Football

So Close But So Far Away: How Ireland Almost Co-Hosted Euro 2008 (Without A Bloody Stadium)

So Close But So Far Away: How Ireland Almost Co-Hosted Euro 2008 (Without A Bloody Stadium)

 

"The Austrians and the Swiss were reported to have gone into their presentation and argued in relation to our bid that the Scots-Irish bid was a bid that consisted of one city with three stadiums and one city with none." - Emmet Malone, Irish Times

"The Scottish-Irish bid for the Euro 2008 championships clearly meant more to Scots than it did to the Irish." - Hamish MacDonnell, The Scotsman

"The Irish were very comfortable in looking at a plan and saying ‘Yes, this will happen!’ They are better dreamers than the Scots in many ways." - Simon Lyons, Marketing Director of the Scotland-Ireland Euro 2008 bid

Contrary to popular belief, the dream of a pan-Celtic European championships was first floated, not in Scotland, but in Ireland, and from within the halls of the FAI.

In the summer of 2000, FAI chief executive Bernard O’Byrne convened an exploratory meeting with the neighbouring FAs to investigate the possibility.

I convened a meeting of the Scottish FA, the Welsh FA and the Northern Ireland FA. We were out in Geneva at the time. I put a proposal to them that we look at making a bid for the European championships. There were a few meetings about that but it went nowhere because Wales and Northern Ireland stepped back from it.

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The early 2000s was a boom time for manufacturers of miniature stadium models. They may never see a time like it again.

Before all the wrangling over the Bertie Bowl – formerly known as ‘Stadium Ireland’ – there was Eircom Park, the FAI’s futuristic dream stadium, which was supposed to be built in Saggart in south-west Dublin.

Among the dazzling features of this glistening temple were its retractable roof and its removable pitch, which could slide in or out depending on whether Damien Duff or Michael Flatley was performing.

It was Eircom Park which formed a central part of the original four country bid for the Euros back in 2000.

We were putting forward Eircom Park, we were thinking of the rugby stadiums. There was talk at the time that Northern Ireland were going to build a stadium, I think it was on the site of the Maze prison. In my time, we never had talks with the GAA.

The Welsh and Northern Irish FAs made plain their disinterest at an early stage - the latter on the entirely sensible grounds that they hadn't a single suitable stadium to kick into such a bid. Their representatives slunk away after a couple of meetings and proposal drifted into the background.

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But for Scotland and Ireland, the idea was merely tucked away temporarily.

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"I think it is in our interests to do it by ourselves if we possibly can"

On May 30 following year, Scotland launched their bid to host the 2008 Euros. First Minister Henry McLeish and SFA chief executive David Taylor announced the bid at a press conference in Hampden Park.

In an ideal world, from their perspective, the Scots would have gone it alone.

SFA President Jack McGinn expressed the desires of Scottish football people when he said, 'I think it is in our best interests to do it by ourselves if we possibly can.'

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However, Irish ears were cocked from the start. In the same breath, as it was reported that the Scots were tabling a bid, it was added that they were a couple of stadiums shy of meeting the requirements.

Amidst all the mortification about the ill-preparedness of the Irish side of the bid, it was forgotten that there were also problems on the Scottish end.

It was thought that they needed a minimum of six stadiums with a capacity of over 30,000 – it emerged that the UEFA wanted eight.

As it stood, they only had four – Hampden, Ibrox, Celtic Park and Murrayfield. On top of that, three of those were in Glasgow, a detail which made UEFA wary.

Either two new stadiums would have to be built, or else the existing stadiums at Aberdeen and Dundee would have to be upgraded. The government was going to have to stump up.

While Henry McLeish was First Minister, it seemed the political will was there.

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McLeish was what the purists call ‘a football man’, a rare enough condition among senior politicians. He had even played for Scotland at youth level and had signed as a schoolboy professional at Leeds United.

His career at Leeds was cut short by homesickness and he returned home to play for East Fife, where his football career was soon terminated entirely by injury.

In late 2001, his spell as First Minister was also cut short, following a mini-scandal over his constituency office in Glenrothes.

His successor, Jack McConnell, was very lukewarm about the Euro 2008 proposal. He blanched at the idea of shelling out £100 million on four new 30,000 capacity arenas.

In January 2002, in a speech to the Scottish parliament, he slammed the door on the prospect.

We have concluded that to create four 30,000 seat stadiums - on top of our excellent facilities at Murrayfield, Hampden, Ibrox and Celtic Park - is simply not practical or desirable.

We have therefore ruled out the possibility of Scotland bidding alone for the European Football Championships in 2008.

We have concluded, however, that if we do this right there is the potential to host a successful and viable joint championship with Ireland.

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Even before McConnell had jettisoned the dream of Scotland going it alone, the bid had been jointly run by an Irishman.

Kinnegad born Simon Lyons had been working as a director with 'Highland Distillers' in Edinburgh before being engaged by the SFA to help with their bid for Euro 2008. He was chosen partly because of his involvement in the running of the Rugby World Cup in South Africa.

To this day, the last four digits of his phone number are '2008'.

Ha, Ha, it's rarely noticed these days. I thought I had great foresight when I got it back in 2001 for £50... It is ironic but very few people notice it nowadays.

When I joined the campaign of the Scottish Football Association, they were going to do a bid on themselves. Just Scotland was their plan.

But, once we understood the requirements of UEFA that they would need eight 30,000+ stadiums, we realised that Scotland didn’t have the asset base to host it by themselves, so it made sense think about a partnership.

In seeking a partner in the enterprise, the Scots instinctively gravitated towards Ireland rather than any of their other neighbours. Why?

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According to Lyons, not once, during his two-year campaign, did anyone question the association between Ireland and Scotland.

The two countries are often linked together in people's minds. (Since Brexit, Fintan O'Toole has even suggested a new political union involving the island of Ireland and Scotland).

What we’re dealing with is perception rather than reality. In the two-year campaign that I ran, no one in any football or political context, said why did we ignore Northern Ireland or England or Wales? In people's heads they (Ireland and Scotland) are associated.

Old-fashioned sentiment was at the heart of it. The Celtic soul brothers bid was a goer as Scotland and Ireland were deemed to have a natural affinity.

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Indeed, around this time, the unionist writer Tim Luckhurst wrote exasperatedly that Scotland was ‘truly madly deeply in love with Ireland’ before accusing Irish politicians and diplomats of deliberately trying to break up the United Kingdom through a mixture of flattery and good hospitality.

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How were the Scots feeling about their precious bid now? In spite of the perception that the bid remained dearer to the Scots than the Irish - which was broadly accurate - and the fact that we were woefully under-stocked on the stadium front, Lyons remembers the Irish being more gung-ho about the bid early doors. The Irish are better dreamers than the Scots, he reckoned.

We did some work to determine whether it was going to work or not. And yes, we could host it operationally. Was it commercially attractive? And it proved it to be economically viable. And then, was there backing for it? And yes, in theory there was. There was a bit of politicking. Ireland was very powerful, they were very strong. They believed in the vision and wanted to follow it. Scotland were a bit more pragmatic and a bit more sceptical about whether the bid would kick on. And they were sceptical about the Irish side of the bid as well...

The Irish were very comfortable in looking at a plan and saying ‘Yes, this will happen!’ They are better dreamers than the Scots in many ways.

'As long as Bertie Ahern is Taoiseach the dream of having this stadium will be a reality'

On the 27th February 2002, the Scotland-Ireland bid to host the European championships was dead before it had even begun.

It took urgent late night politicking to ensure the bid got to the starting line.

The deadline for the submission of bids was the end of February but Tanaiste Mary Harney was dead opposed to the building of a national stadium, an indispensable requirement of a successful bid.

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Harney was only persuaded to allow the bid proceed after the GAA disclosed that they would put the question of opening up Croke Park to Congress that April.

Two years earlier, Bertie Ahern unveiled his dream of building a 'national infrastructural stadium' (as he later dubbed it) in Abbotstown. (Had he merely tried to build a plain 'national stadium', it might have been doable. We can only but wonder).

In the meantime, the FAIs own palace out in Saggart died a slow and very public death following continuous pressure from the government and internal dissent over the (inevitably spiralling) cost of the project.

Bertie decided that West Dublin was only big enough for one mega stadium. Eircom Park was going to have to be buried.

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On March 9 2001, after months of wrangling, the FAI acceded to the government's request to abandon Eircom Park and hop on board with Stadium Ireland in exchange for various goodies such as £45m in pre-sales, £17m in Sports Capital Grants and increased funding from the Sports Council.

A year down the line, it became apparent that the projected costs involved in Stadium Ireland made Eircom Park look cheap by comparison.

Bernard O'Byrne says he knew from a long way out that Stadium Ireland was never going to happen.

 The Bertie Bowl and all that... That all collapsed within six months. Because it just never made financial sense because the true figures of the potential costs were never aired in public. I think a long time before it collapsed those of us who knew the true figures knew it wasn't going to happen.

In the meantime, Ireland had embarked on this grand adventure of hosting a major championship with Scotland. Sports minister Jim McDaid brashly insisted that 'as long as Bertie Ahern is Taoiseach the dream of having this stadium in this country will be a reality.'

No one called Stadium Ireland 'Stadium Ireland' anymore. It was popularly re-christened the 'Bertie Bowl', a name which stuck so effectively that many now forget it was ever called anything else.

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'The fact that I was being so sceptical in print was going down like a lead balloon in Scotland'

Between March and September, the tenor of the reporting on the Irish side of the bid oscillated wildly between "what the hell are we doing here, we have no stadiums, this is ridiculous" and "you know what, we might have a chance, GAA and Croke Park, etc".

There was heady talk early doors. Roy Keane and Alex Ferguson were approached to 'spearhead the bid'. It was speculated that it would be most congenial if Manchester United were to go and win the Champions League at Hampden Park that summer. This was early March and by June, any willingness Roy had to participate in FAI projects had vanished.

Internally, there was great confidence. Those leading the bid saw it as one of the favourites, alongside the Austria-Switzerland proposal.

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If the stadiums issue could be resolved here, if the GAA could be coaxed and prodded into opening the gates, and if the PDs could be convinced to let their hair down and get off Bertie's back on Abbotstown costs, then the Scotland-Ireland had a more impressive arsenal of grounds than any its rivals.

Cynics were reminded that Portugal, the designated hosts of the 2004 tournament, hadn't even all their stadiums built yet. Even now, Lyons points to the example of South Africa in 2010.

In essence, we were a favourite right the way through to the end, actually.  If you look at sports events worldwide, over the years, people accept bids with a vision for the future. A classic example might be South Africa for the football World Cup. When the decision was made, people said 'you're not for real, you're going to host the World Cup in South Africa, and all the problems that are around it.' Six or seven years later, it's a different country.

The verdict of that most pessimistic of constituencies - the Irish sports columnist - was very negative. By and large, they had decided that this bid had no chance.

Irish Times football correspondent Emmet Malone couldn't get past one fairly basic point.

Essentially, we’d no stadiums. We’d no stadiums that you could actually nailed on say this is where it’s going to be. That was the cause of much scepticism when the story first broke. And for all the efforts that were made to dance around it, right up until the night before voting when Bertie Ahern put out a letter saying he'd do his best to provide two stadiums, that was the undoing of it.

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Privately, the Scots were fretting about the ability of Ireland to deliver two stadiums in time but in public Scottish ministers and football administrators confidently trumpeted the assurances they received from Irish ministers.

Scottish Sports Minister Mike Watson said he was very much reassured by Jim McDaid's solemn vow on the Bertie Bowl - or 'Stadium Ireland' as the Scots insisted on calling it.

The overall bid director, the SFA's John Henderson, said he believed it was highly significant that GAA were willing to go so far as to include their stadium layout in the official bid document.

These were big wins, they said.

Emmet Malone went to meet Henderson and Simon Lyons in Glasgow ahead of the vote and discovered that they took a dim view of the negativity emanating from the Irish media.

I think they were appalled by the whole thing to be honest. I went over at one stage. I remember going over for a day to the bid headquarters in Glasgow to talk to the bid chairman. And I was very sceptical about the whole thing and I had written several times about the Irish stadium situation being ridiculous and untenable and about how the Scots must be tearing their hair out over this and they must be regretting getting into bed with us. But when I went over actually, what I hadn't anticipated was that the fact that I was writing stuff like this was going down like a lead balloon with the Scots.

Because one of the things that is taken into account in all these assessment is media support for it. They take that as a sort of barometer of public opinion or the national psyche. The fact that I was being so sceptical in print was going down really badly, so this was guy was being really cool with me.

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Scottish journalists were less restrained by diplomatic niceties and the political necessity to keep up appearances. They were aghast at the lack of Irish preparation, though as many were inclined to blame the Scots and, in particular, McConnell for inviting them in at such short notice.

I did a lot of stuff with the Scottish media at the time talking to journalists over there and they couldn't believe that they had gotten themselves into a situation where on the night before the bid... I mean, when it comes back to it, it was an astonishing situation. I've never heard anything like it before or since where people go into a major championship saying 'we're going to do this but we don't know what the stadiums are. Look don't worry about it. When you turn up in 2008, there'll be two stadiums there.

'We've a UEFA delegation coming here on Monday. What impression are they going to get of this country?'

Less than a week before UEFA officials were due to arrive in the country to inspect the shape of our various wonderdomes, one of those stadiums had already been proclaimed dead by the opposition.

In the Scottish-Irish joint bid, the imaginary colosseum formerly known as Stadium Ireland was always the massive white elephant in the room.

The PDs won the battle over the Bertie Bowl. Spiralling costs meant the government could no longer commit to paying for it. Michael McDowell would later claim its abolition as a personal victory, won on behalf of the taxpayer.

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Bertie, to this day, rueful over Ireland's failure to build a 'national infrastructural stadium', said it had more to do with the fact that Lansdowne Road was in McDowell's constituency.

Ahern looked to the private sector for salvation. They would keep the dream of the Euros alive. According to Malone, the FAI were increasingly distressed at this point.

So, they had placed ads in the paper looking for expressions of interest from the private sector in getting involved in the stadium. And that meant that if the private sector was going to pay for a chunk of it they would look for a commercial return. And the FAI was losing its collective mind over how this was going to affect it. And whether the terms which they agreed with the government were going to be broken.

Let me take you by the hand and lead you through a building site in Abbotstown

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The 16th of September loomed into view. It was anticipated with some trepidation. That was the date of the UEFA inspections. They would be taking in our 'stadiums'.

The appalling vista of being laughed at by foreigners was an ever-present danger. However, we needn't have worried. Quizzical looks and muffled laughter were in short supply as the UEFA inspectors were models of upbeat diplomacy.

The obligatory reports emerged about the UEFA suits being bowled over by Croke Park. They didn't attempt to comment on internal GAA politics.

We received no confirmation as to whether they were similarly enchanted by their trip to the empty field in Abbotstown though the brochure produced by the government showcasing what Stadium Ireland was going to look like would wow anyone.

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They did not even bother touring Lansdowne Road, something which puzzled the Scottish press. Brendan Menton airily insisted that the UEFA delegates were already well aware of Lansdowne though he didn't give any clue as to whether this was a good or bad thing.

There was a curious rush of optimism after the UEFA inspection. The inspection had not only not gone as terribly as many people expected but had revived confidence in the bid.

Everyone was heartened by the declaration of UEFA Director of Communications Mike Lee that the Scotland-Ireland bid was 'alive and kicking' and competing well.

As if that wasn't enough, it was reported that the UEFA heads had immediately identified Croke Park as a potential Champions League final venue. Obviously, this was contingent on the abolition of Rule 42. And presumably on the demolition of the Nally Stand.

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'The night before the vote, they were very upbeat'

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After all the hand-wringing and self-flagellation in Ireland over our end of the bid, UEFA's Technical Report assessing each candidate on their ability to host the tournament, and released on the eve of the vote, gave us a highly impressive mark of 94%, only one percentage point behind the Austrian-Swiss bid. The other four bids lagged well behind with the Hungarians only achieving a mark of 77%.

Wandering through the conference rooms of the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva on the eve of the vote, Malone picked up a now vanishingly rare item - a 'Scotland-Ireland 2008' T-shirt. The shirts were decorated with optimistic messages of the Obamaesque variety.

The night before the vote the Scots and the Irish did this press conference and they were very upbeat. We came into this room – we were staying in the Intercontinental hotel in Geneva where the press gigs were - the night before. And they had all in these T-shirts laid out with something like the Obama thing, ‘Yes we can’ or ‘We can do it’ or something like that.

He recalls that the campaign leaders were buzzing - or, at least, they were determined to convey an image that they were buzzing for the sake of 'optics' - after an eleventh-hour letter arrived from Bertie Ahern promising to do everything he could to ensure his Bowl would get built.

My distinct memory out there was thinking we had no chance. Particularly this letter from Bertie Ahern which was issued to the bid team. The phraseology was something along the lines he'd try to gaurantee two stadiums. The phraseology was appalling... There were obvious holes in it.

The Austrians and Swiss were sufficiently worried by our momentum to indulge in a spot of negative campaigning in their own presentation to the UEFA power brokers.

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 They were reported to have gone into their presentation and argued in relation to our bid that the Scots-Irish bid was a bid that consisted of one city with three stadiums and one city with none.

There was some dismay on the morning of the vote when the National Teams Committee, a grouping consisting of nine members from various nations (it is usually ten but the Swedish member absented himself as they formed part of the confused Nordic bid), recommended the four bids which they believed capable of organising the tournament. Our bid wasn't among them.

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This blatantly disregarded the findings of the prior Technical Report. Hungary, whose bid rested on emotionalism and fared poorly on prior technical assessments, was included. Even the Greece-Turkey bid, barely considered as a serious runner before that, was included ahead of us.

For Emmet Malone, this was the fatal blow. It was clear at that stage that we weren't going to win the Euros.

They recommended four of the bids, so that was the Nordic bid, the Austria-Swiss, the Hungarians, and Turkey-Greece.

And Turkey-Greece was supposed to be just a political thing, a sop to the peace and reconciliation elements of that bid. So they weren't really considered serious contenders.

But crucially we didn't make that recommended list. They could have recommended all of them. They could have said these are all fine, fire ahead, decide for yourself.

But they didn't, they didn't recommend us. And that was seen as the beginning of the end.

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The backers of the Scots-Irish bid were stunned by the National Teams Committee recommendations. David Will, the Scot who represented Britain on the FIFA executive, told the Telegraph the following day that he 'still couldn't believe' the call that was made.

Naked politics may have swayed the 'technical' assessment of the NTC. Mihir Bose in the Telegraph noted darkly that seven of the nine committee members came from countries who had voted in favour of Sepp Blatter's re-election as FIFA President.

By contrast, the supporters of the Scots-Irish bid, including Will, tended to come from the anti-Blatter caucus within UEFA.

'When you say shady, that usually implies in football that it revolves around money'

On the night before the vote, Simon Lyons received news that left him believing that they were potentially on the brink of victory.

Into the final night, I heard that the Scandinavian bid, which was one of the weaker bids, and it was accepted by everyone, including the bidding team, and all the political people in UEFA, that it was a weak bid. The assumption was they would be voted out very early. When they were voted out early, that left three votes that could transfer.

We found out on the final night, that when the Scandinavian vote fell, those three votes would transfer to us.

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The Scots-Irish bid were aware they already had three votes in the bag - one of whom was England.

Geoff Thompson, the leader of England's doomed and despised (at FIFA level) bid for the 2018 World Cup was the UEFA Vice President at the time.

The Nordic vote consisted of three representatives - Sepp Blatter's old foe, the UEFA President Leonard Johansson, the Norwegian delegate and the vice-president of UEFA Per Omdahl, and the Icelandic representative Eggert Magnussen.

These votes would return to the round table once the Nordic vote was eliminated. The Scottish-Irish vote would pick up the blessed transfers - and the Maureen O'Sullivan of Euro 2008 would win the day.

We knew we had three votes in the bag, we had three votes on a transfer basis from them (Nordics) giving us six votes in total out of a possible 14, but obviously, there were three votes that couldn't be included because their countries were involved with existent bids. We believed we were over the line on that basis.

At the dinner, these three guys said officially that they were going to transfer their votes. It became apparent then that the Austria-Switzerland bid would be in difficulty. And so, there would have to be concerted voting to ensure we didn’t get through.

And so, a vote went on, behind closed doors. The Scandinavian bid was not knocked out in the first phase. The people around the table kept on voting it in. And so those three votes were never released. Those votes never being released meant the Scottish-Irish bid never got the transfer votes. And therefore, never came through to the final three. And we ended up coming fourth overall on the back of that.

An irate Johansson was inclined to draw sinister conclusions. Bitter about his loss in the 1998 FIFA elections, he saw the dark hand of Blatter everywhere.

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He was taken aback when his bid was put out of its misery and he was allowed in to vote that he couldn't opt for the Scotland-Ireland bid as it had already been eliminated.

If that is right, and the Nordic countries and Scotland and Ireland lost because of Blatter, then all I can say is that the world of football is more rotten than I thought. I must look into this. It was a surprise, when I was allowed to come in to vote (after the elimination of the Nordic countries), to find Scotland and Ireland had already been eliminated.

Lyons was inclined to be more philosophical. He concluded that Austria-Switzerland won because it was their turn.

Austria had lost out to England in the bid for Euro 96. The principal of having to lose one to win one applies in European championships bidding processes.

Had we the stomach to go again, we might have won it four years hence.

These decisions are taken in backrooms long before the voting takes place.

Football is about politics. When you say ‘shady’, that generally implies in football that it revolves around money. But it is not the case. I’m almost sure that, in this case, it was around politics.

It was making sure you get what you want. And therefore people around the table vote for what they want in order to get the result they want. Shady is a pejorative term. All businesses, including football business, vote in ways that gets them the result they want. It was a brilliant lesson to me in terms of how you achieve what you want to achieve in politics.

I think it's sad that it wasn't followed up with another campaign to try and win in the following years...

If you look at the 56 nations of UEFA, you have to move the tournament around the continent. Sometimes it has to be in a big commercially driven countries that’ll deliver big profits. And sometimes it has to be in countries that deserve to host it.

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What is there for the leaders of failed bids to do once the result comes through? Just mooch around the hotel until the inquest starts?

I talked to some executives within UEFA who were in the room and got an understanding of how the voting went. Thereafter, you just hang around the hotel. And you start put together a debrief. I went to Ireland to face the media who said 'what the hell, you came fourth.' Which is a reasonable thing for the media to say.

What happened to those Scotland-Ireland 2008 T-shirts? The 'Yes We Can' style gear that the bid team offered to the attendees at their launch. Emmet Malone still had his one until fairly recently.

I had the T-shirt until a couple of years ago when my kid had a party which turned into a big water-fight and kid was cold so we had to hand out dry T-shirts to everyone and I remember some kid wandering out of the house in my ‘Yes we can 2008’ T-shirt. Never going to see it again.

Read more: Remember The Time A Dublin Club Attempted To Get Into The Scottish League?

 

Conor Neville
Article written by
Perennial finalist in stand-up comedy competitions and former Contract Lawyer/ Coal Salesman with Corless, Corless and Sweeney

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