This dreadful match was a beautiful game for me and my son...
I RECENTLY took my eight-year-old son Morgan to his first Ireland international soccer match.
By anyone's standards, that match in the Aviva against Slovakia on September 2 wasn't a great introduction to the beautiful game -- a dull match played out by two teams who probably don't have any right to be troubling Europe's premier international football competition.
Deep in the second half, as the minutes ticked away and Ireland never really threatened to break the deadlock, the air around us in the East stand was punctuated by groans, moans and some rather choice language.
As a lifelong football fan, I should have been inconsolable at what was unfolding on the pitch.
Instead I found myself sitting there with a slight smile on my lips and a tear in my eye.
I'd been waiting 17 years for this day. It had been almost two decades since I'd set foot in the ground to support the Irish football team.
My last game had been in March 1994 -- a drab 0-0 draw with Russia, if memory serves -- just before the great USA World Cup adventure.
My father died in 1994 and shortly afterwards I made a vow to myself that I wouldn't attend another Ireland match.
I wouldn't go again unless I had a son who wanted to see a game.
I wouldn't ask him, he'd have to volunteer, to express a desire to go without any prompting from me. And a few weeks ago, Morgan did just that.
My first Ireland game was on Saturday, May 23, 1987, the date forever etched upon my memory.
I'd been hassling my father to take me to a match for ages and one evening he arrived home with the tickets for the glamour tie with Brazil.
I remember, as if it was yesterday, standing on the North terrace with my father as Liam Brady jinked into the Brazilian box and fired us to a memorable victory. It was the start of a love affair.
For the next seven years, we barely missed a home game, even hitting the road (Spain, 1992, draw -- we were robbed) to cheer on Ireland.
But it was in Lansdowne Road, in the company of my dad, that so many of my favourite childhood memories had been created. Together we cheered our boys as we hammered Poland, gave Romania the run-around and put Hungary under the cosh.
Where and how my father came up with the tickets, I'll never know.
Yet each time an international game rolled around, tickets were somehow sourced and off we went to watch all-conquering Ireland.
Sure, the brand of football played by Ireland in the Jack Charlton era may not have been the most aesthetically pleasing. But details like that don't matter to a kid.
All I cared about was that we were turning everyone over who came to our place and I was there, watching, with my dad. Golden times.
Football was our currency, our bond, our 'thing'.
We spoke about it incessantly at home, driving the rest of our family to distraction.
In December 1994, my father died after a short illness.
He was too ill to go to any matches at the end of that year and I remember sitting in the hospital with him as we easily despatched Northern Ireland in Belfast.
It was our last game together -- a few weeks later, he was gone.
Attending matches was what we did together and I knew that once he died, I wouldn't be able to do that with anyone else.
In the intervening years any number of well meaning friends had offered a ticket for a crunch game, but I always refused.
I couldn't see the point in attending a match without my father -- it just wouldn't have felt right.
So, before the Slovakia match started, as I asked a bloke in front of me to take a photograph of Morgan and myself, I'm not ashamed to admit that I silently wiped away a tear as I remembered those rain-sodden Wednesday and weekend internationals with my father. I wouldn't have changed a second of it.
Morgan turned nine this past week. After the game, as we walked amongst the faithful, he earnestly told me he didn't want a bike for his birthday anymore, he'd prefer "us to beat Russia".
He didn't get that birthday wish but the point in Moscow (and the bike) hopefully sufficed.
I think he's caught the bug.
And I have a feeling that it won't be another 17 years before I'm back in the stadium, cheering on the boys in green.