Edmond Van Esbeck
With over 146 years of Irish Sporting History the Aviva Stadium is unlike any other sporting ground in Ireland. Home to both the Irish rugby and soccer national teams where it is shared equally. What started as a field of dreams for schoolboys is now a world class stadium venue for Irelands most popular international sports teams.
Through the efforts of the outstanding sportsman Henry Wallace Dunlop, Lansdowne Road Stadium was founded in 1872. As the first international sporting venue in the world this renowned stadium nestled beside the Dodder is closely linked to Irish and world history.
Lansdowne Road was named in tribute to the third Marquess of Lansdowne, who lived from 1786-1863. First established as a multi-purpose sports complex for the Irish Champion Athletic Club (ICAC) also founded by Dunlop, a 69-year lease was purchased from the Pembroke Estates. Initially, a cinder running path and the Lansdowne Tennis club ground were laid down, accompanied by a croquet green, three football pitches and facilities for archery. Dunlop’s passionate commitment extended to the foundation of the Lansdowne Rugby Football Club -whose colours were red, black and yellow. It was here in Lansdowne Road where the first athletics international in history took place when Ireland met England in 1875. Ensuring that Dunlop’s vision did not sink on the Dodder, Lords Pembroke and Longford provided financial assistance. It was a glorious destination for track and field, with appearances from many of the world’s best athletes such as Ronnie Delaney and the Davin Brothers, as well as playing host to the superstar in women’s athletics Francina Blankers-Koen. Lansdowne Road played host to great athletics meets up until the late 1940s and 1950s.
It was in 1876, when the first interprovincial rugby game was hosted and gave way for a friendly rivalry which span for decades between the Leinster and Ulster teams. Dunlop had put Lansdowne Road forward as an international ground for the Irish Rugby and Football Union (IRFU) in 1875 and was vetoed. But by 1878, Lansdowne Road had come to be recognised as a stadium with a budding future and Dunlop was determined to build on that. This paved the way for the first rugby international at Lansdown Road between Ireland and England, to which England beat Ireland by 1try and 2 goals.
Throughout its history Lansdowne Road has obtained some incredibly exotic overseas visitors to perform for the Irish people. As early as 1876, two Canadian and American lacrosse teams travelled across the Atlantic for a tour of Britain and Ireland making sure to give Lansdowne Road a taste of the famous sport. And by 1884, a whole new set of sports was introduced through a group of Scottish immigrants who organised the first Caledonian Games. Lansdowne Road realised the potential of the stadium as an outstanding entertainment venue not to be rivalled across the country. Since then the stadium has seen acts of all kinds, ranging from an equestrian show by the Russian Cossacks in 1925 to the famous voices of Michael Jackson, U2 and Lady Gaga in its last few years. It has even played host to famous American baseball and football teams. Canadian lacrosse team, European competitors, Belfast, Ireland, 1883. (McCord Museum)
Once the IRFU gained sole control of the stadium in the early 1900s they began a series of redevelopments, including changing its orientation from a north to south axis and building its first covered stand on the West side. Once the ICAC began to fade away it’s was clear that rugby was the unrivalled premier sport of Lansdowne Road. As a result, the stadium has witnessed magnificent feats by the Irish national team and it’s four provinces. From welcoming famous sporting visitors like The Original Maoris in 1905 and playing on against public opinion during the Springboks 1965 tour in the middle of the Anti-Apartheid adversity. After the disappointment of having Scotland and Wales refuse risk the journey in 1973. The stadium witnessed a historic occasion when despite the turbulent period of the Troubles and clear threats made against them, the English rugby team came to play their match at Lansdowne Road. Through what was still a very delicate time politically for Ireland the Irish public retained their renowned virtue of being an amazingly gracious crowd. When the English team ran out the spontaneous standing ovation seemed to go on and on, it was that night that the famed remark from the English captain Pullin was made ‘We may not be much good but at least we turned up’. It was one of the greatest days in Lansdowne Road’s long history. In over 107 years of internationals it was not until 1988, when the first Triple Crown was secured at the heart of Dublin. This magnificent event was echoed when the 2004 Irish team beat Scotland to win the Triple Crown on Lansdowne soil once again.
While at the epicentre of Irish international rugby, Lansdowne Road has provided the pulse for Irish soccer’s glory days as well as hosting some disappointing experiences. It has even witnessed nights when sport took a back seat, most notably in 1995 when English soccer fans caused a riot. The first soccer international in Lansdowne Road was held on the 23rd of April 1927 against an Italian international eleven and Ireland lost 1-2 with Bob Fullam scoring the only Irish goal. But it was not until the 1970's when Lansdowne began to stage regular international soccer matches. In 1986, Liam Brady scored a remarkable goal in a 1-0 win over mighty Brazil at Lansdowne. Throughout the Charlton era Lansdowne Pitch became something of a fortress and visiting teams found it very difficult to break down the Irish team. From 1986 to October 1993 the Irish were unbeaten in competitive matches. Perhaps the greatest ever Lansdowne Road victory was when Ireland beat Holland 1-0 on September 1st, 2001. The last Irish international soccer match at Lansdowne Road was a 5-0 victory over San Marino on 15 November 2006. Ireland played a total of 126 international matches at Lansdowne Road. But one of the most memorable games on record was the night Ireland played England in a friendly match on 15th of February 1995. Over Four thousand English fans travelled over for the match with a small fraction being from the neo-Nazi group known as Combat 18. The English fans began to rip up seating to throw down on the Irish fans in the lower tier. As the levels of violence escalated the referee, had no other alternative to abandon the match. Over 30 fans were sent to hospital resulting in one fatality. Although football was a latecomer to the Irish sporting world it has now become the team sport with the highest level of participation in the Republic of Ireland and is the third most popular spectator sport throughout the country.
From Lansdowne Road to the fields of Flanders, with IRFU Volunteer Corp headquarters running drills around the pitch to the Irish Free State army debuting their first military tattoo to the thunderous applause of the Lansdowne crowd. This stadium is not only a shrine to Irelands international sporting history but also to its people. The players, the supporters and the visitors who made the stadium great. There have certainly been times in Lansdowne’s 146-year history when what took place beside the Dodder captivated the nation and made it impossible to look away.
It is very appropriate that Leinster faced Ulster on New Year's Eve in what was a re-run of the first rugby match played at the lush green surrounds of Lansdowne Road before the demolition men enter the arena. The stadium is Ireland's first, and only, UEFA Elite Stadium and in 2011, it hosted the Europa League Final. It also hosted the inaugural Nations Cup. After the Aviva Stadium is light years removed from the cold, dreary old edifice that Lansdowne Road had become in its latter years. Gone are the small, damp dressing rooms that had been built for teams of fifteen players and in their place are massive. U shaped changing facilities with room for twenty-eight players and separate office space for team management including video analysis suites. Aviva Stadium wows all visitors with its stunning architecture, advanced engineering and world-class sustainability. But most importantly the atmosphere generated inside the Aviva has kept the Lansdowne Roar alive.