It's A Croke Park Classic
Two years ago Notre Dame and Navy met at the Aviva Stadium, where the Irish national soccer and ruby teams play. This time around, the teams met across town at Croke Park, the home of the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA), which oversees Gaelic sports, including the Irish version of football.
A week prior to what was dubbed the Croke Park Classic, the county clubs of Kerry and Mayo played to a stalemate in their All Ireland Gaelic football semi final match, precipitating a rematch the following weekend to decide which team would move on to the final. But to the consternation of many die–hard GAA fans, the replay had to be moved from Croke Park to Limerick to accommodate the American football contest.
While things may not have gotten off on the right foot in the eyes of some locals, most of the blame seemed to be passed on to the GAA for scheduling a ‘foreign' sporting event right in the heart of the crucial stages of the native game's season.
Not that anything could really have stopped the momentum built up over 12 months of planning and execution involved in getting two college football teams and tens of thousands of their supporters across the ocean. Each team brought a travelling contingent of nearly 300, along with approximately 20,000 lbs of meticulously organized and documented equipment over for the game. ESPN, meanwhile, imported a full crew to beam the game back to fans in the States bemused to find their teams kicking off at 8:30 in the morning.
While bringing teams and television cameras across the ocean is all well and good, to really be a success, the fans have to turn up, and turn up they did. By Friday afternoon Dublin hotels, pubs and the Guinness Brewery were swarming with Nitanny Lion and Knight baseball caps and sweatshirts. 10,000 Penn State fans turned up for the pep rally held in the center of Dublin on Friday afternoon, with shouts of "We are.....Penn State" ringing out across the capital.
Friday Night Lights
As part of the build up to the main event, Dublin hosted its own version of Friday night lights when two Pennsylvania high school teams, the Penn Manor Comets and the Cedar Cliff Colts, met at University College Dublin. A steady rain in the hours leading up to the game threatened to put a damper on affairs, but luckily the skies started to break as NFL Hall–of–Fame running back Eric Dickerson and former Penn State and New England Patriots tight end Kyle Brady strode onto the field for the coin toss.
A crowd of around a thousand, primarily parents and relatives, supplemented by a handful of eager locals, took in what was officially the Global Ireland Football Tournament. The Colts jumped out early, but Penn Manor proved too strong in the end, emerging with a 27–20 victory. It was a well played and hard–fought game, a thoroughly typical display of what takes place on fields at thousands of high schools across the United States on any given Friday. It was a little slice of Americana playing out on a Dublin soccer field, 3,000 miles from home.
"It was an incredible experience for both teams and it's unfortunate somebody has to lose," Penn Manor head coach Todd Mealy said after the game. "The kids played hard on both sides tonight and gave the people in Ireland a heck of a game to watch."
The Main Event
The trains into Dublin on Saturday were filled with American football fans. Coming out of Connolly Station it was easy to know which way to go as the crowds of Americans streamed northwards. On this day anyway, all roads led to Croke Park.
On the ground, it seemed to be all Penn State fans, bedecked in the stylized Nitanny Lion logo. Upon closer examination, the UCF fans were there, their outward displays of affiliation just not as prominently displayed. A reflection, perhaps, of the confidence of a storied football program established in 1887 in comparison to one just finding its feet, founded in 1979 and only coming to national prominence in the past few seasons.
Inside the stadium, it was clear that no corners were cut when it came to hosting the game. The field looked as if it had been teleported from any big–time college football stadium, other than the canopies over the first 20 rows of seats. In Europe, sports teams don't have 50 players each, and the coaches and participants not in the game don't stand on the sides of the field, necessitating higher sight lines to see over them.
As the fans filed in, the electricity level rose with the approach of game time. A cheer went up as a parachutist dropped onto the field trailing a Penn State flag from his legs. But why only one? Surely there should be a UCF skydiver. Turns out he missed the stadium entirely somehow and landed on some adjacent railway tracks. Seems he was fine but had to pack up his parachute and walk to the nearest station, causing a delay to a few local commuter trains.
As the Dublin Gospel Choir finished their rendition of the National Anthem, a pair of F16 fighter planes, flown all the way from Germany for the occasion, buzzed the stadium in an impressive crescendo. While this is not at all unusual at American sporting events, it quite shocked a local populace just sitting down for lunch, judging by the reaction on Twitter.
As the teams ran onto the field, it was clear from the noise levels that the Penn State fans had arrived in superior numbers, though the UCF voices held their own.
The game, as it turns out, was aptly names as the Croke Park Classic, as a classic it was. Penn State set the tone early. Sophomore quarterback Christian Hackenberg lived up to his top billing, as he picked apart a highly touted UCF defense. Meanwhile red–shirt freshman QB Pete DiNovo couldn't get anything going, with the Knights tallying just 35 yards of total offense in the first half, and lucky to be down just 10–3 going into the break.
It was when UCF head coach George O'Leary inserted sophomore quarterback Justin Holman that the game switched to overdrive. Holman engineered three TD drives, running in the go–ahead score to put the Knights up 24–23 with 1:13 to play, and finished the game 9–for–14 for 204 yards, all in the second half.
But somehow there was a feeling that there was still too much time for Hackenberg. Sure enough, seven plays later, including an eight–yard scamper on a fourth–and–seven do–or–die, he had place–kicker Sam Ficken set up nicely for 36–yard game winning field goal as time expired.
Hackenburg finished the day with a school record 454 yards passing, becoming the first Penn State quarterback ever to throw for more than 400 yards in a game. A classic, indeed.
So at the end of it all, what do we take out of these excursions of American football onto Irish soil? Two years ago Notre Dame and Navy played in front of a sell–out crowd of 49,000, mostly Americans, at Aviva Stadium, a contest that ended as a 50–10 Fighting Irish blowout, but which was deemed a huge success.
This time around, 55,000 – again predominately Americans – turned out for the game, but as Croke Park had a capacity of 69,000, there were plenty of empty seats, though the atmosphere at the game didn't really suffer for it.
The coaches were happy enough with the experience. "I thought it was great," O'Leary said. "It was great to be over here. I think it was a great experience for the kids. It really was."
First year Penn State coach James Franklin admitted he had reservations, but was eventually won over. "I wasn't real excited about the trip," he said. "With everything going into it, I thought it could be a distraction. But in the end, I think it was a real positive experience, and couldn't be more blessed and fortunate to have had the opportunity."
As an American and a sports fan living in Ireland, I think the games are great. It's like transporting a slice of my favorite part of Americana directly to my front door, and I know other Americans here feel the same. And for those football fans among the local population, it is clearly a great opportunity to partake in a top level American sports experience.
And while it great for us already over here, for these college football games to continue to be work, the fans have to keep turning up from America. That's what really makes these games a success. They come with their dollars and their enthusiasm, they bring the experience here and they make it authentic through their sheer force of numbers.
American football is clearly growing in popularity on this side of the pond, and the NFL games in London seem to show there is a viable level of local support to keep playing games there. But as for us here in Ireland, there simply aren't the numbers to support the sport on this level without the Americans making the trip over.
Here's hoping that the lure of a trip to Ireland is enough to keep teams coming this way for more games in the future.