Growing up in the Irish county of Clare, opportunities to attend professional football matches were few and far between. Limerick FC, the nearest full-time club to my hometown, played in the second tier of Irish football throughout my childhood, where the matchday experience tended not to be the most inviting. Attending a Premier League game in England would have entailed the organisation of flights or a ferry, plus accommodation and match tickets, which were not accessible to my parents. The likeliest way in which I would taste a first-class game was through the Republic of Ireland national team, but even that involved a trek the width of the country to Dublin.
It was a bucket list item I finally got to tick off in August 2003 as a 14-year-old. A friend of mine at the time was involved with an underage team at our local club and offered me the chance to travel on a bus with his teammates and coaches to Ireland’s friendly against Australia at the old Lansdowne Road stadium. I was only too happy to take him up on the offer and we duly made our way to the Irish capital, passing through multiple small towns on the road to Dublin as the motorway which currently exists was a pipe dream at the time.
There was the obligatory stop just after the halfway point of the route where almost everyone stocked up on sugar-loaded treats and relieved themselves at a bustling fuel station. Once we hit the outskirts of County Dublin, the traffic thickened substantially, our itinerary not helped by hitting the capital during the evening rush hour as the match was of a Tuesday night. We still made it to Lansdowne Road in good time, though, and had sufficient time for a group photo outside the stadium. I was so engrossed in the match programme that I was the last person to join the photo, a bemused shout of “Eh…Liam” and the sight of my peers assembling purposefully alerting me to the photography plans.
We were in the Lansdowne End terrace behind the goal to the right as viewed on TV. The only drawback to getting in so early was the almost interminable wait for kick-off. We did not find the teams’ warm-ups enthralling, my one memory being a pre-teenage ball girl anxiously gesturing to a group about 10 feet in front of us to return an Umbro ball booted into the terrace by one of the Irish players. I briefly got talking to a gentleman taking his young son to his first game and perching him on the railing in front of us, planting a flat multi-coloured cushion beneath the child.
As kick-off approached, the excitable tannoy announcer told spectators in the stand to our right that he wanted to see “the biggest tricolour ever”, with green, white and gold cards strategically placed on every seat for the creation of a captivating mosaic when the teams emerged from the tunnel. When the Irish national anthem was played, we all blasted it out, knowing the lyrics backwards and forwards from singing it before a plethora of GAA matches that we’d attended.
As is the case with many international friendlies, the first half passed off without any memorable incident. By half-time, dusk was setting in and the glow of the floodlights became increasingly attention-grabbing. Shortly after the interval, we fell silent for the first time all night. Sloppy Irish defending left Mark Viduka, then of Leeds, with an easy finish beyond Nicky Colgan to give Australia the lead. A small band of Socceroos supporters cheered enthusiastically as we awoke to the possibility of Ireland losing.
It’s the final 20 minutes of the match that I remember most vividly. It was one of the first Ireland games to feature young Manchester United defender John O’Shea, whose courageous nature came to the fore on this night. From a free kick, he headed a deserved equaliser and we all punched the air gleefully and roared like lunatics. A couple of minutes later, the famous Irish football chant of “ole ole ole” was amended to “O’Shea, O’Shea, O’Shea”, with the recipient of that admiration remaining firmly focused on his duties but no doubt aware and appreciative of the support.
In the closing minutes of the game, a long ball downfield caught Australia’s defence out and Clinton Morrison was left one-on-one with the Aussies’ goalkeeper, who was advancing rapidly towards the Irish forward. Morrison got his toe to the 50-50 ball and, as time seemed to stand still, it rolled gently into the net despite a valiant effort from an Australian defender to get his leg on it. Again we erupted and again the chorus of DJ Otzi’s ‘Hey Baby’ boomed over the PA, followed by the name of the Irish goalscorer.
Once the match ended, another cheer went up and the coaches instructed us to stay put for 10 minutes to let the crowds off so that nobody would get lost. While waiting for the bulk of the spectators to disperse, we were entertained by a smattering of young fellas jumping the advertising hoardings and sprinting around the pitch, with multiple stewards in hot pursuit and succeeding on each occasion in apprehending the diminutive scallywags. All the while, we laughed heartily in the terrace before getting the signal from our coaches to make our way to the bus for home.
I was fairly exhausted by the time I got home – it was after 1am, to be fair – but my first experience of attending a first-class football match had been a most enjoyable one and I was grateful to my mate for inviting me on the trip. I’ve been to several Ireland matches since, two of which were against reigning world champions, one magnificent away trip, one spent in the VIP section and two observed from the media box. However, the 2-1 win over Australia in 2003 will always be fondly remembered as the first that I witnessed live.