Football: Ireland lays plans for the leaving of Lansdowne

Steve Tongue says a new Dublin home for McCarthy's men is nearing reality
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IF A rugby union international had been played at Wembley last Saturday, the surface would hardly have been in the typically pristine condition that England and France were able to enjoy four days later. That was what the Republic of Ireland had to contend with as they prepared for a return to the most tightly contested of all the European Championship groups next month with a friendly against Paraguay at the national rugby stadium, where they have been tenants for the past 10 years.

After heavy rain at the start of the week, then near-freezing temperatures, the pitch might have been even worse. As it was, the Irish manager Mick McCarthy settled for the word "difficult"; two of his players employed Irish under-statement in suggesting "I've seen it better" and "not the best". In McCarthy's international playing days, when Jack Charlton wanted the ball hit towards the corner-flag to make defenders turn and chase, such considerations were less important. For a team that now employs four passing and dribbling midfielders, however, there are serious implications.

Within two-and-a-half years, such concerns should be a thing of the past. After a debate that has lasted for decades, the Football Association of Ireland has finally bitten the bullet and revealed plans for a stadium of its own. Bernard O'Byrne, the FAI's chief executive, says: "There were two main arguments in favour - the emotional side of having a focal point for the national association and the financial advantage of having a viable stadium to develop revenue. A couple of years ago we decided to make a decision once and for all about whether it was feasible. The conclusion was that we could, as long as it was multi-functional."

The architect is Geoff Mann of RHWL, a Coventry City fan also working on his favourite club's proposed new ground. Deutsche Bank has been entrusted with the tricky task of making the sums add up and another impressively high-profile organisation, Mark McCormack's IMG, has been entrusted with the marketing; they have devised a debenture system offering anything from 24-seater suites with tickets for every event staged, at IRpounds 40,000 per annum, down to tickets for every football match and a private bar at IRpounds 290 pa. Provisionally titled The Arena - for IRpounds 11m towards the total cost of IRpounds 65m, it could be named after you or your company for the next 10 years - the stadium, on the outskirts of Dublin, will hold 45,000 and have a retractable roof and a pitch on wheels that can be moved in and out (slowly), as the occasion demands. Those occasions will be varied; for once the phrase "all-singing, all-dancing" is appropriate, since The Arena should also become the big music venue that an increasingly hip and prosperous capital city craves.

As Tim Wright of IMG puts it: "Robbie Williams came over two weeks ago and did three or four dates at The Point, which is the biggest indoor venue in Dublin, holding seven or eight thousand. So he reached maybe 30,000 people; with us he can do that in one night or more. So suddenly Dublin will have a great rock-and-roll arena and a fantastic football surface in a state-of-the-art stadium design."

Tennis, show jumping, boxing, ice hockey and indoor athletics are among other possibilities. In football terms, all that has been ruled out is what is termed "non-Irish domestic football"; ie, Wimbledon need not apply. The FAI Cup final and international matches for all other age groups are likely events, as well as Irish League teams playing big European matches. The National Youth Coaching and Football Development Centre will also be based there, building on the astonishing success achieved by Ireland's younger sides in becoming European champions at two age levels.

McCarthy, not a man easily impressed by anything, says: "It's such an exciting time to be involved with Irish football. I've played in some magnificent stadiums around the world and I can honestly say The Arena will leave practically all of them in its wake."

Qualifying for the 2002 World Cup will be at a critical stage before the first roar of the Celtic Tiger is heard there, but McCarthy gives the impression he would rather like to be leading out the boys in green that day.