Monday, 7 September 2015

Let Christie Take It

The build up to Ireland away trips is normally charged with nervous energy for me.  The sleepless night before an early start to the airport, the excitement that comes from knowing you'll be spending the next couple of days with like minded friends that you've shared practically every emotion possible with over the years and the nervousness that comes from never knowing exactly what sort of performance you're likely to get from any of the Ireland teams over the last decade or so.  So trips like last week's to Portugal made a nice change by giving you the opportunity to bolt a holiday onto it and actually have a relaxed build up for once!  It's not the first time I've done it with previous trips to Malta, Cyprus and Salonika / Macedonia all providing the opportunity to do similar and as with the latter trip gave me the opportunity to bring the better half, Louise, away for a nice break before the serious business of the football takes over for the last couple of days!

We actually moved into holiday mode the night before we left by having a very nice evening at the gala dinner for the 125th anniversary of that great Dublin institution, the Bohemian Football Club at the Gresham.  However, given that we had a 7.45 flight to Lisbon the following morning, we made our excuses and left around 1.30 to try and get a few hours sleep before our 6 am taxi. A further oversight on my part meant that 20 minutes after I booked the flights I twigged that the Sunday we'd booked our flight for was an All Ireland Semi final day and my heart sank when I checked and found out that it was the semi that the Leinster champions would contest if they got that far.  Having resigned myself to missing the game in person I at least had the consolation of knowing that I could catch a stream of it as we were due to arrive at the friend's house that we were staying the first few days with outside of the the city of Coimbra at 1.30.  Our flight took off and arrived on time landing us in Lisbon at 10.35 which left us an hour to make the 3 stops from the airport to Lisbon Oriente to make our connecting train at 11.39.  Plenty of time you would think given that the board at baggage claim said that the first bags from the flight were due at 11.00.  However, 11 came and went as did the bags from the Heathrow flight that landed 5 minutes after us before our bags finally started coming through about 11.20.  And a sprint down to the underground and up through Oriente station ultimately was in vain as we arrived up on the platform just in time to see our train begin to crawl away from it.  Relaxation was the furthest thing from my mind at that point after we were told that the next train wasn't for another two hours meaning we wouldn't reach where we were staying until 4 at the earliest and the 3.30 throw in left me with the realisation that I'd have to miss the first half of the Dublin Mayo game!  Anyway, after a particularly long stream of expletives and a fruitless online search to find a pub in Coimbra that might be showing it, I had to accept that the first half would be missed and rang our esteemed host, Big Dave aka Geordie, to let him know we'd be 2 hours late for our pick up.

Having hung around for the extra couple of hours and then sat through a 2 and a half hour train journey, we were pretty tired by the time we got collected in Coimbra although we got a great boost by seeing our old friend, the aforementioned Geordie stride up the platform to greet us.  Having moved out to Portugal last year, his house has practically turned into a guest house with the amount of visitors from Dublin and beyond that have ventured over in the last 15 months!  We had previously visited last year and this year, he had one friend, Ray, leaving on the Monday morning, another one, Julie arriving at the same time as us and a further one, Richie arriving on the Tuesday!  By the time we arrived at 4, Ray informed me that the Dubs were level at half time and we settled down for the second half which again was far from relaxing as Dublin contrived to look like they'd put the game beyond doubt only to utterly blow up in the last 10 minutes and end up being lucky to hang on for a draw.  My initial happiness at thinking at least I'd make the replay soon evaporated as I realised that the replay would most likely be on the following Saturday when we were due to travel home.  Mind you, I was already missing the Dublin derby on the Saturday so I suppose at least it saved me having to chose which game to attend!

Anyway, once that was out of the way, we were finally able to fully embrace relaxation mode and had a great few days with Geordie, Julie and Richie taking in everything from shooting competitions with his air rifle, star gazing with his recently acquired astronomy telescope, visits to the city, swimming down the local river beaches on top of a couple of lovely meals out, a couple of great BBQ's soundtracked by some good tunes and great company.  Not to mention fueled by the local brew Sagres and some fine red wines!  Thursday rolled round far too quickly and we were sorry leaving the rest behind as we headed off for our 5 and a half hour train journey to Faro.  The sadness was obviously tempered by the fact that we were heading down to meet a different circle of great friends and even though the match was as close to a gimme as you can get in international football it was still something to look forward to.

Target practice for Gibraltar!

So we arrived in Faro on Thursday evening and having had a wander to get our bearings, found a lovely restaurant to get dinner and following that headed down to Pipers, a local Irish bar where that legend amongst the Irish traveling support of a certain vintage, Tommy Feeley, was celebrating his 60th birthday.  Once inside we discovered a cracking terrace bar on the roof and settled down with some of the regular traveling crowd,  Terry the Tash, McCoy, Pete and Pat for a catch up, a reminisce and some chat about the weekend's fixtures while the party raged downstairs.  All had agreed that Georgia doing us a favour against Scotland could turn things around big time for us but we were looking at that game more in hope than expectation.  Shared concerns over us getting the required result on Monday at home to Georgia were also expressed but before we knew it, it had gone past 2 am and with a big day in front of us on Friday we decided to call it a night.

Our original plan was to possibly head up to Albufeira on the Thursday night to catch up with some of the YBIG crew but Tommy's party had put paid to that idea so myself and Lou decided that we'd head up there before the game on Friday to check out the pre match atmosphere in the Erin's Isle pub where the YBIG meet up had been planned.  The place was thronged when we arrived with a DVD showing the best of the Charlton era on the big screen adding to the festive atmosphere.  We made our way through the crowd and found the Quinn towers with a few of their Newry crowd and said our hello's to a few of the usual YBIG stalwarts like Saint Tom, The GerK and Steve Amsterdam and spent the next few hours chanting and chatting and trying to see if we could blag our way onto any of the buses going out to the ground after being told they were all booked out on arrival. The buses were due to leave at 6 so we were able to catch the first half of the Scotland game before we would have to leave and at 5 the Glory Years DVD came off and the Georgia game came up on the big screen.  To be honest, myself and what seemed like most of the fans present were more nervous about this game than our own.  Georgia started pretty well and fluffed one great chance early on.  I hadn't dared hope that Georgia would do us a favour so couldn't believe it when they kept the pressure on and went one nil up before half time!  The roar that went up from the Irish support would have taken the roof off the Erin's Isle were we not in the open air courtyard!

Erin's Isle

It was the lack of a bus ticket that led us to meet up with another nice crew and again showed exactly why the traveling Irish fans are the best in the world.  While I was checking with one of the lads who was running the buses to see if we could buy tickets if there were any no shows, another fan overheard and said that he had a car going out with 2 spare seats in it and myself and Lou were welcome to jump in with them.  So while all the coaches began to pull out, we followed the convoy with our new friend, Gerard, a Limerick man now living in London who had traveled over with his son Conor and his nephew and designated driver, Laurence!  They were a sound bunch of lads and we arranged to meet them afterwards as they were in the opposite side of the the ground to us even though we had bus tickets back to Faro.  Our mood was improved further when confirmation came through as we were waiting to collect their tickets that Georgia had held on against Scotland for a 1-0 win which put our fate back in our own hands!

Our chauffeurs for the day!

And so onto the game itself.  As I mentioned earlier, these sort of games lack the tension of the majority of qualifiers as the result is essentially a foregone conclusion although as Irish fans,  the spectre of the 0-0 draw v Liechtenstein in 1995 always hangs over us.  The team selected by Martin O'Neill was an attacking one as would be expected  with the only real surprise being the selection of Cyrus Christie ahead of Seamus Coleman who was reported as having a tight hamstring.  O'Neill favourite Aiden McGeady couldn't really have expected to start given his lack of first team football at present and while there is an argument that Robbie Keane shouldn't start every game, it's exactly this sort of game that is suited to him these days and he is scoring week in week out in the MLS against teams far better than Gibraltar so it was a no brainer to start him in this game.

It was no surprise to see Ireland start on the front foot and after a couple of early corners the first real chance came around 5 minutes in when a good Robbie Brady free kick was well saved by the Gibraltar keeper at the expense of a corner which then amounted to nothing.  We kept the early pressure on although having seen Ciaran Clark hit the bar from a chance he really should have put away and then a Walters header into the net disallowed for offside we started losing our composure a bit and those unwelcome and unrealistic thoughts that it might be one of those games began when we reached the halfway point of the first half.  Thankfully, those thoughts were put to bed from the most unlikely of sources as Cyrus Christie waltzed through the Gibraltar defence following a one two with Wes Hoolahan and finished beautifully with the outside of his right boot to unleash a torrent of 'Let Christie take it!' gags on social media!  Ireland upped things again after that and nearly went two up within a minute after a superb strike from Jon Walters on the volley which the keeper did well to tip over but that increase of tempo didn't seem to last long and Gibraltar began to foray further forward and actually made Shay Given work with one decent save that got pushed away for a corner and a second comfortable save that was straight at him to be fair. Christie also had to clear one from under the bar as we got a bit sloppy.  Ireland finished the half huffing and puffing a bit with no real invention going into our set plays and I was disappointed to go into the half time break only that single goal to the good.

Let Christie Take It!

Having foregone a half time beer after discovering before the game that the only beer available in the ground was non alcoholic (I don't think the majority of fans realised it looking at the queue!), we settled back and waited for the second half to start hoping that O'Neill was giving the team a bit of a rocket during the break.  Although head to head trumps goal difference in this campaign, I'm never comfortable with a single goal lead regardless of the opposition so I wanted to see a bit more tempo at the start of the second to put the game beyond the part timers.  And so it came to pass with Keane having a very good shout for a penalty ignored in the first minute of the half before finally getting his chance with one of the easiest finishes he'd ever had to take his Irish tally to 66 goals.  It actually started with Christie involved again when he was caught in possession to leave Gibraltar in a three on two position before Walters saved his blushes by regaining the ball and bringing it forward before playing the ball across where a Gibraltar defender deflected it onto the post and off the keeper I think before rolling across the line where Keane was lurking on the far post to tap the ball in from no more than a couple of yards.  His celebration was no less extravagant than normal regardless of the simplicity of the finish and I think it's safe to say that he still loves scoring goals for Ireland!  

Route 66

The second goal essentially made the game safe and it was put beyond doubt two minutes later when Hoolahan was taken down in the box following some typical trickery and Keane stepped up to put away his 67th international goal from the spot.  Disappointingly, Ireland didn't use this as a platform to put the part timers to the sword as the pace of the game dropped to pre season pace and we seemed to resort to long cross field balls and hopeful punts in the box rather than continuing to pass the ball around and be more creative.  

The first subs came on around 70 minutes as Keane was withdrawn, and deprived of the chance to get his hat trick, with Shane Long entering the fray and James McCarthy who had again been very anonymous replaced by Stephen Quinn (whose name the stadium announcer seemed to have huge difficulty with altough not as much difficulty as he had pronouncing Richard Keogh!).  The changes initially didn't seem to change things too much with Gibraltar actually creating a half chance almost immediately which Brady did well to block but gradually we pushed further forward again with Walters putting a clear chance wide when he should have scored following a ball from Hoolahan which was his last input before being replaced by McGeady.  The fourth goal duly arrived with just over 10 minutes left when Long powered a good header (albeit a free one) home from a Jeff Hendrick cross but again we couldn't push on and get a fifth with the only chance falling to Walters who put a header wide when he really should have left it for Clark who was in a better position behind him.  As with the first half, the second petered out a bit before the ref blew up after 3 minutes stoppage time and we emulated Germany by posting 7-0 and 4-0 wins against the groups whipping boys.

Given the standard of the opposition it's hard to read too much into a game like that.  That said, Walters was impressive and everything that was played up to him stuck to him, Keane did what you'd expect of him, Hoolahan had flashes of creativity although also let the ball get away from him a couple of times.  Christie was a mixed bag for me, took his goal exceptionally well and defended well although his first touch left a lot to be desired on a couple of occasions which could be costly against better opposition.  That said, he got forward well on a few occasions as did Robbie Brady on the opposite flank, particularly early on.  Whelan did what Whelan does, Hendrick was okay without really putting his stamp on the game but McCarthy was very disappointing for me and still lacks the desire to demand the ball that his ability calls for.  I was delighted to see Long get on the score-sheet and hopefully his confidence will build from this and the Poland goal and he can start being more prolific for us as Keane's career winds down.  O'Shea and Clark weren't really tested and neither was Given bar the two aforementioned first half saves.

Regardless of the performance the result was what really mattered and having met up with Gerard, Conor and Laurence again we headed back to Faro and met up with the others on the rooftop terrace in Pipers again before heading off for some Tapas at a lovely place called Bottle and finishing about 3 with a glass of wine on the marina.  Like I said at the start these trips tend to have a different dynamic than the normal away trips with the lads!  After taking a bit of time to explore the old town on the Saturday, we made for the airport and our flight home, during which a perfect weekend of results was confirmed with Bohs securing a draw away to Rovers in Tallaght just before take off and the pilot announcing that the Dubs had won with a storming comeback to secure their All Ireland Final place.  The trip itself finished on a bit of a bizarre note when a huge crowd came out to greet us at the airport! Although maybe that had something to do with Conor McGregor arriving back on a flight just in front of us.......


Obviously the big results were elsewhere in the group with Georgia's result against Scotland being absolutely huge for us.  A win tonight against Georgia and then we only need to match Scotland's results against Germany and Poland to be sure of a play off.  And Germany's win against Poland only leaves us 2 points behind them meaning that if we can stay within 3 points of Poland when we get to Warsaw that game becomes a winner takes all clash for automatic qualification.  But let's not get ahead of ourselves, in general I thought the performance v Gibraltar was poor enough and will need to be improved on to beat Georgia.  But on the positive side, we've been handed a lifeline that none of us really expected.  Now let's push on tonight and use it!