Belfast Telegraph

Aviva Stadium: Legendary Manchester United the right guest of honour

It seems fitting that an Irish football venue throwing open its parlour doors for the very first time should invite one of the sport's most enduring dynasties.

As the FAI mark the Aviva Stadium opening with all the pomp and elaborate ceremony the vastly over-priced 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 Republic of Ireland 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 strode the European scene as perennial champions of the newly-constituted European Cup. Then Rovers drew United in the 1958 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 now recalling a giddy 10-year-old as he contemplates 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, 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, like Darron Gibson today, further ingraining the club into the psyche of the country.”

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 a 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 of the late Shelbourne secretary who used 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.”

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