Monday 20 January 2020

Lise Hand: 'We should be so proud of this stadium'

Lise Hand

There is something about a spanking new sports stadium that turns grown men into wide-eyed young fellas. They scampered up and down the gleaming steps yesterday, across the polished floors and out through the glass doors, skidding to an awed halt at the vista in front of them, before bursting out with excited babble.

The seats! The view! The grass! Oh look, look -- there's our man Trapattoni! And ohmigod, Declan Kidney!

And who could blame any of them? The new arena that has risen from the rickety ashes of the old Lansdowne Road stadium is truly a thing of beauty. From the outside it looks like a giant burnished silver roller-coaster -- a fitting shape perhaps for the ups and downs that the massive construction project went through over the past three years.

But the grace carries through into the inside of the 50,000-seater stadium. On three sides, banks of green seats soar skywards and seem to almost curve back towards the pitch -- there'll be no problem seeing the whites of the eyes of the visiting teams as they trot out into this intimate cauldron.

And then there's the north end. It may have been planning permission strictures which dictated only one tier of seating here instead of four, but the imaginative use of glass and steel opens the stadium to light and to fresh air.

"That'll be good for the pitch," observed Bertie Ahern, who was surveying the scene from one of the stands. He had arrived for the formal launch of a project that began while he was Taoiseach, and he was seriously impressed. "It's great, it's world class. We now have two world-class stadiums, this one and Croke Park," he said.

Also in the stand was Irish football's most famous supporter, Davy Keogh, who had brought his well-travelled 'Davy Keogh Says Hello' Tricolour with him so both could inspect their new home.

"I'm lost for words, it's just fantastic," he said happily.

A few famous faces from the world of sport were wandering about, too.

Packie Bonner -- the goalie responsible for one of the most heart-stopping saves in Irish football history when he kept out Romanian Daniel Timofte's penalty in Italia '90 -- was fairly bubbling with enthusiasm.

"It's inspirational," he declared. "It's a wonderful concept and it'll impress everyone who walks into it, but particularly it's going to inspire so many young kids who'll come here and want to play here for their country."

And Packie reckoned it could be an intimidating experience for visiting players.

"It's such a tight stadium that the players will be close to the crowd," he added.

Almost nothing remains of the former stadium, which stood on the Dublin 4 spot where rugby has been played for over 130 years -- although some of the original turf has now been replanted in the new pitch. The name has changed, too, of course. No doubt some of the more die-hard rugger-buggers will continue to call it Lansdowne Road, but it's officially the Aviva Stadium, which is a jolly sort of name, with a sort of terrace-chant ring to it.

And a jolly mood prevailed at the official opening yesterday afternoon. Even the risky decision to hold the ceremony outside paid off, as the rain began only after the formalities were over.

Several hundred guests were present, including Irish football and rugby team coaches, Giovanni Trapattoni and Declan Kidney; and former and present Ministers for Sport, Arts and Tourism, John O'Donoghue and Mary Hanafin -- the latter having just arrived after receiving a putting lesson from Padraig Harrington, proving that she really is the Minister for Fun. Also present were Dublin Lord Mayor Emer Costello and Labour leader Eamon Gilmore.

There were plenty of speeches, too. Philip Brown, chairman of the IRFU and head of the board of the stadium company had a lengthy list of "thank-yous" that would put an Oscar-winning actor to shame. It was understandable, perhaps, as he went on to explain that more than 6,000 people had been involved in the project, clocking up four million man hours.

FAI chief executive John Delaney just couldn't stop smiling, even as he made his speech, and made a point of thanking the Green Army who had been billeted across the Liffey for the past three years. "I want to thank our loyal supporters who have followed our teams through thick and thin from the days of the old Lansdowne Road and I look forward to welcoming them to a new fortress for Irish football," he declared.

The Taoiseach was also giving off the air of a chap who was thoroughly enjoying himself. Perhaps it was the news that the end of the recession may be coming into view, or perhaps he was overjoyed to have entered the RTE lair of the fearsome Sean O'Rourke for a lunchtime interview and survived it almost intact -- or maybe he had just been affected by the giddiness sparked by the sight of the shiny new stadium.

In his speech he recalled "the nation's unbridled joy when Packie made his famous save, or Ronan O'Gara's winning drop-goal in the dying minutes of Ireland's Grand Slam decider last year -- great moments, great occasions, great memories." Brian, an avid sports fan, was in his element as he was given a tour. He succumbed to his inner small boy while in the locker room and started playing with an imaginary ball, scoring -- naturally -- an imaginary goal. He was grinning from ear to ear as he emerged from the tunnel on to the pitch for photos with Giovanni and Declan.

"Three national coaches," he grinned, before delivering the punchline: "Two with very good national records."

After a bit of ball play for the cameras, Brian walked off and Declan Kidney surveyed him thoughtfully.

He reckoned the Taoiseach would make a good full-back. "The last line of defence," he explained.

Declan was bowled over by the new stadium. "It's just special," he said. "We're a great nation for knocking ourselves, but we should be proud of this. There's no harm in being proud."

He's right. We should be.

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