Front Row Seat – Soccer at Croker

Soccer, football, Fußball, or the beautiful game– use whatever term is familiar to you.

But on this day in 2007, the Republic of Ireland team had the use of something unfamiliar to them.

Croke Park.

For the first time since the Jones’s road venue came into the ownership of the GAA and christened Croke Memorial Park in 1913 – there would be a soccer match kicking off there.

Republic of Ireland v Wales at Croke Park.
Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

At GAA Congress in 2005, delegates voted to amend Rule 42, and to allow soccer and rugby games to take place at Croke Park while Lansdowne Road was being torn down and rebuilt as the Aviva Stadium. The first match after the rule change was a rugby one, with Ireland losing out to France in the Six Nations Championship.

The Irish rugby squad before the first rugby international game at Croke Park.
Photo: Brendan Moran / SPORTSFILE

Fifteen rugby games were held in Croke Park between 2007 and 2010, all of which were Ireland games, except for the Leinster/Munster Heineken Cup Semi-Final.

While the Republic of Ireland played there thirteen times, their only competitive defeat was on the last day out against France in a World Cup qualifier.

On the 20th of March 2007, a white and red Bus Éireann coach made its way to Croke Park with precious cargo on-board – the Republic of Ireland squad and staff.

The Republic of Ireland team bus arriving at Croke Park for training.
Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

Through the entrance near the handball alley, slinking it’s way around the car park behind the Cusack Stand, the bus ducks under the cover of the stand at Ali corner, into the dark tunnel, and over to the Hogan Stand dressing rooms.

When they see daylight again the players and coaching staff would have walked the astro-turf lined hall from the dressing room to the tunnel that leads to the greenest of pitches, and due to the smaller than usual pitch, the biggest of technical areas.

Peeking out of the tunnel, to the left, is the usual sight of Hill 16, looking unusually decorated. Adorned in its new and temporary blue and grey seats, turning it from a terrace to a stand.

Little bits of history being made.

Seating on Hill 16.
Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE
Croke Park during Republic of Ireland squad training.
Photo: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

Another first. Soccer training at Croke Park. Potentially there might have been a 5-a-side match or two on the pitch over the years – maybe on a quiet day. Builders v Plasterers when re-doing the Hogan Stand or the Canal end perhaps – all unconfirmed reports.

But this was the Republic of Ireland team.

The first game for a Republic of Ireland side at Croke Park came on the 24th of March 2007 – under the management of Steve Staunton against Wales in a 2008 UEFA European Football Championship Qualifier.

The historic match ended with a first for Ireland and Ireland. A first win at Croke Park, with Stephen Ireland hitting the net, into the Hill 16 end – just before half-time.

Shay Given, Richard Dunne, John O’Shea, Robbie Keane and Damien Duff. And even Zinedine Kilbane. Some of Ireland’s biggest ever names playing for Ireland in front of their biggest ever crowd – 72,539.

Stephen Ireland scores the first soccer goal at Croke Park.
Photo: Paul Mohan / SPORTSFILE
Kevin Doyle after scoring the winner against Slovakia.
Photo: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE

Four days later, another 1-0 win was earned after an early header by Kevin Doyle was enough to beat Slovakia and keep Staunton’s men in the hunt for qualification.

But by the time Germany came to town in October, Staunton’s men had drawn away to Slovakia and lost to the Czech Republic in Prague.

A scoreless draw at Croke Park was enough for the Germans to ensure qualification for UEFA EURO 2008 and put Ireland in a very difficult position to get there themselves. And so it proved.

Another draw would come the 17th of October, this time 1-1 against Cyprus – with Steve Finnan getting an injury-time equaliser, in what would be Staunton’s last game in charge of the team.

Richard Dunne v Germany’s Mario Gomez.
Photo: Brian Lawless / SPORTSFILE
Steve Finnan after scoring the equaliser against Cyprus.
Photo: David Maher / SPORTSFILE

They wouldn’t go on to qualify for the Euros, but their Croke Park adventures etched more memories into the folklore of Irish football – and of the stadium. The Republic of Ireland would play nine more games at Croke Park after the Cyprus game.

With the likes of Robinho playing for Brazil, Thierry Henry togging out for France, and Gianluigi Buffon tending the nets for Italy. All able to say they graced the same field as Cooper, Shefflin, O’Driscoll and O’Gara.

Memories to last a lifetime.