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'I’ve never heard Amhrán na bhFiann rendered as passionately as those Irish Liverpool fans sang You’ll Never Walk Alone'

Eoin Butler was one of 50-odd thousand fans who paid to watch the Premier League heavyweights in Dublin at the weekend.
Aug 7th 2018, 3:33 PM 20,490 29

WHAT A HECTIC weekend: the Galway hurlers beating Clare by a point in an All-Ireland semi-final replay in Semple Stadium.

The O’Donovan brothers claiming silver (for Britain, according to the BBC) at the European Championships in Glasgow.

Our amazing women’s hockey team qualifying for their first ever World Cup final.

(A very bad joke about which I made on Twitter ended up being liked and retweeted so many times I had to turn off notifications on my phone because the vibrations were running down the battery.)

HOCKEY12

I’m figuratively – but also literally – hungover from the excitement of it all…

In all of the hooplah, one sporting event slipped understandably under the media radar somewhat. At the Aviva on Saturday, a packed house of Irish supporters saw Liverpool beat Napoli 5-0 in a remarkable pre-season friendly. I was there and the only empty seats I saw were in the press section.

With hurling in the middle of a renaissance, and rugby having captured the hearts of craft beer-discussing, Brian from Accounts-types everywhere, there might have been a sense that Premier League soccer’s popularity has dipped in this country somewhat in recent years.

What I saw on Saturday was a very sharp rebuttal to that notion. I’m not a Liverpool fan. I’m just old enough to remember their all-conquering era under Kenny Dalglish in the late 1980s. That side won everything and, in those days, you either loved or hated them for that very reason. I chose the latter path.

But I must admit, I was enormously impressed by what I saw on Saturday. This is a team with box office appeal that’s off the chart. Fifty one thousand spectators were in attendance. And they paid full whack for the pleasure. My ticket cost €60. (Thanks Austin!) I didn’t see a single Napoli supporter in or around the stadium.

The stands were a sea of red (although the team wore their new purple away strip because these €80m signings don’t pay for themselves. So, you know… ching-ching.)

I’ve been to over a dozen All-Ireland finals and, I really hate to admit this, but I’ve never heard Amhrán na bhFiann rendered as passionately as those Irish Liverpool supporters sang You’ll Never Walk Alone before kickoff. Men and women, kids and adults: all united in song… and united by the fact that they had Mo Salah’s name written on their backs.

A friend of mine claimed to have seen a “Henderson” replica shirt in the crowd. I assume he was lying, although (amazingly) I did spot one rogue “Karius” shirt worn by a kid after the game.

It would be insane to read too much into a meaningless pre-season friendly, but Jurgen Klopp’s side looked really sharp. There were huge cheers for new signing Alison in goal every time he made even the simplest of saves. (Obviously, the ghosts of Kiev still weighted heavily on people’s minds.)

The Brazilian’s distribution was excellent and, by the time he shooed away security to present one young pitch invader with his gloves at full time, it’s safe to say he’d won over more than a few new Irish fans.

Mo Salah started and scored a spectacular top corner goal, which at this stage is really not much more than you would have expected. Even so, his physicality, creativity and constant menace were quite something to witness in the flesh.

Mohamed Salah signs autographs after the game Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

There’s really no logical reason to predict anyone other than a Man City victory in the Premier League title this coming season. But there is some precedent for champions inexplicably self-combusting the following season. (In recent years, think Chelsea and, er… Chelsea.)

On that basis alone, I would estimate that this is Liverpool’s best shot at the title since Stevie G let it slip in 2013/14.

The day after the Napoli game, I was in Croke Park to see Mayo contest the inaugural All-Ireland U-20 football final against Kildare. We lost the game by only two points but, in truth, Kildare were much the better side and, but for some very poor shooting in the second half, could have won by a lot more.

Jimmy Hyland was brilliant for Kildare, as was Aaron O’Neill in goal. I suspect O’Neill may be a frustrated outfield player at heart, so frequent were his forays up the pitch. But it was his save in a one-on-one with Mayo’s Ross Egan’s shot that really ensured his county secured their first national title in over half a century.

Jordan Flynn’s conduct in earning a red card right at the death was inexcusable. My only thought was that the Mayo management might have substituted the youngster before it happened, because clearly the red mist had descended and he was very lucky to escape a booking about a minute before his sending off.

The senior fixture on that ticket saw Dublin take on Roscommon before a less than half-full stadium in the tail end of the Super 8s. My uncle and I hung around to cheer on the Rossies – since none of their own supporters had bothered to show up. It was, of course, a hopeless cause, with Dublin running out the winners by 14 points.

Can Galway, Tyrone or Monaghan thwart their march to a fourth consecutive All-Ireland title? From a neutral perspective, there’s little to suggest they can. But if Gaelic football is to win back any of the ground it’s losing to hurling this year, you’ve got to hope at least one of those sides has a fair good crack at it…

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Eoin Butler

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