When the draw was made, circumstances out of my hands dictated that making this game would be very difficult and for that reason I hadn't booked flights in the period immediately after the draw. But those circumstances changed in the weeks afterwards and as the usual crew were making plans for their trip on various Facebook and WhatsApp groups, I developed an itch to go that simply wouldn't go away. And so, after a week or so of checking various combinations of airlines to find a workable route home, I eventually bit the bullet last Saturday and negotiated a flight only deal on the 747 Travel direct charter flight. Although the price was more than I'd normally shell out on flights, the fact that cheap accommodation was freely available and the cost of food and drink was less than half the price of home meant that I could justify the extra expense and so, come Thursday morning I made my way to a 7 am flight courtesy of a lift from my ever tolerant and supportive better half, Louise! Although the early 4.30 alarm call had been a bit of a killer, the flight was good craic with a mixture of those fans who generally travel via the charters along with a smattering of journalists and ex Ireland boss, Brian Kerr, making up the numbers on board.
We landed safely and got dropped into town on the charter buses. It was an interesting journey as the vast majority of buildings are stoill pock marked with bullet holes in a sobering reminder of the regions recent history. After getting dropped in the city centre, I made my way on arrival to the old town of Sarajevo where Steve Amsterdam had booked a room which had space for one more with a couple of his mates in a hostel. Funnily enough, our take off had been delayed for 90 minutes due to fog at Sarajevo airport which, although we didn't realise it at the time, was clearly a marker for what was to follow!
The Lufthansa strike had also caused havoc with various fans bookings who were routing through them, including Steve's which meant he was arriving a few hours after his initial itinerary. But the location he'd chosen couldn't have been better, with the hostel directly across the road from the twin pubs of Murphy's Irish Bar and Cheers. So it was in Murphy's where my two other room mates for the couple of days, Carl and Ray arrived to greet me along with another couple of friends of theirs, Ollie and Valeria to kill a couple of hours while we waited for Steve and various other YBIGers to arrive.
Despite the relatively small number of fans travelling, the cosy nature of the quarter where the bulk of watering holes were located meant that even with less than a thousand travelling fans, there still seemed to be a good presence of Irish supporters knocking about and given the familiarity that is bred amongst the regular travelling fraternity, it seemed that every few minutes someone familiar was walking in. And following the arrival of Terry the Tash and the usual London supporters group, Steve arrived followed by Brummie Bren as the flights from various points in Europe began filtering in to Sarajevo.
There'd been a great degree of camaraderie on various online forums between the Bosnian fans and the Irish fans on YBIG since the draw was made with people sharing travel trips and advice about the city. And of all the Bosnian posters, one in particular, going by the name of Braveheart in a nod to the bonds he'd developed with the Scottish support when they had played there had gone far beyond the call of duty when it came to the help he'd given our support. So it was a pleasure to meet the man on the Thursday night as myself and Bren got to spend a couple of hours with him in a bar called The Celtic and get the chance to talk to him about the football but also about the history of the region and what makes the place what it is today. And if he's reading, there's an open invite for the compliment to be returned any time!
After a couple of hours away from the strip, Braveheart called it a night so he could function in work the following day so myself and Bren headed back to where the usual sing song had got going but after another hour or three, a corporate decision was made to go for the second dinner of the night and following that, after a 23 hour day, 4.30 am seemed as good a time as any to call it a night and rest up before the main event on the Friday.
The lads I was staying with had arranged a trip to visit the war tunnels and various other sites connected with the 90's conflict for early afternoon on the Friday so after dragging ourselves out of the pit, the gang of us, bar Steve who'd stayed behind to finalise the details on the fleet of buses he'd arranged to take the bulk of the support to Zenica that evening, went up to the local cathedral to meet our guide for the afternoon, Dodu. It was a great way to kill a few hours and learn even more about the war as we were driven around the various sites and up to the tunnel that had been built under the old airport in order to bring in supplies to the city during the 3 year siege in the 90's. It was certainly a sobering thought as we heard about how the city had to make do without electricity for 3 years while people had to bring the essential supplies in through the 800 metre tunnel in freezing temperatures before having to face consistent sniper fire just to move from one building to another. The tour finished up in the mountains at the 1984 Winter Olympics site where only a shell remained of the bobsleigh track and the restaurant which had been built to give the most spectacular view imaginable of the city. And in a warning of things to come, even at 3 in the afternoon, there was always a visible layer of fog / smog coming to settle over the city. Local politics was the reason our guide gave us to explain why such a fantastic site had never been redeveloped.
Sarajevo War Tunnels
And local politics probably also explains why the game that evening was fixed for the 12,000 seater stadium in Zenica rather than the 38,000 seater in Sarajevo. As our tour guide had told us, roughly 30% of the Bosnian population would identity themselves as Serbs and a similar amount as Croats. This was really brought home to me as I'd walked down to a bakery with the guide during the tour to get some local food. As we walked back to the car, a car full of local lads drove by and on seeing my colours, rolled down the window and let out a roar of ‘”Fuck Bosnia! Go Ireland!”. Our guide who'd consider himself a Bosnian first and foremost despairs at the attitude but it seems very deeply ingrained. He told us that his mother will consider herself Yugoslavian till the day she dies and there still seems to be a deep love for Tito present in the country in a way that's fairly rare in other former communist countries.
View from the mountains
Funnily enough, the tour dropped us off at a bar called Tito's which was where Steve had arranged for the coaches to bring us up to Zenica to collect us from. There was a fleet of 5 coaches going up so the place was fairly thronged and there was plenty of the regular crowd there who hadn't been on the tour with us already present along with our local friend, Braveheart. After a quick couple of hours, the time came to board the coaches and we hit the road for the 90 minute journey to the ground, all the while escorted by a noticeable convoy of local police. Despite the no drinking rule on the buses, the journey passed by quickly enough with a serious sing song getting going amongst those of us down the back! We arrived at the ground about an hour before kick off and there was a huge rush into the Hotel Internacional across the road from the stadium which was like walking into a 1970’s time warp but was no less charming for it! A swift one in there and another few songs including a priceless one relating to Jack Grealish’s recent decision to defect to England, followed by a savage rendition of the 12 days of Paul McGrath and it was time to make our way to the ground, get the flags hung and hunker down for the game.
Braveheart and the boys
As regards the game, this has to go down as the most difficult one I've ever had to blog on. It started normally enough with a good rendition of Amhrán na bhFiann and a reasonable enough first few minutes from Ireland as we sought to come to grips with the Bosnian set up. Given the options available to him, I had no issues with the team Martin O'Neill put out but, despite the presence of Wes Hoolahan in the team, as the half wore on Bosnia seemed to be the team controlling more of the possession but they weren't really putting our goal under any sustained pressure. A shot from Pjanic that was well over and a free header from a corner by the same player that Zukanovic really should have done much better from were the only chances of note in the first 15 minutes as Bosnia seemed to be taking a fight fire with fire stance and relying on more of a long ball approach than I was expecting from them. Other than one corner which was woefully underhit by Brady, Ireland were struggling to get into any attacking positions of note and instead it was Bosnia again who went close on 22 minutes with a Ibisevic shot into the side netting to the left of Randolph's goal which most of the Bosnian fans on the opposite stand started to celebrate before realising it was, in fact, a goal kick.
Pre match tifo display
It was becoming clear that Bosnia were targeting Stephen Ward on our left hand side and his rustiness caused by his lack of club action was highlighted when he pulled down Visca to prevent a run on goal which resulted in a yellow card on 26 minutes meaning he was walking a bit of a tightrope the rest of the game. Although Bosnia kept targeting our left hand side, we had our own spell around the half hour mark where we finally got to play a bit of ball in the opponents final third but it remained very scrappy with little pattern to the play from either side. Bosnia created a half chance with a Zukanovic header which was nearly flicked on by Ibisevic who just couldn't get the flick that would have been needed to beat Randolph. At the time, myself and the lads thought Ibisevic was offisde but looking at the replay I can see that he was being played on by one of our defenders close to the dead ball line so it has to go down as a bit of a let off for us. However, following that chance and in the last 7 or 8 minutes of the half we began again to get a bit more possession in the opposition half with a couple of free kicks and corners but again, nothing tangible came from any of them with our execution slightly off each time, The half ended with a bit of a scramble in the Irish area and a shot from Dzeko which was blocked as soon as it left his boot by a combination of Clark and Ward and with the ref blowing up right on 45 minutes, we went in happy enough with the scoreline if not the performance.
First half and visibility still fine!
I had been expecting a more hostile atmosphere from the locals but despite a good co-ordinated tifo display at kick off the atmosphere from the home fans was obviously a bit nervy and following the descent of the fog, the absence of being able to view any action led to things getting even more subdued. This seemed to be translating onto the pitch as well and I'm sure the players must have been finding the conditions difficult. For example, there was no way that either keeper could possibly see the other end of the pitch when they were kicking the ball out and it would have been extremely ambitious for anyone to attempt a cross field ball so safety first had to be the only option. Around the hour mark, the first change was made with McClean coming on for Hoolahan who had had one of his more ineffective games and shortly after I'm told Randolph made a smart stop to keep Lulic out but again we couldn't see it at all. In what would prove to be a decisive move, Brady then moved in to that central role. Most of the talk on the terraces at this stage were about what may happen if the game was to be abandoned and no one seemed to be sure if the full 90 minutes would have to be played again or just the remaining minutes. Although the chants of 'If you feel like Stevie Wonder clap your hands!', 'You'll never see the Irish! ' and' Where's the ball, where's the ball, where's the ball!' had most of the away end laughing! My own feeling was that UEFA would be very keen to get the game completed if at all possible given the proximity of the second leg on Monday.
Second half view of scoreboard
And floodlights at our end
Stephen Ward still seemed to be walking a tightrope and was possibly lucky to escape a second booking for a foul on Visca judging by the reaction of the home crowd so it was no surprise to see him replaced by Marc Wilson a few minutes later. Still play carried on, mostly in our half and out of our view, we looked at our watches and phones to keep track of time as we could no longer read the giant scoreboard at the other end of the pitch. We did notice Visca being substituted for them which seemed unusual given that he was probably their best player in the first half but he may well have been rubbish in the second for all I could tell. With 15 minutes to go everyone around me would have been happy to get out of there with a nil all draw and were just hoping that the game would be allowed finish. And then, after another 5 minutes of nothing much, the moment of the match for Ireland literally appeared out of nowhere!
Fans eye view of goal!
It was still impossible to see any of the build up but suddenly through the fog we saw Robbie Brady charge through with the ball at his feet. He seemed to take an eternity to get his shot off but did absolutely brilliantly to take his time and pick his spot as he drove the ball past the diving Begovic to send the net bulging and the crowd behind the goal wild! Given how little we'd actually seen of the second half it was a huge bonus for the goal to happen at our end and the celebrations were as long and sustained as I've seen at an away game in a long time with Brady sliding to his knees in front of us and the fans rushing down to the fences at the front of the terrace to celebrate with him. The vital away goal had been got and now it was all about whether we could hold on or not.
And so do the fans!
Unfortunately, as with so many times in the past, that hope of holding on proved a forlorn one. The celebrations were still going on down our end with a sustained version of the Twist and Shout chant, which would later be morphed into a specific Robbie Brady version, still going on when the Bosnian fans to our right started celebrating wildly. We couldn't see a thing so didn't know if it was a penalty or a goal and the scoreboard seemed to take an eternity to change. It was only when we saw the Bosnians retreat back to their own half for an Ireland tip off that we were certain it had been a goal. In the immediate aftermath, McGeady came on for Brady and it came down to whether we could hold out to full time. While the remaining action seemed mostly to take place in our half again, we seemed to weather whatever Bosnia could through at us (if you'll excuse the pun) through the remaining few minutes and the four minutes stoppage time and even finished the game on the front foot with McGeady breaking forward only to lose the ball to a defender who appeared out of the fog. As soon as the clock hit 94 minutes, the ref brought a halt to proceedings. After being held behind for about 20 minutes, we were finally allowed out of the ground and escorted back to the buses where a far more subdued journey back to Sarajevo ensued as news began to come through regarding the atrocities in Paris. It was around one in the morning when we finally arrived back to the strip and after queuing for what seemed like forever in the Cheers restaurant, myself and Bren finished the evening with a pizza before going back to our respective lodgings and calling it quits around 2.30.
Having checked out at 11 the following morning, those YBIGers still around congregated in Murphy's for some breakfast and some liquid refreshment as people dissected the previous nights performance, the chances for the second leg and compared stories from the previous night. A number of the lads were staying till Sunday and so were getting up for the craic again by the time the rest of us began to make our way to the airport. A bit of work was done on the new Robbie Brady Twist and Shoot chant (Well shake it shake it up Brady now, Twist and Shoot!) which I'm sure got many's an airing in Sarajevo last night but I was happy enough to get back to Dublin and considered the extra few bob on the direct flight very well spent at that stage.
As regards how the game finished, it was a shame to concede so quickly after taking the lead but being honest, any of us would have taken a nil all with ten minutes to go so given how important the away goal may be, nobody was too despondent about the equaliser. Having watched our goal again, it was superbly taken by Brady, with the drag back to take his man out of it before picking his spot expertly executed. The leveller looked avoidable with Wilson and McClean leaving too much of a gap between them to cut out the cross and the marking on Dzeko being a bit slack. Given how well the defence had generally done it was a shame to see that lapse but it does give us all to play for on Monday.
In relation to Monday, it will be a huge bonus for us to have Jon Walters back and hopefully Shane Long has a few minutes in him. Walters in for Murphy if Long can't start, with Hoolahan slotting in behind. But the job is clearly only half done. I can see both sides scoring and it's rare enough to see us score two against higher ranked opposition but Bosnia looked slightly suspect at the back and it's going to be up to us to try and exploit that. The team O'Neill sends out will tell a lot but I'm hopeful that it will be a positive one and certainly playing for the nil all that would send us through would be a mistake. But you can't fault the spirit of this team and much as the job is only half done, hopefully that spirit will be enough to see us through. It's been a long road but we can nearly touch the finals now, fingers crossed come Monday night we can reach that goal.