There were 50,073 in the crowd at Lansdowne Road for the European Rugby Cup semi-final between Leinster and Stade Toulousain. It was a great occasion; the sort to which Leinster have become accustomed in recent seasons. Two seasons ago, they set a world record for a club match when over 80,000 attended Croke Park for a match against Munster.
But compare the crowds enjoyed by Leinster with those for clubs playing in the same League, and the disparity is vast. Crowds of 1-2,000 would not be uncommon for the less successful participants in the Magners League. Rugby still lacks the irrational commitment of the hundreds of thousands who attend matches played by soccer teams who have no prospect of winning anything.
Maybe football was never about winning, anyway, maybe it was about the experience. If it was about winning, then how would anyone explain crowds of over 20,000 for at least the top eight teams in the English Championship – which is the second division, and where the only thing anyone wins is promotion to the division above? How would anyone explain Bradford City, who are in sixteenth place in League 2, the fourth division, having an average crowd of 11,000 people at each home game? Journalists who sit in glass-fronted, heated press boxes with their paraphernalia all around them rarely understand what it’s about.
The comfort of the new Lansdowne Road on a late spring afternoon contrasts sharply with being at the old Wembley Stadium in London in the 1970s. There was the crush of the crowds at Wembley Park tube station and the walk up to the stadium. There was always laughter and smiles and the smell of hot dogs and roast chestnuts and the shouts of touts, “Anyone selling tickets?” Inside the stadium the sound used to travel around the ground in great waves and the tide of people on the terraces would lift you off your feet.
I remember one train journey home, the midnight train from Paddington, which stopped at unlikely places and seemed to spend forever at Bristol Parkway before passing the city and dropping south into the dark Somerset countryside. There was a strange woman, maybe in her 30s, in the carriage, who was either disturbed or taking some substance. She would periodically waken sleeping passengers and complain about rats’ tails. Getting out at Castle Cary, or Bridgwater in the early hours, (I don’t remember now and they are on different lines), we spent what remained of the night in a friend’s house before turning up for classes at 9am.
I have no memory of the match we attended that night, no idea of who the opponents may have been, what mattered was being there. Football is about more than winning. As Bill Shankly said, when he was asked whether football was a matter of life and death, ‘It’s far more important than that’.