Ireland prepare for housewarming
Irish football officially has a new home, the Ã¢ÂÂ¬410m, 50,000-capacity Aviva Stadium. Built on the site of the original Lansdowne Road, the opening of the arena was marked by a visit from Manchester United, who beat an Airtricity League of Ireland XI 7-1.
The match itself was a mess; typified by the first goal at the new venue. Defender Gavin Peers took too long with a clearance, allowing Park Ji-Sung to close him down before Peers eventually smashed the ball off the United winger, sending it ricocheting into the top corner.
A second soon followed from Michael Owen, who showed he still has his touch and composure - if not his pace - with a delicate lob over Airtricity 'keeper Gary Rogers. Wayne Rooney, whose name was cheered louder than everyone else combined when the teams were announced, looked busy but a long way from full fitness before departing at half time.
Perhaps the highlight for most of the Man United support in attendance came just after the restart, when Javi Hernandez added a third with practically his first touch. After that, the floodgates opened and had it not been for an extended Mexican wave, it would have been difficult to stay awake.
And what of the stadium itself? For too long, Lansdowne Road was a p*ss-sodden, national embarrassment. It was a relic, and while it hosted plenty of great sporting moments, it was a million miles behind what is required for top class international football. Based on its opening night as a football venue, any fears that the Aviva Stadium wouldn't be up to scratch - and with the FAI involved, there is always fear - can be banished.
Aesthetically, it is stunning. It is modern and imposing with a wave-like roof, which should add to the intimidation factor at home games. Despite the occasional 'United' and 'Ole' chants, a lack of genuine atmosphere last Wednesday means we'll have to wait and see on that, though. The oval design and tiered seating allowed for a good view all over, with the added bonus of a couple of big screens for anyone who forgets their glasses.
After the match Alex Ferguson commented on the facilities available to his players and staff, noting how impressed they were, particularly with the medical room. In addition, the pitch looked immaculate, despite a rugby game being played on it just three days previously. In the wake of the issues that still surround the surface at Wembley, how the pitch holds up after the likes of Michael Buble performs on it over two nights in September, is something that will be watched with interest.
So, all things considered, the stadium can be considered a success so far. As such, it is Ireland's first UEFA Elite stadium, and it will host the 2011 Europa League Final.
Another plus-point that can't be ignored is the planning and execution of the building process. While Wembley encountered problems at every turn and a shovel has yet to break the ground in Stanley Park, the Aviva Stadium was a relatively trouble-free and cost-effective build.
Now let's discuss the problems and complaints that have arisen. The initial questions were raised weeks ago when it was announced that the first football match at the stadium would be 'headlined' by Manchester United.
While United is the biggest supported English club in Ireland, many supporters, including United fans themselves, questioned the decision and wondered why the Irish team weren't allowed to open their new home themselves.
The fact that the national side has a fixture lined up against high profile opposition this week - an Argentina side featuring the best player in the world - supports this idea.
When ticket prices were announced there was further cause for complaint. The cheapest ticket cost just under Ã¢ÂÂ¬50 and the 'premium' tickets cost in and around Ã¢ÂÂ¬100.
Tickets for the rugby game that was played the weekend before were available at just Ã¢ÂÂ¬10. One Dublin-based Manchester United supporter I spoke to declined the offer of a Ã¢ÂÂ¬60 ticket on the grounds that he paid the same amount to watch United play Barcelona at Old Trafford in the Champions League semi final two years ago. Understandable.
When I spoke to a source involved in the ticketing process three days before the game, he described sales at that point as 'embarrassing'. Wayne Rooney's appearance in most of the papers that same day drinking, smoking and urinating on the streets was hardly a glowing advertisement for anyone sitting on the fence.
On arrival at the stadium it was clear that supporters had voted with their feet (and their wallets). The official attendance was announced as over 49,000, and while 49,000 tickets may well have been shifted in some way ahead of the game, there were a lot more than 1,000 empty seats. Live television coverage of the game, and possibly the wariness of supporters who have been burned by the unrecognisable United sides which have visited in the past, may also have played a part in the disappointing attendance.
What now for the Aviva Stadium? It's a perfect football arena for sure, but it will be useless without people there to fill it. Plenty of tickets for tonight's friendly remain on sale at Ã¢ÂÂ¬40 or Ã¢ÂÂ¬55. If a star-studded Argentina side can't inspire a ticket rush then what hope have our next visitors, Andorra, got?