On his last day in Dáil Eireann, after 34 years as a TD, Bertie Ahern was asked what were his biggest regrets.
His critics suggested there was a lot to be regretful about.
Ireland was not in a good place at the time. After years living high on the hog, the country was suddenly back in the 1980s, with high emigration and high levels of despair, except this time, the IMF were actually in the door rather than lurking around the corner.
As any veteran watcher of Irish political documentaries on the 1980s will tell you, the IMF were constantly on the brink of "coming in", a prospective outcome which was usually portrayed as the doomsday scenario, one which would mark the ultimate failure of the Irish state.
After two decades of boom and blithely thinking these worries were consigned to history, it was a shock to see the International Monetary Fund apparatchiks finally land into Dublin in late 2010.
Surveying all this at the state's historic low point, Ahern, who served as Taoiseach between 1997 and 2008, said that in addition to regretting that no one told him what was going in the banks, he regretted that he hadn't been able to build what he called a "proper national infrastructural stadium".
The reaction was bemusement bordering on outrage. What a frivolous thing to be fixated on at such a desperate time, cried his opponents
For his long-time critics, the stadium business reflected the poverty of Ahern's vision as a politician.
"When he came to imagine a historic achievement in the Republic, the Bertie Bowl was as far as his vision could stretch," wrote Fintan O'Toole.
As becomes clear in this week's edition of 'Scánnal' on the Bertie Bowl saga, Ahern has little time for these people.
"You'd people writing in-depth reports about the stadium, people who were never in Croke Park or Lansdowne Road in their life. In fact, they were probably anti-sport.
"They became experts. You know the smoked salmon, wine drinking people who talk about these issues.
"I had to contend with that. I just had to put up with it, it was hard going."
As is clear from the documentary, Ahern badly wanted to build this national stadium, tried very hard to get it done, still believes it should have been done, and it was the "smoked salmon, wine drinking people" who did him in.
"You'd people writing in-depth reports about the stadium, people who were never in Croke Park or Lansdowne Road in their life. In fact, they were probably anti-sport.
"They became experts. You know the smoked salmon, wine drinking people who talk about these issues."
Ireland’s stadium situation: "When patrons looked up, they saw an ugly asbestos roof"
At the beginning of the '90s, Dublin's sporting infrastructure on the stadium front consisted of an increasingly dowdy looking Croke Park and the dilapidated, windswept Lansdowne Road.
Croke Park had a few dicey moments in the ‘80s. There was crushing on the terraces during the 1983 All-Ireland football final, resulting in several injuries, a toilet wall collapsed on Hill 16 during the 1985 hurling final, injuring three people, and the Cusack Stand, in particular, was beginning to show its age.
As Martin Breheny has described it, "the concrete was breaking away from rusty steel reinforcements" and "when patrons looked up, they saw an ugly asbestos roof, complete with all the associated health risks."
Lansdowne Road, a ground owned by the IRFU, had played host to Irish soccer internationals since the late 1970s and the rugby internationals since time immemorial.
It remained deficient in many respects, not least that it didn’t come armed with a set of floodlights until the mid-1990s.
A generation of non-truanting schoolkids will tell you they only ever saw the second half of Ireland home games in the Charlton era because they had to be played on weekday afternoons due to lack of floodlights.
After briefly toying with the idea of moving out of Croke Park in the late 80s, the GAA announced their highly ambitious re-development plans at the beginning of 1992.
Though some perceived it as high-risk and many traditionalists baulked at the corporate box dimension of the plan, the project was an enormous success.
The All-Ireland finals of 1993 were the last played in front of the old Cusack Stand and the first stage of work on the stadium began that autumn.
Lansdowne Road didn’t change much, by contrast, though they did get a set of floodlights in late 1994.
"We're talking about the old Mickey Mouse solution"
The late 90s and early 00s was boom time for the makers of miniature model stadiums. They enjoyed a golden era as politicians, developers and sporting administrators sought to cover the whole of West Dublin in football stadiums.
The story of the Bertie Bowl can’t be told without reference to Eircom Park, the FAI’s futuristic dream stadium, earmarked for Saggart near where the CityWest Hotel is now located.
Eircom Park wasn’t actually the first soccer stadium planned for West Dublin in the 1990s.
That honour goes to the Owen O’Callaghan-owned site in Clondalkin which was to be the home of the Dublin Dons, whenever they finally got around to moving here. But that didn’t even reach the miniature model phase so probably isn’t worth dwelling on.
The dazzling Eircom Park – or ‘The Arena’ as it was originally called before Eircom snapped up the naming rights – was unveiled on the Late Late Show on 22 January 1999.
It was modelled on Schalke’s stadium in Gelsenkirchen, complete with retractable roof and a retractable pitch, which would slide in and out depending on whether Robbie Keane or Michael Flatley was performing on it.
The stadium idea was the brainchild and legacy project of then chief executive Bernard O’Byrne, who currently heads up Basketball Ireland.
"The cost will be funded by the pre-sales of corporate boxes and corporate seats, by the pre-sales of sponsorship and the balance will be funded by a panel of banks which will be put together by Deutsche Bank," O’Byrne told reporters.
It was originally estimated to cost £65m though this, inevitably, was soon revised upwards.
"From our point of view, it didn’t make much sense quite frankly," says Ahern.
"Our financial people who looked at this in government didn’t think it would ever stack up. And the private investors, we didn’t see that they were there.
"We’re talking about the old Mickey Mouse solution to a big problem."
"It could only be described as a form of bribery"
At the same time, Ahern and his Fianna Fáil-led government had plans for their own stadium. In 1999, a feasibility study was carried out on a National Stadium by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the government committed to the idea.
These were Bertie’s glory years.
The Celtic Tiger was hurtling along at a ferocious rate. The year previously, he’d negotiated the Good Friday Agreement.
His slender majority government lasted the full five years (1997-02) and at the end of it, he was re-elected in a whopping landslide, coming within a whisker of an overall majority, something which hadn’t been achieved for a quarter of a century.
The Taoiseach was the main evangelist for the plan but there was also Minister for Sport Jim McDaid and the Minister for Finance Charlie McCreevy.
"I’d regard a national stadium as important a part of our national infrastructure as a highway. Or a national museum. Or a national gallery," McCreevy announced at a press conference.
The centre-piece of the project, designated for Abbotstown, was the 80,000 seater national stadium. Alongside it would sit a 15,000 seater indoor arena, a centre of excellence, and an aquatic centre containing the country’s first 50 metre swimming pool.
Stadium Ireland was its official name. Within about five minutes, someone came up with the alliterative alternative title ‘Bertie Bowl’ and it stuck to such an extent that many would nowadays struggle to remember what its official name was.
The Eircom Park idea was more than just an irritant. The IRFU were on board with the Bertie Bowl from early on but they were only one half of the equation.
Obviously, if the National Stadium was going to be viable, then it was essential that the Irish soccer team play their matches there.
So, the FAI boys were going to have to be disabused of the merits of their Eircom Park proposal.
The government dangled sums totalling £80m in front of the FAI, in the shape of pre-sales tickets to the National Stadium, increased Sports Council funding and Capital Grants.
Minutes of an FAI board meeting recorded Jim McDaid had offered £11m for domestic football clubs if they dropped their support for Eircom Park.
The minutes said that it "could only be described as a form of bribery." McDaid said he was shocked that this term was being thrown around.
Running alongside this were the mounting costs of Eircom Park, which were worrying rival factions of the FAI.
General Secretary Brendan Menton and Treasurer John Delaney led the internal opposition, the former announcing that he believed the full cost would amount to £125m.
On 9 March 2001, with the cost of the stadium growing steeper and the government money hovering above their heads, the FAI Council met in Jury's Hotel in Dublin and voted to drop the proposal.
The pitch was now clear for the Bertie Bowl.
"Of course, people who were anti 'the GAH' would take that view"
By the turn of the decade, the new Croke Park was halfway done. The Cusack Stand and the Canal End were no longer a rickety shed and a rickety enclosure respectively but an integrated shimmering blue palace.
However, the Hogan Stand was a building site for the 2000 All-Ireland deciders, while the pokey little Nally Stand - a real anachronism by now - was still hanging in there.
The government, with renowned GAA fanatic McCreevy in Finance, offered the association £60m to complete the job in April 2001.
As it happened, that same weekend the GAA were holding their annual Congress, where a vote was to be held on the dropping of Rule 42, which barred the playing of soccer and rugby on GAA-owned turf.
The GAA had modernised significantly since their 1980s nadir - when they were widely derided by the Hot Press crew as "the bogball" and "the stick-fighting".
Shedding off years of wariness, they'd embraced TV and reaped the benefits. Attendances had gone up and sponsorship money flooded in.
However, some of their more archaic rules remained in place.
In 2001, there was a major push, led by Roscommon’s Tommy Kenoy to abolish Rule 42. This would allow soccer and rugby into Croke Park and would enable the GAA to pay off the substantial stadium debt.
It was defeated by one vote.
Unsurprisingly, the result prompted an angry backlash, particularly in light of the generous wedge of taxpayers’ money which had just been shoved in their direction.
And it soon gave rise to speculation that the money from the government had been given to encourage them to vote down the proposal, thus strengthening the rationale for the National Stadium.
Ahern, a big fan of both soccer and Gaelic games, roundly dismissed the notion. The money was always going to be allocated to the GAA and wasn’t dependent on them voting one way or the other on Rule 42.
"The factual position is this: Croke Park had got the money all the way along, and were going to get the money all the way along. So it didn't matter what happened with the rule, we were going to pay.
"Now, some people criticised us for that because they said 'why should you give Croke Park money?' And, of course, people were anti 'the GAH', and who call them the 'Grab All Association' rather than Cumann Lúthcleas Gael, would take that view.
"Those who were anti the GAA wanted to politicise it and wanted to say you shouldn't be giving them a penny more of taxpayers' money unless they change the rule. They are people who don't understand the DNA of the GAA."
"The Scottish-Irish bid consisted of one city with three stadiums and another city with none"
While all this was going on, a storyline came out of left-field. Ireland would make a joint-bid to host the 2008 European Championships with Scotland.
In a fit of excitement after Michael Carruth's gold medal in Barcelona in 1992, then Lord Mayor of Dublin Gay Mitchell suggested the city should bid for the 2004 Olympics.
It took the media and rival politicians a while to get their breath back.
The Euro 2008 bid was taken more seriously. The Scots originally intended to go it alone but shortcomings in their stadium infrastructure forced them to look for a partner.
Unfortunately, their chosen partners were world leaders in the matter of stadium infrastructure shortcomings.
Even before the Irish got involved, the Scottish bid was being led by an Irishman, Kinnegad-born Simon Lyons who had been a director with Highland Distillers and was engaged by the SFA to help with the Euro 2008 attempt.
He told this writer in 2016 that no one ever questioned the association between the two countries.
"What we’re dealing with it is perception rather than reality. In the two-year campaign that I ran, no one in any football or political context, said why did we ignore Northern Ireland or England or Wales. In people’s heads, they (Ireland and Scotland) are associated."
The Celtic soul brothers bid looked good in theory and there was a considerable amount of bullishness in some quarters.
However, there were snags. Had the Irish any stadiums to kick into this bid at all?
The ‘high point’, if that’s the right term, of the bidding process arrived on 16 September 2002.
On that date, the UEFA technical committee were taken on a tour of Ireland’s ‘stadiums’.
This was a worrying time. The nightmare scenario – namely, being laughed at by foreigners – was now a real and present danger.
Diplomats to a fault, the bespectacled UEFA officials suppressed any bemusement they might have felt.
They were taken on a jaunt around Croke Park – which technically didn’t allow soccer to be played – and they were shown around a field in Abbotstown, which did but was a field.
The beautifully embossed stadium brochure was once more asked to do a lot of the heavy lifting.
Oddly, they didn’t visit the only extant stadium which allowed soccer, Lansdowne Road, but Brendan Menton said the UEFA officials were well aware of that place (there was no clarity on whether this was a good or bad thing).
As it was, and notwithstanding the stadium issues, the Scots-Irish bid did well on the Technical report but wasn’t recommended to go forward by the influential National Teams committee.
In the vote itself, the Scots-Irish bid secured the support of three associations – including the English FA – but failed to make it through to the final round of voting.
Emmet Malone told Balls.ie in 2016 that the eventual winners Austria-Switzerland took a nice jab at the Scotland-Ireland bid in their presentation.
"The Austrians and the Swiss were reported to have gone into their presentation and argued in relation to our bid that the Scots-Irish bid consisted of one city with three stadiums and one city with none."
"The Scottish-Irish bid for the European championships clearly meant more to the Scots than it did the Irish" was the verdict in the Scotsman.
"A Ceausescu era Olympic project"
By then, the Bertie Bowl was already in dire trouble. Our old friend ‘spiralling costs’ reared his head again.
It was originally estimated to cost £280m. By the beginning of 2001, Jim McDaid was reassuring critics that it would only be £350m.
Department of Finance civil servant Paddy Teahon estimated that it would be closer to £444m.
Ahern’s coalition partners in the PDs were – at best – deeply unenthusiastic about the whole proposal and insisted on an independent review.
The review, conducted by consultants High Point Rendel, was published in January 2002.
Their finding was that the entire project would cost in excess of £1 billion.
Under some pressure, Ahern lashed out at critics (or the "eejits", "nitwits" and "dimwits" as he variously termed them), citing the example of a pre-World Cup final friendly between Ireland and USA played on a sopping wet Lansdowne Road.
"I was on the pitch meeting the teams and had the honour to be standing in two feet of water," he announced.
"If you believe soccer, rugby, Gaelic football, ladies football and camogie and other sports can be played on the same pitch, then you have to be a bit of a nitwit.
"You have eejits in this country, absolute dimwits, who believe we can play a rugby game there (Lansdowne Road) next week."
But his coalition partners weren’t sufficiently appalled by the pools of water on the pitch for the US friendly.
The general election was on the horizon and the PD’s needed a cause.
The government’s attorney general since 1997 had been Michael McDowell but now he had entered merciless electioneering mode, fighting to regain his seat in the old Dublin South East constituency (now Dublin Bay South) for the Progressive Democrats.
He wasn’t shy about using high-flown rhetoric and was determined to kick Bertie’s stadium project to bits.
Ireland, McDowell said, did not need a "Ceausescu-era Olympic project" and spending €1 billion on a sports campus wasn’t "contemplatable" when hospitals, schools and local sporting facilities needed funding.
The 2002 election was a major triumph for Fianna Fáil – but it also was for the PDs. McDowell took a seat and later claimed the credit for killing the Bertie Bowl.
Ahern suggested McDowell’s stance had as much to do with localism, and the location of Lansdowne Road within his own constituency, as it did prudence.
And he still resents the arguments he had to face when trying to progress the stadium project.
"You’re always faced with this when you’re fighting for sport, and you always will – they’ll go down to a hospital and they’ll find a 90-year old woman on a trolley and they’ll say ‘Oh, this guy wants to build a sports stadium.’ It’s very hard to win the political argument on that."
A smaller stadium on same site?
The Abbotstown stadium project withered away early in the lifetime of the new government. The PD's re-entered coalition government but wouldn't wear the Bertie Bowl.
By the time the UEFA suits peered around Abbotstown in September '02, the official line was the government were casting around for private investment.
None of the glut of stadiums planned for the outer edges of West Dublin were ever built.
Fianna Fáil and the PD’s eventually provided money for the re-development of Lansdowne Road into the present Aviva Stadium.
Stadium talk has gone relatively quiet in the capital, though the current GAA President John Horan has previously proposed a 40,000 seater stadium be built near the Red Cow junction, the widely derided ‘Páirc M50’.
Ahern, meanwhile, is still advocating that a stadium be built at Abbotstown. He told the RTÉ documentary that it’s just a matter of a politician having the guts to press for it.
"We were trying to build two stadiums, the GAA stadium and then the national stadium. Now that doesn’t apply.
"What we should do now is build a 25-30,000 stadium on that same site. And that’s what we should still do, if someone has the political guts – which I doubt – to stand up and fight for the remaining part of it."