’s journey to Croke Park, and indeed the people and the players involved thereafter, was an interesting tale with mixed fortunes.

Ireland manager Steve Staunton lasted less than a year and was sacked by a 10-man FAI committee at Dublin Airport's Radisson Hotel in October. 

Goalscorer Stephen Ireland played two more games for Ireland before quitting international football after a string of lies about the death of both his maternal and paternal grandmothers. 

And Gareth Bale went on to become the world’s most expensive player, signing for Real Madrid in September 2013 for a world record fee of £85.1 million, which has since been surpassed by Manchester United’s Paul Pogba.

But before all of that happened, Bale and Ireland shared a pitch on the hallowed turf of Croke Park for a day, a day in which Ireland defeated Wales, an afternoon in which soccer was embraced by the home of gaelic football.

Rule 42

With Ireland’s home of Lansdowne Road in desperate need of a redevelopment, plans for a 50,000 seater stadium were announced in January 2004 with an initial timeline of winter 2008 set as a tentative completion date.

With delays in planning, consultations between the IRFU, FAI, Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism and Office of Public Works stalling, and even the consideration of an alternative stadium off of the M50, the FAI and the IRFU were in search of a new home while both sporting bodies waited on the construction of what would eventually become the Aviva Stadium.

With Lansdowne Road under redevelopment until 2010, the FAI and IRFU needed a new home for at least the 2007, 2008 and 2009 seasons. Thomond Park and the RDS were being purported as possible venues, and were utilised for certain internationals during the redevelopment period, but Croke Park was clearly the sought after venue for both the IRFU and the FAI.

However, under Rule 42 of the GAA’s Official Guide, other sports were not permitted to be played on GAA grounds, including Croke Park.

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With support swelling for an amendment to the GAA’s longstanding rule, several county boards proposed motions to the GAA’s central council on how such an alteration would be implemented. 

Longford’s motion proposed that the use of Croke Park for other sports would pertain to when "situations arise, circumstances develop or opportunities present themselves."

Sligo’s proposal specified the use of other sports at GAA grounds "when Lansdowne Road is closed", whereas Clare’s proposal stipulated that a) Central Council be authorised to make decisions on the use of Croke Park, and b) that Rule 42 "be suspended for a period not exceeding three years to allow for rugby and soccer internationals to be played in Croke Park."

On April 17, 2005, the GAA's annual congress passed a motion to clear the way to open Croke Park to non-Gaelic games in certain circumstances.

The motion was passed by a margin of 227 to 97 votes, as a two-thirds majority of the 336 delegates were needed to amend Rule 42.

Demolition work on Lansdowne Road eventually began in May 2007, with construction on the Aviva Stadium beginning soon after.

The Move To Croke Park

The Irish Rugby team welcomed France and England to Croke Park for the 2007 Six Nations, but the Irish football team had to wait for a late March international break before they played their first international at GAA Headquarters.

Ireland had gotten off to a horrible start to their Euro 2008 qualification campaign, suffering opening round defeats to Germany and Cyprus, before drawing with the Czech Republic and beating minnows San Marino in the final competitive games at Lansdowne Road.

A 94th minute Stephen Ireland winner saved Ireland from embarrassment in the return fixture against San Marino in Serravalle a month before the Wales game, so by the time Ireland welcomed the Dragons for their first ever international in Croke Park, there was more anticipation for the novelty of the occasion than actually harboring any real hope for entertainment on the pitch.

The national anthems were treated fervently, but the match largely disappointed, despite the presence of notable Premier League players on both sides.

However, Ireland striker Kevin Doyle, who replaced Stephen Ireland that day, said that the game had a special atmosphere and that he relished the chance of playing in Croke Park where he had gone so often as a kid.

“I remember being injured in the lead up to it and desperate to get back fit and wanting to play in that first game,” said Doyle.

“I think I came on in the second half. We won the game. Just a good, positive atmosphere, the first game in Croke Park and it all went off well. I’m sure we all, well I know I did, you grew up going to Croke Park watching Wexord play or Waterford play, or Kilkenny. 

 “I was proud to play at the time. My mother played there when she was young and it was nice to able to follow that.”

Like Doyle, Sunderland defender John O’Shea also shared fond memories of the occasion and added that it was special to be a part of such a historic occasion.

“We won anyway,” O’Shea said when asked of his memories of the game.

“Thanfully we won and it was an historical occasion too. I remember the victory for us but at the time too, the rugby, Ireland playing England too, it was historic so to be part of that was very special.”

 

Where Are They Now

Shay Given – Given was in goals for Ireland that day and is still playing football today for Stoke City. The former Newcastle United goalkeeper retired from international football at the conclusion of Euro 2016.

Steve Finnan – Played another season at Liverpool before winding down his career with Espanyol and Portsmouth. Retired from international football less than a year after the Wales game with 53 international caps. Finnan now runs a property development company called Finnan Developments.

Paul McShane – McShane had only made his international debut three games earlier against the Czech Republic, and slotted in beside Richard Dunne at heart of Ireland’s defence. McShane would move onto Sunderland the following season, before spells at Hull, Barnsley, Crystal Palace and Reading. Is still with the Ireland team now, but is ruled out of Friday’s game with a hamstring injury.

Richard Dunne – Manchester City’s captain at the time and one of the central figures of the Ireland team. Played another seven years for Ireland before retiring from international football in 2014. Retired from club football in 2015 after two seasons with Queens Park Rangers and now lives with his family in Monaco. 

John O’Shea – Playing for Ireland then and still playing now. O’Shea could actually start on Friday in the anniversary game with Shane Duffy and Ciaran Clark both sidelined, in what would be his 117th cap. 

Jonathan Douglas – Played in central midfield alongside Lee Carsley and was a central figure under Staunton, receiving all eight of his international caps during that campaign. Enjoyed spells at Swindon Town and Brentford before settling at Ipswich Town, where he still plays today.

Lee Carsley – Played in central midfield alongside Jonathan Douglas and was a central figure under Staunton. Retired from international football 11 months later in a 1-0 loss to Brazil. Currently a youth coach with Manchester City U18’s.

Stephen Ireland – Scored the only goal of the game, and would score another in the draw against Slovakia two games later, the final game of his international career. Quit international football after a well-documented saga involving the fake deaths of both his maternal and paternal grandmothers, but played another decade in the Premier League where he remains today with Stoke City.

Kevin Kilbane – Kilbane played his 70th cap against Wales but was mercilessly booed the following night alongside the rest of his Ireland teammates at Bernard Dunne’s European super-bantamweight title fight with Yersin Jailauov. Went on to receive 40 more caps for Ireland before playing his final game in a 2-0 win over Macedonia in 2011. Now works as a pundit with Newstalk’s Off The Ball.

Damien Duff – Duff was in his first season at Newcastle United and relished coming back to the international fold, which said a lot about his club career at the time. The Dubliner enjoyed a better spell at Fulham, before moving on to Melbourne City and Shamrock Rovers, where he remains now as an assistant coach to Stephen Bradley.

Robbie Keane – Ireland’s record goalscorer and a pivotal part of the national team up until last summer’s European Championships in France. Announced his retirement from international football after a 4-0 win over Oman in August. Was recently inducted into the FAI’s Hall of Fame but insists he will continue his club career after leaving the LA Galaxy at the end of last season.

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