Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Euro 2012 - Day 13. Unlucky for some.

So that's it. After all the planning, organising and anticipation it came down to 9 days and 3 games in which we just didn't perform. Feeling pretty disappointed right now on the train to Sopot as myself and Louise travel back up to the coast to unwind for a few days before coming back home to reality.

We arrived to Poznan yesterday in blistering heat, it was by far the hottest day since we arrived and I was concerned that the players might struggle a bit, it was in the thirties and was that damp humid muggy heat that saps your energy as you're sweating from every pore. We were met at the train station by the guy we were renting the apartment from and he dropped half of us with our bags to the apartment while the rest of us followed in a cab. Again, the generosity of the hosts shone through, he could easily have met us at the apartment but insisted on meeting us from the train. All he could talk about was how much the media over here had taken to the Irish fans and how bowled over the locals were, a great impression has been left.

Having dropped our bags off we headed down to the square where fans had congregated and found the place thronged with green clad supporters with only a handful of Italians present. The atmosphere was good if lacking a little in intensity due to the meaningless nature of the game and a bit of travel fatigue setting in amongst the fan base as we reached the end of our journey. We bumped into some familiar faces and then, showing our new found maturity, decided to go for a group meal with the 7 of us rather than settling down in the square with a bag of cans! Found a place that some of the lads had eaten in before the first game so decided to grab a table there and see if the ribs were as good as they'd said. The place was pretty busy and incredibly warm but once a round of beers (and 7 waters ;) ) arrived we began to cool down a little and started to feel a small degree of anticipation for the match. The huge plate of ribs duly came and went (they were sensational, best I've ever eaten!) and we hit the fan zone. With a bag of cans.

Around 6.30 we decided to head for the ground but the one fault I'd found with the trip reared it's head again as the organisation for transporting fans to the ground was a bit lacking and the crush to get onto the trams was horrendous. We soon realised we'd have to go back towards the terminus to get on as it was mayhem at the stop we were at so walked that direction and eventually got squeezed into a carriage that was resembling a cattle truck at that stage. The volume of people on it combined with the heat and the fact that the sheer weight of numbers meant the tram couldn't pick up any speed meant a long unpleasant journey to the ground and it was close to 8 by the time we made it. One drink outside and in we went having stopped for a few pics with the local police holding the Drumcondra 69ers flag aloft! Got in just at kick off and watched as we finally managed to get beyond 5 minutes in a half without conceding! Buoyed by this, the team actually began to play a bit of football with one crunching Kevin Doyle tackle on Pirlo ratcheting up the atmosphere as the crowd began to roar on the team. The usual chants were going and then a new one, which had been started in the square earlier that day when some lads had unfurled a flag bearing the words 'We'll sing when we want, f#*k off Keano' on it, began to reverberate around the ground. To the tune of Arsenal's Van Persie chant, the Irish support en masse were roaring out 'We'll sing when we want. We'll sing when we wa-a-ant! Fuck off Roy Keane! We'll sing when we want!'. Seems like 10 years after he seriously divided the Irish fans he's succeeded in uniting us again, there really has been a strong backlash to his comments over here amongst all but his most one eyed supporters. By all means criticise the failings of the team but he's way out of step with the Irish support and clearly doesn't understand where we're coming from. Roy against the world again. So be it. His loss.

Back on the pitch we were getting into the last 10 mins of the half and looking comfortable to go in level at halftime when our old failings returned again. Shay looked nailed on to comfortably gather a speculative 30 yard effort that he'd normally be able to take with his eyes closed but inexplicably let it slip through his hands and out for a corner. It was very reminiscent of Bonner's gaffe v Holland for Wim Jonk's goal in Packie's last game at World Cup 94 and I thought to myself 'At least it didn't go in, just get the corner clear and no one will dwell on the error'. Unfortunately that wasn't to be as a combination of slack marking and maybe slow reflexes meant that the smallest man on the pitch in Cassano got a free header that had clearly crossed the line before Duff hooked it clear. 1-0 Italy and here we go again.

2nd half began and again we manage to get past the first 5 minutes without shipping a goal and again we start playing okay and at least keep ourselves competitive in the game. Every so often the Spain-Croatia latest score was shown on the big screen and at 0-0 meant that a 1-0 victory for Italy wouldn't be enough by my calculations, as with 3 teams on 5 points head to head couldn't be used so goal difference would come into play. I dunno if they were worried that if they pushed too hard we'd hit on the break or if they really fancied Spain to beat Croatia but they seemed happy to sit on what they had. We kept probing and fashioned a couple of half chances and, after a further stadium wide rendition of 'We'll sing when we want' there seemed to be a bit of belief coming back to the fans as we stayed in the game right to the final act.

This being Ireland though, we were brought back crashing down to earth in a crazy last 5 minutes though! First off a goal flash came through from Gdansk. 87 minutes, Spain 1 Croatia 0. This puts Italy through with a single goal victory so their few fans begin to celebrate wildly. Then Keith Andrews, probably our best player this tournament (not that that's saying much) and one of the few to emerge with any credit gets a very harsh 2nd booking from the ref (who was awful all night btw) and is sent off. A few choice words were sent to the ref by him and a ball and water bottle took an awful kicking but it leaves us down to 10 men for the final minutes. Still we pushed on but Italy hit on the counter and win a corner. Corner comes in and Balotelli makes a mug of John O'Shea and whips a cracking finish past Given. Game well and truly over and Italy join Spain in the quarters.

After the final whistle the players came over to applaud the fans and the pain of defeat is etched on every face in the stands and on the pitch. I've been at games where we've been knocked out before but it never felt like this. One defiant blast of The Fields and we're just about to leave when we notice the Italian team has left their pocket of fans and are walking around the pitch applauding our support and getting applauded in return. A nice gesture which shows the esteem our reputation is held in.

By now the heat and humidity has turned into another thunderstorm and we leave the stadium to another tram ride from hell to the backdrop of spectacular strikes of fork lightning splitting the sky before the inevitable rain arrives for another soaking when we arrived back into town. The rest of the lads had arrived back before us and had found an Indian restaurant with a bar so we joined them there and we're joined by my old mate Feargal who'd come up for this one game. We had a couple of drinks and I gave a blast of 'Parklife' with the last remnants of my vocal chords in response to the gang of lads on the next table who's just sung 'Wonderwall'. Despite pleas for an encore we decided to head back to the apartment and have a night cap and reminisce there before crashing and going our separate ways in the morning.

And so here we are, everyone's departed with the promise of shared photos and reunions back in Dublin when some of the lads that live abroad are in town. The trips had its ups and downs but has been brilliant leaving aside the football.

The lows:

The football obviously. We never got going and bar the time between St Ledgers goal and Croatia's 2nd never looked like it. We need to change for the World Cup qualifiers and if it takes retirements to force Trap's hand then so be it. New blood is needed and we can't keep relying on our old stalwarts.

The injuries to key players. Regardless of what the camp were saying it's blatantly obvious that Given was not 100% nor were Dunne and O'Shea. Shay's clearances were barely reaching halfway and the usual spring in his legs was absent. Dunne and O'Shea were sluggish all tournament.

The performances of the senior players. In addition to the 3 mentioned above it was a tournament to forget for Keane, Duff, Doyle and McGeady in particular. The MLS seems to have blunted Robbie's edge as I feared it would and if he's serious about playing on, a move back to Villa or similar is essential. I really thought McGeady might show what he has this tournament but the usual inconsistencies returned. Duff, I think will retire and Doyle needs a move badly but won't have wooed any prospective suitors this last 9 days.

Formation and subs from Trap. We need a plan B and cannot keep relying on a rigid 4-4-2. We need to utilise what talent we have and do so in the correct manner. Bringing on Cox out wide v Croatia even if he tucked in from the wing made little sense with McClean & Hunt sitting on the bench. Starting Cox as the link between midfield and the forwards when it's Walters who has experience playing that role? Crazy. And Fahey should have been replaced with a like for like when he couldn't travel rather than a clogger like Green. I don't think it would have made any odds but even at 30 Hoolahan is worth another look. That said, I still think Trap deserves another 2 years, he's only the 3rd manager to get us this far and until the changes being made at underage level are embedded and players who've come through that start reaching senior age, the senior team needs to be managed in it's own right. We needed someone to turn around the fiasco of the previous regime and he has done that and restored some order. Some of the stuff about football being set back years is utter rubbish. Back to when we weren't even qualifying? The Dutch model is the one everyone's copying yet despite that they still went home with 3 defeats as well. Sometimes teams have bad tournaments, it's happened bigger teams than us.

The officiating. Don't think it'd have made any odds but it was Godawful. Little contact allowed, players staying down after barely being touched and refs doing nothing, bogey offsides, stonewall pens not given because the crowd are whistling, brutal. And don't get me started on the goal line officials, wtf do they actually do? Sooner they mic up the refs and get a TMO the better, it's one of the few things about rugby I admire.

The bloody weather! Everywhere we go, we always take the weather with us! Monsoons, thunderstorms, heat waves you name it! Was funny hearing the song being changed to 'we always take St. Ledger with us' though!

The highs:

Too many to mention really but the main ones.

St Ledgers goal. Despite the moron in the crowd with the whistle that caused a double take from everyone, it was still an epic celebration when it went in, shame more didn't follow.

The reception from the locals. I think most of us back home would have friends or colleagues from Poland given their migration to Ireland during the Tiger years but I think a special bond has been formed this last week or so, they have been incredible hosts, have made us so welcome and have been really taken by the conduct in general of the fans. Yes, there's been a lot of drinking and I've seen some articles at home bemoaning the fact that there's been an element of 'Oxegen on tour' round some of the campsites but with nearly 40,000 fans here there's always going to be a bit of that. For me, the reputation of the Irish abroad has been hugely enhanced by the tournament and looking at the media coverage outside of Ireland would back that up. I'd obviously sooner have had success on the field but it's a small consolation. Just a shame we're not as good at football as a nation as we seem to be at begrudery.

Meeting friends, old and new. It may be a cliche but the camaraderie on Ireland trips is something special. Was great to spend time with people I've known years like the Brummie boys, Terry the Tash, McCoy and the London crew, Billy, Mark and Paul, Bradley and his mob and people from more recent trips like the YBIG gang we met in Macedonia and the Quinn towers and their mates. Bumped into some of the Bohs lads and the Swords crew, Feargal, Bren and Noel, Caimin and Karl from work, familiar faces everywhere we turned, it's a home from home. Had a great gang to travel with, 2 top lads I hadn't met before in Jimmy and Niall and the usual crowd from recent games with John, Ray and Peter for the duration and Richie, Alan and Louise all doing a stint. You're all apes mind you! Apart from Louise. :) It was some craic! Was great to have Lou come over as well as it meant I could move to a room where I didn't have to share with someone who snored! Seriously, it's been great to have her here and I'm lucky she's happy to take a football trip as her hols. Even on the trains travelling around some of the best craic is just getting chatting to other fans you may never see again. Everyone I've met over here has added to the experience.

Anyway, we're nearly at Sopot and my thumb is about to drop off so I'll finish. Sorry for the length of the post but delighted so many people seemed to enjoy the updates, it's been a great way of passing the time on some of the journeys, see you all when I get back!

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