11 February ~ This week saw the start of the Carling Nations Cup in Dublin – a home nations minus England and with the Republic of Ireland replacing them in the line-up. The tournament opened with the newcomers cruising to a 3-0 victory over Wales while the following day Northern Ireland crumbled to the same score line against Scotland. For the game against Wales, the impressive Aviva Stadium (formerly known as Lansdowne Road) attracted a 20,000 crowd – under half its capacity. The next day, on a cold, wet and blustery Wednesday night, fewer than half that figure did their best to create an atmosphere as they were outnumbered four-to-one by empty seats.

Northern Ireland were decimated by withdrawals as Nigel Worthington was left without ten regulars and had the retirement from international football of George McCartney to deal with. Worthington changed his formation to accommodate Celtic duo Pat McCourt and Niall McGinn but it was their club team-mate, Scotland's Kris Commons, who ran the game and scored the best goal, finishing off a sweeping passing move.

The tournament's inability to attract anywhere near sell-out crowds could trouble officials – although Patrick Nelson, chief executive of the Irish Football Association (IFA), doesn't see attendance figures as the be all and end all. "Carling have put their name behind it, there's media partners and a mix of TV deals so in these days it doesn't all relate to the tickets that are paid for on the gate," he said before the Scotland game.
The main attraction for the IFA has been the lure of playing more "competitive" matches in preparation for European Championship qualifiers. Gary McAllister, spokesman for the Amalgamation of Northern Ireland Supporters Clubs, shares this belief: "From a supporter's point of view, and no disrespect to the likes of Canada and Albania who we have played, this is a different calibre of opposition where the players in these national teams have more recognition – and this attracts the support."

Even Giovanni Trapattoni's mentioned the how these fixtures "take on extra importance with local rivalry at stake" in his pre-match programme notes. But did they? Without the majority of their top players – Messrs Bale, Hughes, Fletcher and Keane all absent – the standards slipped, and also the competitive edge that organisers and supporters were searching for. One thing is universal within football circles in Northern Ireland – England's involvement would be more than welcomed. "If in the future England want to join in, the door is always open to them," Nelson said, while McAllister agrees: "If England were to become part of a future tournament, it would increase interest, exposure and revenues for all the associations."

Chris Holt, a columnist at the Belfast Telegraph, suggests that the only competitive match will be between the two nations on the island of Ireland. "Even then [when RoI meet NI] I think the rivalry is a little one-sided – I doubt fans down south would care as much as Northern Ireland supporter. At least if you throw England in, everyone wants to beat them." But looking at the standard of the opening games, you can hardly make a case for what England would gain from it. In the meantime, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland will meet in May – and if that fixture doesn't attract a full house, then nothing will. Alex Gulrajani

Comments (8)
Comment by Lincoln 2011-02-11 15:10:39

I watched the first 20 minutes of the Wales v Ireland game and had to turn it off it was so turgid. Instead fired up the laptop and listened to Lincoln v Shrewsbury. Hearing another team scoring goals was more enjoyable. Classic case of the bluster around the games, the concept, and history having little to do with the actual quality.

Comment by Dalef65 2011-02-11 19:09:16

The old Home Championships or British Championships as it came to be known in its latter years,floundered for exactly the reasons identified in this piece.
As football gradually became more globalised,England,who are the only "top-drawer attraction",lost interest in the games,whilst fixtures between the other Nations ceased to have much attraction either for TV-football-overloaded-but-cash-strapped fans or for overworked players.
I see no particular reason why it will be any different for this particular incarnation of the Tournament.And no amount of plaintive appeals for England to get involved from Chief Executives will change all of this.
We all know that Northern Ireland v. England,for example,on a wet wednesday night in Belfast would suffer from an inordinate amount of withdrawals and thus render the match even more meaningless than it already would be.And then the likes of SAF and AW wouldnt like it anyway........

Unfortunately the football landscape has changed and we cant go back to the days pre-1980s.
But how about once every two years in non WC/EC years we have an England v.Scots/Welsh/Irish select team instead of this revived tournament which is surely designed to fail.

Comment by Harry Truscott 2011-02-11 19:42:51

"Without the majority of their top players – Messrs Bale, Hughes, Fletcher and Keane all absent – the standards slipped"

It took me quite a while to work out who this "top player" called Hughes might be.

Comment by 1895 2011-02-11 21:05:21

Something missing from the above article is the crazy ticket prices.

Ireland played Argentina in the first international to be held at the rebuilt Lansdowne last August. With Messi et al in tow, the match failed to sell out. ticket prices that day were €40 and €55. The same prices were in place for the friendly v Norway in Novemeber which drew a crowd of about 25,000.

Enter FAI CEO John Delaney who promised to address the problem with the ticket prices.

With unemployment well over 10%, the games being live on tv, and played midweek to add to the inconvenience for fans from outside Dublin as well as Trap's not easy on the eye style of football, Delaney's solution was to knock just a fiver off the ticket prices.

Hard to be in touch with the man on the street when you're pulling over €400,000 a year from a massively indebted organistaion.....

Comment by ZoltanBuchan 2011-02-12 21:41:36

I paid 20 Euros for my ticket on Wednesday. The tickets for the games featuring Ireland are 35 Euros.

Great atmosphere, would have been much better in a smaller ground though, shame about the contract with Aviva. Nearly 10,000 (combined) away supporters for a friendly in the middle of a recession? Astonishingly impressive attendence really.

Comment by A Doctor Speaks 2011-02-13 02:00:57

Fair enough, but with respect to their footballing history, WGAF about 3 different regions of Britain and part of Ingerland's former colonial outposts??

Comment by ZoltanBuchan 2011-02-13 18:23:39

No-one's bought into the idea that it's any sort of tournament, fair enough, it's just a set of friendlies. I actually hope it doesn't get any further than this season.

NI v ROI in Glasgow anyone? Christ.

Comment by PRB 2011-02-14 02:51:17

No wonder the attendances of the NI v Scotland game were low considering it was played in Dublin rather than Edinburgh or Belfast. I get why but I think it hurt the attendance mid week.

The concept is a good one. I hope it keeps going and I'd like to see England get involved. Would be better to watch a glorified friendly rather than a completely meaningless friendly.

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