Sunday 17 December 2017

Perfect guests

Richardson in awe as Aviva gets ready to rock with latest chapter of United's Irish love affair

David Kelly

David Kelly

It seems fitting that an Irish soccer venue throwing open its parlour doors for the very first time should invite one of the sport's most enduring dynasties, one so inextricably linked to this country, notwithstanding its origination in Victorian England.

As the FAI mark their stadium opening with all the pomp and elaborate ceremony the vastly overpriced tickets would suggest, Manchester United are, despite their forbidding fee, entirely suited to the role of honoured guests.

United's intimate association with this country's people, and not just those of a sporting hue, has formed an umbilical cord across the Irish Sea for more than half a century, the club's withstanding of grievous political upheaval a permanent tribute to its undoubted prominence in so many hearts and minds, effortlessly permeating successive generations.

The choice of Damien Richardson to lead the welcoming party this evening owes more than just a nod to one of the domestic game's enduring managers.

Never one to spurn a torrent of verbiage when a mere trickle of words might suffice, the former Irish international was an intimate witness to the marriage between United and a burgeoning Irish fan base.


In 1957, his beloved Shamrock Rovers were domestic giants; Real Madrid bestrode the European scene as twice champions of the newly established European Cup. Then Rovers drew United in the 1957-58 competition.

Duncan Edwards and Co spanked the Hoops 6-0; despite Paddy Coad's wizardry in the Old Trafford return, United won 9-2 on aggregate. A monochrome Ireland had witnessed the birth of a technicolour wonder.

"In my childhood it was a very impressionable time in Irish society, in Irish sport too," said Richardson, 63 last Monday, but recalling a giddy 10-year-old as he contemplated the lure of United on the eve of tonight's historic clash.

"I was at that game with my dad and one of my brothers. It was the performance level of the Manchester United players that impressed everybody. These were the days when there wasn't great information about players. You knew them by name but you never got to see them on television.

"That Shamrock Rovers team were exceptionally talented, so the superior performance level of Manchester United was a seminal moment. That created great interest around the country and from that, they became synonymous with sport in Ireland, not just soccer supporters.

"The fact that one of our own, Liam Whelan, played with them gave it that personal touch. And then you had the Munich disaster a year later, which robbed us of many of the people who had starred in Dublin a year earlier, which made it even more personal.

"Those two things really set off an emotional attachment for Manchester United amongst Irish people which has lasted to this day. And you've had great Irish players who have represented the club down the years, further ingraining the club into the psyche of the Irish people."

In some ways, that 1957 meeting sowed the seeds for the gradual subjugation of the domestic game by its dominant neighbour; the domestic game is now Lilliputian in comparison to the behemoth of the Premier League.

The inescapable irony of tonight's gala occasion will incongruously congregate an overwhelming majority cheering on an English team, regardless of their cosmopolitan colour, against an Irish combination of the best and brightest.

The paradox isn't lost on Richardson, who recalled the manic weeks during the era of the late Shelbourne secretary Ollie Byrne, who used to harvest quick bucks by cramping in pre-season games against United and other English giants in the 1990s.

"Yes, it's deeply ironic but not sad," admits Richardson, rarely a man to pander to patronising sentiment. "I'd rather play in front of a crowd of 40,000 who were mostly supporting the other team than just 16,000, even if the majority of them were supporting us.

"I faced this with Shelbourne when we played English teams and our attendance was made up of Irish people supporting English teams. That's their entitlement and I've no problem with it whatsoever.

"Any interest in sport is a healthy thing. But it's still a hard thing to accept when it happens, when one of the opposition does something well and gets a bigger cheer than your own team.

"I've asked as many local fans to come because this league has a bright future that can involve professional football and, hopefully, we can prove that we can be involved in more occasions like this next year.

"I'm under no illusions as to what the real attraction is."


Curiously, the centre of tonight's attention have decided to spurn -- or at least been afforded the licence to squirm away from -- the inconvenience of presenting themselves to their adoring Irish support in the build-up to this game.

With the game not yet sold out, Richardson estimates 40,000 as a likely figure, significantly below capacity, and agreed that the no-show from the highly paid guests was a tad unusual.

"Yes there's no doubt. In the era we live in, presentation is important when it comes to any product. But it's a hectic life. They've been travelling in America for commercial reasons and they want to work on the training ground."

However, he reserved little criticism for his opposite number, Alex Ferguson, in whom he invests significant credit for maintaining a proud tradition that remains a global standard, even in these times of multi-billion dollar debt and publicly urinating centre-forwards.

"When you're a manager for a long time, you've got to do two things -- consistently reinvent yourself and reinvent your team. That in itself is a tremendous achievement, marking him down as one of the best ever.

"For me personally, it's the style that he consistently adheres to. One of my pet theories is that football clubs should have an identity that persists throughout time without change; once forged it should always retain that identity.

"Alex Ferguson didn't come into Manchester United and try to change things the way some people could have. Others would have tried to change the personality of the club.

"And age doesn't come into it. He has a passion that is ageless."

Much like that which persists through the ages between his club and this country.

Airtricity League XI v Manchester Utd Live, RTE2, 7.45

Irish Independent

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