Sunday 25 February 2018

Yankees' Aviva spectacular worth giving a damn about


"The Yankees are coming! The Yankees are coming!"

IT might seem a bit daft -- or, as others better educated than your writer might term, incongruous -- to begin a sports column with a line from a classic film, but just bear with me a while.

You see what we're on about does actually have a tenuous link with Margaret Mitchell's best-selling romantic novel of the 1930s, duly turned into a blockbusting movie of the same name -- 'Gone With The Wind'.

While the above exclamation is a cry of despair from young slave Prissy, to warn of impending chaos as the Union forces descend upon Atlanta, it is made here as a spring of hope to tell you all in these trying times that there are things to look forward to.

September 1, 2012, seems a long way off now, but it will be the day when a bit of America lands in a corner of Dublin 4 and shows us what their interpretation of sporting entertainment is all about.

American football isn't something that has flourished on this side of the Atlantic from a participation point of view at least, even though it does attract a core TV audience as well as a sizeable spoof brigade when it comes to Superbowl time.

So, the notion of it being brought over here to 'entertain' us great Gaels will probably set the adrenalin flowing just about as quickly as the, ahem, rate of recovery in the economy.


But, in this instance, the 'Yankees' are bringing as much a social occasion as a sporting event. This is not the glitz, glamour and gory decadence of the NFL. This is college football, the grassroots of their game.

And the particular game they are bringing to the Aviva Stadium is the traditional cornerstone of college football: Notre Dame versus US Naval Academy.

The meeting of this pair is not merely a game, it is an experience to be enjoyed. A ritual to be enthralled by. It is Derry/Tyrone, Galway/Mayo, Cork/Kerry, Kilkenny/Tipp, Man U/Liverpool, rolled into three hours of on-field rivalry -- liberally sprinkled with colourful pageantry.

The Notre Dame/Navy encounter is the longest continuous rivalry in American college football, with the two schools having met every year since 1927. Of course, Notre Dame's links to this country are strong.

Established by the Jesuits, the Indiana university was founded on a strong Catholic ethos and has consistently acted as a magnet for Irish-American would-be graduates, with teams from the college becoming known as the 'Fighting Irish' in the 1920s.

The moniker was initially a term of abuse from opposition supporters, but as Notre Dame's never-say-die spirit became famous along with the traditional Irish qualities of grit and determination, it turned into a badge of honour to shout about. So just over 80 years ago, Notre Dame enshrined it as the official nickname.

But the irony here is that the clash which will take place at Lansdowne Road in 2012 is actually the home game for the Navy, whose Irish links are also strong. On the current books of the Navy's football squad are names like Dowd, McCauley, Keating, Molloy and Dowling-Fizpatrick and there's plenty of Irish-American tradition there as well.

The first US Navy submarine was built by Clare-born school teacher John P Holland, who took something of a gamble in the late 19th century by trying to sell his unusual concept of an underwater ship to Navy authorities. Now, it is the Navy who are taking the gamble by trying to sell their idea to the Irish public and American ex-pats in Europe.

The notion of a game -- which is a lot more 'foreign' than GAA dinosaurs could ever describe rugby and soccer -- attracting a full house of 50,000 to the Aviva may seem fanciful, but it's a dream that people like the Naval Academy's director of athletics, Chet Gladchuk, are determined to pursue.

A larger-than-life character with what can only be described as John Wayne-like charisma, Gladchuk and his Navy team are intent on sailing this particular ship into a packed harbour.

What will help them along the way is that the Aviva meeting is likely to be attended by an estimated 20,000 Americans -- some of them travelling across the Atlantic on package holidays for what has already been billed the 'Emerald Island Classic', and many other ex-pats making journeys across from England, Germany and other parts of Europe.

Also, a seed was sown a few years ago when the pair previously came over to play each other on Irish soil. That was back in November 1996 when Notre Dame beat Navy at Croke Park in front of a crowd of 40,000.

So selling the idea is nothing new to the organisers, and another string to their bow is the fact they are well versed in the art of hosting big crowds.

When the 84th meeting between the two sides took place back in October, the clash at the state-of-the-art New Meadowlands Stadium in New Jersey attracted 80,000 supporters and was seen live by millions more on CBS.

But perhaps their biggest asset is that the 'Yanks' know how to do things big. Just take the tale of two new stadiums. Many fretted when the old Lansdowne Road was torn down and €410m pumped into the new Aviva Stadium. Well, Giants Stadium (remember Ray Houghton's goal) was also razed to the ground and it has been replaced by the New Meadowlands -- at a whopping cost of €1.15bn.

In these times of IMF, ECB, NAMA and NTMA, there is little doubt the success of this Yankee invasion will all boil down to the SP -- the starting price on the admission ticket.

Because if they are to get Irish punters through the door, the organisers will need to pitch their sell at a family audience as Notre Dame versus Navy, and all the colourful pageantry that goes with it, is an event that can be enjoyed by young and old. Even at this early stage, frankly, it's something worth giving a damn about.

Irish Independent

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