A History of College Football in Ireland

College Football makes its long-awaited return to Dublin this August, with the University of Notre Dame squaring off against old rivals Navy. This will be the third time that these sides meet on Irish soil and Notre Dame will be going for the Hat Trick.  Back in 1996, Notre Dame cruised to a 50-24 victory over the midshipmen in Croke Park.  The Sailors didn’t fare much better the second time around either, suffering a 50-10-point defeat to the Fighting Irish in 2012 at The Aviva Stadium.

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Notre Dame wore Tricolor gloves and cleats to mark the occasion.

But did you know that College Football’s history in Ireland goes as far back as the 1980’s?  The first ever college football teams to play here were the Boston College Golden Eagles and the Army Black Knights. The year was 1988, the venue was Lansdowne Road (the Aviva to you Millennials) and Boston College emerged victorious.  Just over a year later, there was a second college football game here as The University of Pittsburgh rolled over Rutgers on a score line of 46-29. Both games were known as the Emerald Isle Classic. The men behind these matches were Aidan Prendergast and Jim O’Brien, who were involved with the Irish American Football scene at the time.

The Golden Eagles and The Black Knights at Lansdowne Road.
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A young fan poses with The Pitt Panthers in Dublin, 1989.

The Emerald Isle series was reborn in 2012, as thousands of Americans descended on Dublin. Despite concerns over the time difference, the game was a huge success in terms of ticket sales and viewership back in the States. The third emerald isle classic provided a massive boost to the following of American football in Ireland.  People who would have had a passing knowledge or interest in the sport got to watch a game up close and live for the first time. And not just any old game but two of Americans top college football programmes. The positive effects of the 2012 game (including of course the massive cash influx to Dublin from tourism) inspired two further college football games in Dublin, taking place in 2014 and 2016 respectively.

2 years after Notre Dame sank Navy on Dublin’s South Side, Penn State University took on the University of Central Florida at GAA headquarters in what was dubbed the “Croke Park Classic”.  Despite the lack of an Irish connection, there was still a fantastic hype and atmosphere to the proceedings.  Penn State emerged victorious on the day, stealing the win from UCF with a last second field goal. The overall reception to the match up was positive, with the Penn State cheerleaders being a high point.

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Penn State with the Win!

The most recent iteration of a college football game in Ireland took place in 2016, with two lesser known teams taking the stage. Boston College returned to Irish shores to face off against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets. Without the name recognition of Notre Dame or Penn State, the “Aer Lingus College Football Classic” suffered a poorer attendance than its predecessors. It also suffered inclement weather, resulting in a low scoring 17-14 victory for BC.

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Ireland’s status as the official home of college football in Europe was cemented in October of 2018, when it was announced that there would be no less than five games taking place here over 5 years beginning in 2020. Two of those slots have already been determined: Notre Dame and Navy in 6 months’ time, followed by the University of Nebraska and the University of Illinois a year later. The latter is an interesting fixture. Neither of these teams boast a huge following outside of their home states, so we could potentially have another low attended game on our hands. A repeat of 2016 is unlikely however, as American Football’s fanbase has increased significantly here in the last 4 years.  Regardless of what teams fill the last three spots, a 5-year commitment is sure to put Ireland on the map as College Football’s home from home.

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