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