And so it has arrived. Armenia in September of 2010 seems a long time ago now. After one year, eight months, three weeks and two days it is time for the final send-off; time for one last hurrah and the chance to say well-done to our boys for all their blood, sweat and tears.
There were times when today’s fixture carried nothing but a sense of deep foreboding. So often in the past has this final pre-tournament friendly been nothing more than an opportunity for our countrymen to show the world what they would be missing out on at whichever major championships we had failed to qualify for once again.
Thankfully not this time though. Come three o’clock today the Aviva Stadium is sure to be rocking. I can almost hear the throng of footsteps walking up Lansdowne Road; the calls of pubescent teenagers selling match day programmes; and Jedward blaring out across the city by the stadium’s public address system.
It’s sure to be a great occasion.
And I for one won’t be watching any of it.
Now before you accuse me of treachery or high treason, or question my national pride let me reassure you it is for the most nationalist of reasons that I miss this evening’s game – and indeed have done on for so many Irish internationals over the past 10 years when actually attending the game has not been possible.
It is a problem that stems back to the summer of 2002 and is borne out of twin evils – principally a crafty Australian, and not being able to afford the goods he flaunts.
That summer is rightly better remembered for the credible performance by the Boys in Green in Japan and South Korea. There was also the tragedy that unfolded on a small island in the Pacific.
But there was another tragedy that summer, the effects of which are still being felt today. Indeed it is the reason that I, like so many other Irish men, women and children will miss this afternoon’s game. For summer 2012 was when the FAI sold the rights to show Ireland international to Sky Sports.
Now for the lucky ones out there who did have access to the wonders of a digital set-top box the whole debacle may have seemed like a storm in a teacup. This was not the case for the rest of the population though who didn’t avail of Sky’s wonders - be it for monetary reasons, or in my case, a father who refused to hand over a penny to that lovely man from Australia.
And I wasn’t the only one who felt aggrieved at the time. It made headlines for weeks. The then Labour Party Communications Spokesperson Eamon Gilmore (remember him?) branded the FAI’s decision “an act of utter betrayal”. The Irish Football Supporters Association said it was the saddest day for Irish football.
For weeks there were mass strikes, walkouts, political turmoil and social outrage. I even recall talk of marching on the Dáil and demanding the powers that be act in the national interest. “Was it for this the Wild Geese spread the grey wing upon every tide?” they chanted in the streets in their thousands.
Okay so some of that may be hyperbole, but you get the picture.
Others like Simon Coveney entered into the blame game. He accused the government of the day of letting down Irish fans. He wasn’t the only one asking questions. Who exactly was the guilty party here?
Well the FAI were steadfast. According to John Delaney RTÉ had offered less than the previous deal while Sky were willing to pay in excess of €7.5m. This was the Celtic Tiger era after all!
RTE's Director of Television, Cathal Goan, said the station felt a sense of betrayal at the FAI's decision to embark on this deal with a pay-per-view station, particularly so quickly after the recent successful coverage of the World Cup.
Everyone blamed everyone and in truth none of the organisations involved came out of the whole deal smelling of roses. In a time when we had money to burn, it seemed strange that the national broadcaster should offer a reduction in the amount of money it was willing to pay for Irish matches. After all, our performances in Japan and South Korea gave us plenty to cheer. Irish football was in a good place. I don’t think the suits in Montrose had a crystal ball and saw the years of famine that were looming on the horizon.
The government took plenty of slack too and I suppose some of this was merited. They could, and arguably should, have done more to help RTÉ secure a better deal or offer more money. If we forgo reality for a second and just imagine Sky had decided they wanted to broadcast GAA coverage for the next four years (again lunacy reigned in the Celtic Tiger era) would the genii in Leinster House have simply stood by and watched? I’m not so sure.
More so than the other two, the FAI has a lot to answer for. The country was still on a relative high after the World Cup. A bit of luck in a penalty shoot-out in Suwon and we would have found ourselves in a World Cup Quarter-final against South Korea – not exactly footballing behemoths. That summer Football reigned supreme over the great rival the GAA and there was real potential to cash in.
Unfortunately the FAI did so in the literal sense and lost a huge amount of support in the process. I often wonder would there have been more support for the side during those lean Brian Kerr/Steve Staunton years if the FAI had stuck with RTÉ? Ultimately we will never know but it certainly couldn’t have hurt.
Thankfully we’re back playing football in the summer after ten long years and so much of this argument can be swept under the carpet. We’ve even got competitive internationals back on our terrestrial screens and deferred highlights of friendlies.
But for the lucky ones who will be sitting in front of the television set come 3pm today with Sky Sports 4 (yes we’ve been relegated to their fourth channel) blaring away spare a thought for the rest of us huddled around a radio on this balmy summer afternoon.
Sam joined Extratime for the 2011 season and is now the site's features editor. He is based in Dublin and covers all the clubs in the capital. He is also prone to the odd Drogheda game. If you would like to contact Sam, you can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.