It’ll probably shock most of you who know me to learn that the first time I ever went to see an Irish senior representative side play a match was not in a game of football, but in rugby. Back in 2010, I went with herself to see the Irish senior rugby team take on the Barbarians, who were on tour, at Thomond Park in Limerick. Not until this week when we both went to see Ireland take on Austria in Dublin had I ever before seen the Irish senior international football team. Prior to the game, I had only been to Lansdowne Road once before and that was to see Waterford United lose the 2004 FAI Cup final 2-1 to Longford Town. So I was going not just for my first international football match, but I was going to see one of Ireland’s great stadiums in all its shiny, glassy, still-new glory.
After seeing Ireland draw with Sweden on the telly Friday night, when solid defending kept Zlatan quiet my hopes were high for this encounter against Austria. Regardless of what the outcome would be, I was determined at least to enjoy the occasion; having never been so much as near to an international match before, to say nothing of a vital World Cup Qualifier, I was deeply excited if apprehensive.
Of course, that was also because this match was to be my last in the company of herself for some time. It’s taken me years to convince her that football was a game worth watching. On Wednesday morning, she began the journey to Prague, where she is shortly to begin a new job. Prague, a fine European city, with a great footballing tradition is only next door to Austria, and when I make it out to visit in the summer a trip has been planned to travel from one great capital to another, Vienna. Looking at the team Ireland played the other night, most of the Austrians hail from that city so brilliantly evoked by Jonathan Wilson in Inverting the Pyramid as being once a great centre of footballing debate in the early twentieth century. If their star has fallen as a footballing nation, and centre of European life, yet a fine tradition persists. Things were tight following the matches on Friday when we’d lost to Sweden, and the Austrians over-took us beating minnows the Faroe Islands. This was must win. And we very nearly did. From high up in the gods, next to Zeus, we watched a brilliant and engaging game of football unfold until in the final twenty minutes it collapsed into an Italian dirge, defensive and uninspiring. And then the air it seemed was sucked out of this shining stadium when the ball hit the back of the Irish net. Football is great because a draw can be made to feel like a win. Football is terrible for precisely the opposite reason.
So, from the banks of the Liffey where we sat the team who came flowing like the Wien helped shatter our dreams and the city on the Vltava, future destination flowed and crashed in our minds; rivers of football all of them, as the players dribbled and tackled, and in the night air we kissed as goals were scored under the glass and steel of Lansdowne Road’s great ground.