The new Aviva Stadium is certainly a stunning sight, and should be especially impressive when the lights are on. With the help of the taxpayer — not the Government — the IRFU and FAI have delivered what many sceptics felt they were incapable of: a world-class arena that, in relative terms (€410m), hasn’t cost the earth; probably thanks to the economic downturn and the lowering of construction overheads. It’s fair to say, mind, that it was fortunate — if not for the GAA — that the State’s €191m stake was committed before the Celtic Tiger kicked the bucket.
While understandably delighted at seeing the historic project through to fruition, Waterford man John Delaney — who led the opposition to former CEO Bernard O’Byrne’s crazy go-it-alone vision for ‘Eircom Park’ — still has the headache of shifting a sizeable quantity of premium and corporate seats: an onerous task considering the state of the economy and the dull draw for the Euro 2012 qualifiers. Securing Manchester United to take on an Irish league XI in the opening soccer match at the new stadium, followed a week later by a friendly against Diego Maradona’s Argentina, will at least kick-off proceedings in a more glamorous vein. Reaching South Africa would have made his job a whole lot easier, however, and making the next major finals must be an imperative.
Delaney’s rugby counterpart Philip Browne has the satisfaction of having long since sold their share of the ‘dear seats’, insisting the 50,000-capacity Aviva is the ideal size, and revealing they’d had difficulty filling Croke Park on occasion. (A problem the GAA will increasingly face.) With an U20 selection to put the environmentally-friendly stadium through its paces at the end of July, the first full rugby international there will be the visit of world champions South Africa in November.
Browne won’t have to worry about it being big enough for a Heineken Cup final for a few years yet, with it being confirmed on Friday that the 2011 and 2012 deciders are to be staged in Cardiff and Twickenham respectively. Not that the suddenly machine-softened Brian Cowen was any the wiser, speaking that very morning prior to the grand opening in Ballsbridge about the appropriateness of Dublin 4 being awarded either of those dates. Hapless.
One thing both sporting bodies will be hoping is that the pitch, when its ready for action, stands up to the test. Unlike Wembley, which continues to be dogged by surface problems three years after opening.
Having cost stg£756m all-in, one would have thought the English FA might have ensured the actual field of play would be a priority. However, instead of doing what Arsenal did at the Emirates, planning the best-possible pitch then building the stadium around it, they made a hames of it to the point that it’s arguably the worst sod in international soccer — a charge long levelled at Lansdowne Road — and London’s latest white elephant is now in danger of losing next year’s Champions League final.
The pitch has been re-laid ten times already, with its hectic schedule (mostly pop concerts) not helping matters. Aviva Stadium groundstaff spokesman Roddy Guiney explained: “Wembley was laid in turfs. Our surface is like old-fashioned grass seed that has been sewn. Electric fibre in the roots helps to give a firmer grip.”
Electric fibre? Let’s hope the players wear shock-resistant soles.