Wednesday 19 October 2016

They Think It's Moldova!

A home international on the Thursday and the Dublin derby on the Friday weren't exactly ideal preparation for the 7 hour trek to Moldova on Saturday morning, but the back to back 1-0 victories had the mind in good spirits even if the body was beginning to creak. The fact that the direct flight left at half past midnight on Friday meant it wasn't a runner so a Stansted stopover was required. As online check-in wasn't available on Air Moldova flights from London, it was a tight enough squeeze from landing at 13.15 and checking in by 13.40 but luckily there were no delays and a quick dash from arrivals to departures left me at the check-in desk with 20 minutes to spare. Brummie Bren was waiting in the departure lounge having bussed it down from Birmingham that morning and we'd enough time for a swiftie in amongst a good contingent of Ireland support taking the same route before heading to the gate. Our numbers were swelled by the RTE commentary team and an uneventful 3 hour flight was livened up by a quick chat with Ray Houghton as we came in to land. My first Ireland away game was at Giants Stadium for that famous win v Italy in 1994 so it was nice to have a reminisce about the game with the man who scored the winner that day!

The word from Moldova was that foreign bank cards didn't work in a lot of the ATM's over there so it was straight to the bureau de change in arrivals when we landed. As Moldova is ranked as the poorest nation in Europe with an average annual salary of approximately €2,800 or 61,000 Lei, I assume that any opportunity to get foreign currency in is taken hence the proliferation of bureau de changes. Once we'd sorted ourselves with cash it was over to the taxi desk to get in the queue to grab a cab to the hotel. And it was here that it became clear that this wasn't going to be your average away trip!

We'd got chatting to another lad from YBIG, Corkery, on the flight and ended up asking if he wanted to share a cab with us as his hotel was close to ours. Having got to the top of the queue, some lad with a clipboard took our hotel address, went outside and came back to bring us out past the cabs to some random skinhead dude who had no meter or taxi sign. Bren and Corkery got in the back leaving me to get into the front. Straight away the driver bangs on the stereo full blast and puts this cheesy Moldovan rave tune and puts the hammer down! He's weaving in and out of lanes of traffic roaring abuse at other drivers as this MC roars out Welcome to Moldova and various other unintelligible raps in Romanian, it was absolutely comical stuff! He then starts talking to me in Romanian, I think, and seemed to be asking me do I speak any other languages as he lists off that he speaks Russian, Romanian, Polish and Turkish! Asked him did he speak Irish for the laugh but he hadn't a word of English so that went right over his head but I think he was berating me for not having a selection of Eastern European languages! Of course he didn't seem to have a clue where he was going but managed to find the road we were looking for before missing the turn and having to take another lap around the back streets and then finally found the hotel. We got out and were going to give him 150 or 200 Lei but we couldn't see what notes we were giving him because most of the residential streets over there don't seem to have street lights. We ended up handing him a 20 Lei note by mistake and I thought he was gonna swing for us but one of the lads handed him a 200 Lei note and it was all smiles and laughter again before he headed off and took Corkery round the corner to his place. It was some taxi ride though and set the tone! 

 Welcome to Moldova!!

Having checked into the hotel and freshened up, we got word from a few of the other lads that they were heading down to a place called the Beer House so on checking Google Maps, we said we'd walk the 20 minutes journey to get our bearings. Only problem with that was the lack of street lights which meant we were stumbling through pitch dark streets. Add in the fact that it had been lashing all day, the majority of pavements are half-finished and full of potholes where they're not mud tracks and you can imagine how difficult that was! We both nearly went flying at least 3 times on the paths and then I had the pleasure of stepping straight into a 6 inch deep pothole full of water! Having spotted the Beer House across the road we saw an underpass to get to it but again it was totally unlit and we both said no fucking way are we going down there! The alternative of taking our chances through gaps in the traffic definitely seemed the safer option!

On entering the Beer House, we were greeted by a huge crowd of Irish fans with the Amsterdam lads, the London/Birmingham lads and various others that I hadn't seen since France already in situ. There was plenty of representation from across Ireland as well with lads from Dublin, Cork, Donegal and the Cliftonville crew from Belfast dotted around the bar. Northmen, Southmen, comrades all!

Before long everyone was catching up on what people had been at since France, especially those of us who hadn't managed to make Belgrade in September. Steve Amsterdam and his group had arrived the previous day and had taken a day trip up to the self-proclaimed independent territory of Transnistria that afternoon which I was gutted to have missed so I was keen to hear about that. When the USSR had disintegrated back in 1990 and Moldova was moving towards independence, an area with a significant ethnic Russian and Ukrainian population on the Moldova/Ukraine border broke away and declared itself the Pridnestrovian Moldovian Republic of Transnistria. Although it hasn't been recognised by the United Nations, so is still technically considered part of Moldova, a four-month war in 1992 resulted in a ceasefire and a demilitarised zone on the de facto border. Despite only being recognised by three other similar "frozen-conflict" states, it has put in place it's own government, parliament, military, flag, currency etc. and, with a heavy Russian peace-keeping presence, exists in this de facto independent state. The rumours are that the economy of this soviet-style state depends on smuggling and gun running! I'm always interested in seeing unusual new places but time wasn't to allow it and although the lads had visited on a day when it had lashed out of the heavens for the duration of their trip, I was still jealous as they showed me the plastic plectrum like coins used over there and told me of their encounters with the locals.

Here we go again!

After a few beers and a pizza, the tiredness from the journey was forgotten and following a few songs, the Beer House closed up around 2 and we made our way to a 24 hours bar aptly named Jack's around the corner where a good crowd of YBIGers were mingling with the locals so that gave another chance to catch up with a few more heads from home. The 24 hour licence meant the place was still in full swing as the clock ticked past 4.30 but with a walking tour of the city arranged for noon the next day, I took the sensible course of action and the few of us that were in the same hotel left the younger crowd to it and jumped a cab back to get some well needed rest.

 Subway Art

The sun streaming into the room had woken me only a few hours after getting to sleep but it was still an effort to get myself out of bed at 11:30 and move towards the same area we'd been in the previous night where the group for the walking tour were meeting. As the effort of getting up was beyond Bren, I had to retrace the route alone although this was a far easier proposition in daylight! About 50 of us had signed up for the tour so the local tour company had arranged for 3 guides to split us into groups. Our guide first took us through the underpass which was a little less threatening in daytime and actually had some really cool graffiti all the way through it. It still looked like it could be dodgy as hell at night though! A quick couple of stops up the road on a bus that looked like it was straight from the 50's and we were in the historical parliament area of Chisinau where there definitely seemed to be a bit more money around with plenty of monuments and nice architecture. Our guide took us around the civil service and parliament buildings, their Arc of Triumph, the city's Orthodox Cathedral and various museums taking us through a very nice park and down to a lovely boulevard by the River Bac while telling us the history of the city and country. The country itself has been regularly occupied throughout history, first by Crimea, then being part of the Ottoman Empire from the 1500's to the 1800's (bar a spell when it was united with other Romanian principalities and then as part of the Polish/Lithuanian commonwealth in the early 1600's) before finally succumbing to the Russian Empire who had already annexed half the territory during one of the many Russian-Turkish wars. The various influences can be seen in the multi-lingual ability of most of the people we met who spoke Romanian (or the Moldovan dialect to be precise), Russian, Turkish and Polish in addition to the bit of English many had. Having spent an enjoyable 3 hours wandering, we finished up close to the Old Bus bar where some of the lads who had been at the fans match on Friday had spent the previous night so we arranged to meet the rest of the gang there. Having met Corkery on the tour, the pair of us agreed that 3pm was a respectable enough time to begin the pre-match festivities once we'd got a bit of food in.

City Sights

By the time we'd ordered food, most of the other lads started to arrive so having treated ourselves to the most expensive item on the menu (a gorgeous steak that cost all of €7), we managed to get a table that sat about 15 of us. By the time the Quinn Towers produced a bottle of Jaeger the songs were flowing quicker than the drinks and the word that Georgia had managed a draw v. Wales in Cardiff had notched the mood up another bit! The 2 hour time difference meant that the local kick off time was a fairly late 9:45 so around 8 we started to gather people together to head up to the ground. Flagging taxis was proving problematic however, but the fact that locals seemed to be happy to stop and give you a lift for a few quid was mitigating that difficulty somewhat! And so it was that 3 of us ended up in the back of a car with 2 local students in the front having a good old waffle about the city en route to the stadium! The team had been revealed at that stage with no real surprises as Glenn Whelan came in for the suspended Jeff Hendrick and much to the relief of everyone who thought he should have had a run in the last 2 games, Wes Hoolahan replaced the concussed Robbie Brady. No complaints from me given how short we were in midfield.

Zimbru Stadium complete with extra tiers!

The area around the Zimbru Stadium was thronged with Irish fans but the talk we'd heard of a boycott by local fans due to ticket prices seemed to be accurate as there were very few around. While €5 a ticket seemed a bargain to us, given the average wage over there it was a lot to ask and the locals had voted with their feet. Although, it has to be said, there was a good clatter of them watching from the balconies of the block of flats that overlooked the pitch! The stadium itself looked nice for a compact 10,000 seater and was the sort of ground that I'd love to see built for the League of Ireland over here. Most of the Irish tickets had been sold for behind one of the goals and the numbers meant a bit of a delay getting in. We were just getting into the stand as the game kicked off. I had made my way down to the fence behind the goal to try and hang my flag and was arguing the toss with an over-zealous policeman who wouldn't let me use the last space on the fence while keeping one eye on the game when I spotted Hoolahan playing an inch perfect ball to Shane Long who ran onto it and ended his recent goal drought with a tidy finish! One-nil before two minutes had passed! And while I've written before about how we can retreat into our shell when we take an early lead, surely against the likes of Moldova this wouldn't be the case?

1-0 to the Boys In Green!!

At this stage it was pretty clear that I wasn't going to win my argument with the local police who were intent on watching the game through the gap between the flags on the fence rather than facing the fans as they were there to do, so I headed back up to the stand. Having lost Bren on the way in, I was glad to bump into Borussia, another of the YBIG faithful, so stopped there to watch the first half with him. Within another couple of minutes, we could have been two up as a James McClean cross nearly found Long and it was clear that we had really approached the game in the correct manner. We kept the pressure on without really threatening their goal with Coleman and Ward getting forward well. Hoolahan was still pulling strings and teed Whelan up on the 30 minute mark but his effort, once again, caused no problem for the keeper. The next involvement from Hoolahan saw him find Long with a pass, only for the Moldovan player Armas to injure himself scything Long down and end up being stretchered off on 36 minutes. The break in the game seemed to impact on our momentum a bit and Moldova had a little more possession coming up to the break giving them a couple of attempts and a corner but as the clock ticked down we seemed to have weathered that little spell without any drama. In fact, we were finishing the half down their end with Hoolahan again setting up McClean who shot just wide and even having given them possession entering stoppage time, the Moldovan keeper booted the ball straight into touch so it seemed that we'd go in at half-time comfortable at 1-0. Unfortunately, that wasn't to be the case.

I like Shane Duffy as a player, he's brave, strong and fairly uncompromising. However, if he is to become a dependable first choice then his positional sense is really going to have to be worked on.  The fact that his club manager, Chris Hughton at Brighton, was such a cultured defender for Ireland, albeit at full back, can hopefully help with that.  After all, it took Richard Dunne time to  grow into the great player he was for Ireland and Duffy has time on his side.  But he was caught out of position badly for France's winner that knocked us out in the summer and again, when the game was effectively finished as a contest, as he lost Griezmann and had to haul him down.  He was badly caught here as Hoolahan initially won the ball only to be dispossessed and it was pumped over the top by Gatcan. Had Duffy not pushed up over the halfway line then he could easily have dealt with it but he was caught under the ball and Bugeav raced clear and coolly finished past Randolph. It was a really poor goal to give away and eminently preventable. Within a few seconds of us kicking off again, the ref blew for half time and suddenly the second half looked a bit more daunting than it should have been.


We'd found the rest of the lads by the time Moldova got us underway for the second half and it was clear that the goal had given our hosts a huge lift. The first 10 minutes of the half was their best spell of the game as they forced Randolph into a couple of saves and shaky moments. However, as the game moved towards the hour mark, I felt that we started to regain control and do the right things again. Half chances fell to Hoolahan and McClean but we had a blow on 62 minutes when Long seemed to tweak the same hamstring that had caused him to go off late against Georgia and with the lack of strikers on the bench, Callum O'Dowda was brought on for his competitive debut with Walters moving into the central position. At this stage, some of our support around me were beginning to get a bit nervy although, unusually for me who's normally convinced things are sure to go wrong, I was actually beginning to feel a bit confident about how we were playing. O'Dowda got involved straight away and dropped a cross onto McClean's head, but the header was weak when it should have been headed back across the box. At this stage, Borussia beside me admitted that he was getting worried but whatever out of character, zen-like state had engulfed me, I just said "Relax, the goal is coming". And sure enough, two minutes later, it did!

There was an element of luck about the goal when it came, although credit has to go to Walters for his part in it. James McCarthy had got the ball on the edge of the box but had totally snatched at his shot. The ball ended up at the feet of Walters with his back to goal who killed it with a touch and looked like he was going to try and swivel and shoot until he saw McClean in a better position facing the goal. Walters simply stepped back and McClean stroked the ball into the corner to put us back in front. Cue an outpouring of relief behind the goal! Now it was just down to how we could close out the game.

As with the goal in the first half, I was glad to see that we didn't sit back and instead kept the pressure on. Moldova looked to be tiring and we created another chance straight away as Duffy headed a Hoolahan free wide. As it turned out, we didn't have to wait too long before the game was put out of Moldova's reach and when it came, it was another well worked goal with Hoolahan at it's heart.  Coleman had played a throw-in to Hoolahan who then nutmegged a defender before sliding a lovely ball through to Coleman who'd gone beyond him on the overlap. Coleman surged into the box and spotted McClean, who made no mistake on the volley as his captain picked him out. 3-1 and that was that! I was delighted for McClean, who I feel was our best player over the course of the double-header and although his quality can sometimes be hit and miss, his application, effort and desire to give everything to the cause is really admirable.  His performances, along with how Coleman has grown into the captain's role, were the big plus points of the two games for me.

McCleaning up! 

The rest of the game was more notable for the way that the Moldovans seemed to forget about playing the ball and very cynically started playing the man as soon as they went 3-1 down. There were some really bad challenges which resulted in things nearly boiling over a couple of times. A particularly bad kick into Walters' chest resulted in an angry reaction from him which the ref then punished with a yellow card for Walters. His reaction was totally understandable and it'll be very harsh if he misses a big qualifier as a result of picking up another one. Just before that a couple of late subs had seen Myler and O'Kane come in for McCarthy and Hoolahan and the fresh legs ensured we closed the game out comfortably to add another 3 points to those garnered against Georgia leaving us in a strong position with 7 points from our first 3 games.

Points in the bank!
Getting back to town proved to be a bit more straightforward than getting out as Steve had had the wherewithal to ask the cabbie who'd dropped him out to pick them up after the game and as they'd a spare seat on board I jumped with them as we headed back to the Old Bus Bar for a last few beers and songs. By the time the rest of the gang had arrived, we'd got the bars laptop hooked up to the stereo and had all the classics playing, from Put 'Em Under Pressure to Joxer, with everything from A to Z in between. By the time the shutters came down it was 3am and with a 12:30 flight the next afternoon and an 8-hour journey home, bed was the only real option.

Although this game was against the second lowest-ranked team in the group, and indeed there is a case to be made that Georgia are actually a stronger team, there's no question that this was the best performance of the group so far. It was also a performance that was needed, coming off the back of two poor performances, albeit that 4 points were taken from those two games, with a tough away game to Austria coming up in November. Most fans would have taken 7 points from the first three games at the start, and the results that Serbia and Georgia have picked up since we played them put our results against them in a very positive light regardless of the performances. The fact that we're able to pick up results when not at our best reflects well on the management and long may it continue. But the key now is to try to bring the level of performance we displayed in Chisinau to the stronger opposition we'll face in Vienna. If we can do this and avoid defeat over there,  
remaining unbeaten with three of our away games out of the way, this would leave us in a great position facing into the Winter break. The fear is that if we go there looking for the draw, we can be hurt by the world-class talent they have in Alaba and the quality they have in Amautovic if we're not on our game. Having dropped points to Wales and been beaten by Serbia, Austria really need the win so should be well up for it. 

On the flipside, if we can manage to get a win over there, we would be 6 points ahead of Austria and would essentially take them out of the qualification equation. In a group like this one with very little between the top four seeds, the chance to reduce the number of challengers to three at this early stage must be tempting. To maximise that chance, we have to play Hoolahan and given that there's only one qualifier in the next international window, the excuse that he doesn't have two games in four days in his legs won't hold water. And while he can sometimes lose possession and even totally miss the ball with an attempted shot, no one else in the squad could have played the sort of ball that sent Long through or the nutmeg that set Coleman up for the cross for McClean's second.  Having not started any of the away games against the other top 4 seeds in the last campaign, I'm thinking that he'll probably be left on the bench and that a credible draw will be the most likely outcome but who knows, maybe I'll be surprised?  Here's hoping!   

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