When you are a child, there are a few places that remain special for the rest of your life. For me, it was a ramshackle stadium in Dublin over a hundred miles from the house I grew up in. The journey to get to the old Landsdowne Road on those glorious Saturdays with my Dad was rare and cherished.
It started with a concerted campaign for my Dad to get tickets for an upcoming rugby international to watch Ireland in the famous old ground in Dublin 4. By international standards, the ground was small and shabby. This reflected the Irish rugby team that I grew up watching with the old fella. They were huge lumps of men, hewn out of Irish oak covered in baggy green jerseys that embarrassingly never seemed to fit them properly, the sleeves flapping awkwardly at the arms. The teams of that era are freeze framed in my mind hunched under the posts, poorly sheltered from the wind and the rain battering them as they tried to make sense of how they had conceded yet another soft try to their then superior neighbours across the sea.
The fact that the Irish rugby team of that era was a haphazard collection of bankers, students, teachers and even a vet who had a collective ability to lose by huge margins mattered very little to me, I just wanted to pretend that one day my Dad and I might see a miracle and actually see us win a game, despite the odds at the time being heavily stacked against the men in green.
Getting tickets to international games at Landsdowne Road was a complex affair. The tickets came exclusively through the intricate web of clubmen across the island. My father was not a member of one, so he had to utilise whatever contacts he had to try and eek two tickets to pacify his restless son. Demand outstripped supply often, and despite my pleas, Dad could only do his best which left us empty handed come match days more often than not. It was extremely rare when he managed to get those golden tickets, and the moment was cherished by both of us. The excitement would last for weeks in the leadup to the game.
Intricate planning went into the day. Dad always took his green and white knitted bobble hat that my Gran had knitted him as a boy, I was frequently embarrassed that he insisted on wearing it. He said it would bring the team luck and it rarely did. I was wrapped up against the Dublin chill with the short green lambswool scarf my Dad had bought for me to my first match against France in 1995. I always tied it to make sure the shamrock with the rugby ball in the middle was there for all to see.
Dad grew up in Dublin, so he had a magician’s knack of winding our old family Volvo through the maze of streets and small houses near the stadium to get the perfect parking space that would enable a quick escape to Belfast afterwards. We got out of the car and I instantly was in familiar surroundings. The smoky smell, the sight of a city decked in green for the day, and the often ill placed optimism from the fans flocking to the ground. “Jaysus if we can just ship the ball to Geoghegan, we’ll give them a game of it.”
Simon Geoghegan was the shining light of the Irish rugby team in those days. He was blonde, he was a solicitor, he was raised in England and he was far too good for our often hapless team. A winger by trade, he patrolled his wing patiently for 80 minutes waiting for a ball that rarely came to him. His forwards understood his frustrations, but they were trying hard enough just to survive in scrums and rucks where they were getting pummelled and humiliated by their Gallic or English counterparts. On the rare times he did get the ball, he rarely disappointed, lifting the capacity crowd to their feet in acclaim at his speed and ability to change direction at the last possible moment, just before he was going to be ceremonially beheaded by his opposite number. With Geoghegan in our team, we dreamed that anything was possible.
Walking up to the stadium you crossed the canal and the elderly women with their huge antique prams filled with sweets for sale. I always asked that we got a programme to commemorate the day, Dad always humoured me and bought one, and I would sit before the game listing off the interesting facts as I read it studiously. Did he know our famed hooker Keith Wood was a bank clerk in Limerick? He did. Did he know that this was likely to be our 50th consecutive defeat to a French team in Dublin? He knew that also.
Our preferred place to sit was the West Stand. It had long wooden benches as opposed to plastic seats and a train went directly under it, rattling the whole stand in the middle of games. But I loved it because I could see the whole Dublin skyline as the sun dipped low and the floodlights slowly came on. The anticipation almost always beat the match itself. Dad would share a few knowing conversation with the man beside him about Ireland’s tactics and the shrill blast of the whistle would sound and the crowd would roar knowing at least at this moment in time Ireland were on level terms and we could even dream of winning.
Unfortunately those hopes generally faded quickly and were crumpled like the wet chip wrappers outside of the stadium at the end of the night as we all trudged out at the final whistle. Dad was always calm about the inevitable defeat, he and his hat had been at too many Ireland games in the old stadium. Carefully folding my creased programme into my jacket pocket, I was initially always very disappointed on the walk to car, never saying much, unable to accept how you could put so much childhood faith into a collection of adults who did their best but regularly fell so woefully short.
The car journey home was quiet. It was late in the night as we had to cross many country towns that zigzagged across Ireland from Dublin to Belfast. The car radio played Elvis or the Beatles, our favourites and the windscreen wipers provided their accompaniment as we sometimes sang together badly. The game was almost forgotten, when we arrived into the house exhausted. The result hadn’t mattered, the anticipation of it with my Dad was everything, and remains so.