Friday, 24 June 2016

Don't Take Me Home, Please Don't Take Me Home….

Don't take me home, please don't take me home, I just don't wanna go to work! I wanna stay here, And drink all your beer! Please, please, please don't take me home! The refrain of the Euro's so far has been ringing around the host cities as the group stages of the tournament reached their business end and after listening to the England, Wales and Northern Ireland fans singing it over the previous few days, it was our moment of truth on Wednesday night.

As has been the norm with this tournament, the sheer size of France has meant that different groups of us have taken different routes and stopovers on the way. This meant that myself and Lou had left Bordeaux on Sunday morning along with Terry the Tash and a handful of London Irish for a two day stopover in the very nice city of Tours.  Leaving Bordeaux had been pretty non eventful, bar the obligatory customer service debacle at check out when the girl who'd been looking after the apartment rental arrived to check we hadn't trashed the place and on discovering that we hadn't, then revealed that she'd forgotten to bring back our €300 security deposit.  Cue a number of frantic phone calls on her part and a 15 minute wait outside the door before a colleague sped up on a bike with cash in hand!  Luckily, we'd given ourselves a good bit of time to make our train so no harm done.

On sitting down in the carriage, I noticed Borussia, another YBIG stalwart on the train, who I'd met on numerous trips previously, lastly in La Rochelle,  so it was good to see there'd be a good crew up for a bit of craic over the couple of ‘rest’ nights in Tours.  As it happened, we were all staying in the same hotel, a fairly basic Ibis budget but as those hotels go, this one was pretty decent.  Clean and comfortable with an en suite and decent wifi so all good.  Once we'd dropped our bags off  we took a wander down to the old town where we found an ‘Irish’ bar called The Pale showing the Tipp v. Limerick Munster hurling semi so we settled in there for a couple of surprisingly decent pints of Guinness before moving up to the main square for dinner with Borussia and his crowd. The weather was decent and there was a good buzz with the locals as France were playing their final group game v. Switzerland that evening and a few of the bars and restaurants had TV's turned to face the square where people had gathered to eat. Unfortunately, the game did little to enhance the atmosphere as both sides played out the nil all draw that ensured the Swiss would join the French in the next phase. France had done enough to top their group and the hope that everyone had was that Italy, having already topped our group, would take a similarly lacklustre approach to our game on Wednesday.

Once the game was over, we decided that we'd head back to The Pale to try and cheer Shane Lowry on to a maiden Major victory in the US Open but unfortunately the wheels had started to come off that particular bandwagon by the time we got back there. The pub had gotten packed with Irish fans since we'd left and there was a real party atmosphere going on with the Shane Long chant being changed to “Lowry’s on fire! Dustin Johnson’s terrified!” but as Shane's putter was anything but on fire on the back 9 it was clear fairly soon that his challenge was unravelling quicker than our defence had the previous day. The one bright moment came when the Korean American golfer, Kevin Na, was lining up a putt and as soon as his name came up on screen, the entire pub stopped for a second as if to say “Are you thinking what I'm thinking? “ and simultaneously burst into a chorus of ‘“Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na! “! By the time Lowry was walking up to the 17th tee, it was clear his race was run but it still would have been nice to see the end of the round. However, in time honoured French service industry fashion, once the clock struck 2 am, the bar staff insisted on turning off the tellies and moving everyone onto the street despite our pleas for a last ten minutes to watch the finish!  A disappointing end to a disappointing weekend for Irish sport and I've not even mentioned the egg chasers.

Monday morning in Tours brought rain which pretty much stayed down for the day.  Despite this, myself and Lou used the day for a bit of sightseeing and relaxing. A nice 3 course meal in a really good local restaurant and the second half of the England and Wales games was enough for us before grabbing an early night in advance of what we knew was likely to be a couple of hectic days in Lille. As with La Rochelle, Tours was a lovely place to visit and a bit more time would have been nice but there were more important things ahead and by the time we got off the train in Lille and out to our airport hotel, it was time to put the game face on again!

Even though it was only Tuesday at this stage, there was a bit of a Friday feel to the city by the time we arrived in.  The Tir Na Nog was the Irish bar that had been designated as the unofficial meeting point and there was already a decent crowd and good atmosphere outside when we arrived.  It's generally been our modus operandi to check out the meeting place first to get our bearings before moving outwards to find slightly quieter bars and squares and after a swift Guinness in Tir Na Nog, we got a call from Gary and Lina, who'd been with us in La Rochelle, saying that they'd found a spot outside a local bar about 5 minutes away.  There was an army of green moving towards the square Tir Na Nog was situated on by then. So after grabbing a pizza in a proper old school Italian take away, where, in contrast to pretty much everywhere else, the proprietor was determined to serve as many people as possible and make as much cash as he could, we headed over to Gary and Lina for the second half of the Northern Ireland game.

Once we arrived, we sent the address around to the rest of our crew that had landed in Lille by then and before long, the Brummies, Quinn Towers and various others had arrived and we had some good old craic watching the North somehow hold out against a German onslaught to only lose 1-0 and then see their qualification confirmed as the Czechs were beaten by Turkey and Croatia produced a great performance to come from behind and beat Spain 2-1.  I'd said from the off that 3 points with a neutral goal difference should be enough to qualify but it was ourselves rather than the North that I had expected to get that total.  Congrats and hats off to them but it certainly ramped up the pressure on our boys to at least go as far as them for the bragging rights on the island we call home.  With Wales and England already through, and surprisingly finishing in that order in their group, it would have been hard to take being the first of the four neighbouring teams to exit.

A call from Steve Amsterdam saying that his crowd had now touched down at Tir Na Nog brought us back up that direction and there were further reunions with more of the La Rochelle crew.  The chanting and singing had got going by now and while it was rowdy enough, the sheer carnage that was visible in Paris and Bordeaux wasn't on display here.  It wasn't long before the Tir Na Nog closed it's bar (again, no late licences?) but a few of the boys had found another open bar called After Hours so we headed down there to finish the night.  The travelling had taken it's toll a bit at this stage so by about 3, myself and herself decided to bail back to the hotel. We had seen a few taxis in town when we arrived and out by the airport so had hoped to be able to flag one handy enough but as with Bordeaux this proved a problem. And the problem was exacerbated by the fact that, unlike in Bordeaux, we were stuck out in an airport hotel due to the lack of available accommodation in the city centre. After about 20 minutes of wandering, I hit on the idea of ordering an Uber. But our second problem was that neither of us have been able to get 3G coverage over here so we couldn't get onto the app! By chance we spotted a shisha pipe smoking bar with a wifi sign on the window so chanced our arm on going in to use it. I got chatting to the guy running it and tried to explain that we'd happily buy something to smoke if we could use the wifi to order an Uber. Despite my lack of French and his lack of English, I thought I'd made myself understood but next thing, instead of producing a pipe, he arrived back with another guy and said this guy would take us back for €40!  We'd been told by a few lads at the hotel that it was between €16 and €20 for an Uber to the hotel when they'd used it and our taxi in earlier had been €22 so the haggle had to begin with us offering €20 before we finally agreed on €30! This didn't stop the driver trying to renegotiate on the drive out but needless to say, he didn't get very far with that! Anyway, we had a bit of a laugh with him and he got us home in one piece so all ended well! One more sleep till Gameday 3.

Considering what was at stake, I'd had a nervy night's sleep but, given the 9 pm kick off didn't want to head into the city too early. However, by half one we were going a bit stir crazy so ordered a cab in which we shared with another couple of lads from the hotel. One of the best thing about trips like this is the sense of camaraderie between total strangers and we'd a good old natter with the boys on the way in.  Another is the friendships you build with those that travel regularly and, as we walked up to the square, we bumped into Saint Tom heading the other direction, had a quick catch up with Borussia as he was queuing for a steak, met my old pal from Bohs, Matt and then met another pal, Bradley on the square itself!  We had planned on meeting up with the gang at Place Charles de Gaulle but in the meantime had got a call from my Da and his mates who were grabbing food down the road by the train station. As they were heading back to their hotel before the match, we wandered down to find them in a packed cafe where they'd been waiting an hour for their food.  We sat down beside them and tried to order food only to be refused because it was now 10 seconds past 3 and they stopped lunch at 3! Wouldn't even do us an omelette!  As we were famished by now, we nipped into the first place we found across the road, got a beer and asked for the menu. Amazingly, the service was actually pretty decent so before long we were fed and watered and I'd given Da and his crew a nod to come and join us when they were finished. There were a few Italians over beside a group of Irish fans who asked me to get a pic of them all.  Maybe it was a sign of how things were going to turn out later but it was funny to see that the Italians were drinking beer and the Irish lads drinking wine when I took the photo!

The place was starting to fill up when Da and Co. joined us and we had a great couple of hours swapping stories of how our trips had gone since Bordeaux. Although Da has been on a good few of the qualifier trips over the years, this was the first tournament since US 94 that we've both been on so it was great to spend a bit of time with him in the tournament environment.  And, speaking of US 94, I had realised the previous day that I had with me the very shirt I was wearing in Giants stadium when Ray Houghton scored the winner v. Italy on that famous day so had made the suitably superstitious decision to dust it off and stick it on for today's game. Luckily, mid 90’s football shirt design was the baggier the better so fitting into it wasn't a problem!  And as I was wearing a suitably 90’s green baseball cap backwards in 94, it was only right that the look be topped off with similar. Unfortunately, there was no potion available to magic my hair back but I don't think I carried the look too badly given the 22 years that have elapsed since! Or more likely I looked a fool but what the hell! 

It was now about 5:30 in the evening so there were still a few hours to kick off by the time we moved back to the square. The place was thronged by now with flags and green shirts everywhere. The fountain was overflowing with suds after someone had put washing up liquid into it which was giving off a bit of a foam party vibe and there were footballs being kicked everywhere as thousands of Irish and a few Italians milled around, chatting, laughing and chanting. The Italian support generally don't tend to travel in numbers as they're always confident of progression to the latter stages of tournaments so there were literally hundreds if not thousands of Irish fans to every Italian around and the closer it got to kick off the more the atmosphere built.  By the time it came to get the train out to the ground, there was a huge gang of us with the whole Amsterdam crowd, the Brummies, the Quinns and their pal Conor all in tow. We all headed to the metro with chants of Allez Les Verts from any of the locals we came across but our merry band was broken up pretty quickly when we got to the metro and the usual shambolic security.  Most of us were held on the top of the stairs despite the platform being empty below and in the resultant push to get on the train when it finally arrived most of us ended up in different carriages.  Regardless, the buzz on the train was quality and we bellowed out everything from the usual McGrath and Breen chants to the newer John O'Shea's a legend and Shake it up Brady chants from this campaign.  The carriage was rocking by the time we got to the nearest stop to the stadium and on the 15 minute walk up we bumped into a few of the gang again and a few we hadn't seen earlier including our Bosnian friend, Braveheart, who'd been such a help to YBIG when we were in Sarajevo.  Despite losing the play off, he's been travelling around France for the tournament and it was great to catch up with him before the game. 

As we were queueing to get in, the word came through that Iceland had got a late winner v. Austria and Portugal had failed to beat Hungary meaning that, should we win, we'd be facing France down in Lyon.  While I would have preferred to play Croatia in Lens, which is only about 20 odd miles from Lille, there is something special about playing the host nation at a major tournament. Add in the small matter of a chance for revenge for the famous Thierry Henry handball in the World Cup play off in 2009 and, if the team needed any further motivation to do a job on the Italians then this was surely it.  Although there was no discernable queuing system once again, we actually managed to get through easily enough and got in in time to get a good spot to hang the flag and be at our seats in plenty of time for the anthems.  We even had time to recreate the photo I'd had taken all those years ago in Giants stadium in front of the original 69ers flag!  Two of the lads who'd soldiered through Poland with us, Niall and Quirke were in the seats beside us along with Niall's Da and brother so there was a good crowd of us to roar out the anthem and share round the nerves before kick off. 

Martin O'Neill had been brave enough to ring the changes for this game as his captain O'Shea, Clark, Whelan and Hoolahan all made way for Keogh, Duffy, McClean and Murphy.  While I had worries about the fact that we were relying on a player up front who'd failed to score in 20 plus caps and if Hoolahan was to be rested, I'd have done so against Belgium but I was delighted to see Shane Duffy brought in for his competitive debut and the team was more attacking than the one which had been rumoured the previous couple of days. As expected, the Italian manager had rested 6 of the 7 players on yellow cards and made two other changes so it was a radically different side to that which had won it's first two games. While it was a concern that the players they'd brought in would be playing for a place in the last 16, the Italians have a reputation for only doing the minimum required in the group stages so it was still a comfort that they'd already topped the group regardless of results due to their earlier win over Belgium.  The fact that Buffon was rested was a huge bonus for us and as it's been a feature of O'Neill's reign that we've bounced back from poor results with good performances, I was hopeful we'd see similar again.  Before we knew it after the anthems it was time for the ridiculous new countdown from 10 to kick off and a huge roar came up from our end as it was game on! 

From the off, it was clear that in effort and application at least, this was a significant step up from the Belgium game. Although Italy had a little bit more possession early on and were first to get a couple of corners on the board, we were biting into tackles and making life uncomfortable for them. While we were tending to rely on long balls to Murphy, they weren't comfortable with that tactic and on 9 minutes, Murphy got on the end of a punt to knock it back to Hendrick who moved forward and hammered a left footed shot just over the top left angle of post and crossbar. This roused the crowd even further and our aggressive approach really seemed to be rattling the opposition. Our next real chance came on 20 minutes with what I think was our first corner when Murphy got a header to a Brady delivery forcing the the Italian reserve, Sirigu, to tip the ball over for another corner. Although the second corner came to nothing, there were encouraging signs that there was something for us in this game. 

I know all fans bitch and moan that referrees are biased against them but no one can deny that we've had a raw deal this tournament. Although Belgium deservedly beat us, had we been awarded what was a stone wall penalty when it was nil all, they may have panicked and it could have developed into a different game.  And similar was visible here, as first off Long got clearly shoved off the ball just outside the area without a foul being blown and then about 5 minutes later was taken out by what looked a forearm smash from Bonucci only for the ref to award a free out.  The confidence we were playing with was personified by Randolph in goals pulling off a Cruyff turn to leave Zaza looking a fool although it's never good for the heart to see a keeper try the likes of that!  

As mentioned earlier, it was a bonus that Buffon had been rested and his replacement was looking decidedly windy and not more so than when himself and Long got involved in some argy bargy 5 minutes before half time resulting in both betting booked.  Sirigu had shoved him in the chest and looked like he absolutely shit himself as Long responded by fronting up to him and roaring into his face which seemed to put the fear of God into him.  This ratcheted up the atmosphere another notch but that was nothing compared to 5 minutes later when Murphy played the ball into McClean who dropped the shoulder to get a shot off only to get barged in the back by Bernardeschi. Once again, it was as clear cut a penalty as you'll ever see and once again the ref didn't give it.  It's fair to say that the anger in our end at that end of the pitch was palpable and the remainder of the half was played out to a chorus of boos and whistles which only increased as the ref walked off the pitch.  Still, it had been a very positive first half for us but if the game was going to finish level then there's no doubt that that decision would have been the one pointed to above any other. 

My phone was buzzing with texts from home all through half time giving out about the penalty decision and so had everyone's around me so there was a real sense of injustice in our end as the second half began.  I always prefer when the team is attacking the goal we're behind and the support was determined to make a difference and suck the ball in if we could.  The team started the half in aggressive fashion again with McClean and Long getting stuck in from the off to give away a couple of frees.  But Italy were still creating little and although clear cut chances were at a minimum, we were still the dominant side.  Time seemed to be moving fairly quickly,  the heat under the closed roof of the stadium seemed to be getting more and more oppressive in the stands so I can only imagine what it was like on the pitch but the lads kept pushing on. Murphy went off for McGeady and as we entered the last 20 minutes I really started thinking that our lads were beginning to pay the price for the effort they'd put in.  The Italian keeper was still looking shaky and had flapped at a McClean cross but the Italians were getting more of a foothold and our hearts were in our mouths on 77 minutes as Insigne broke through and cannoned a shot off the post. Moments later O'Neill rolled the dice again and threw on Wes Hoolahan for McCarthy.  We were entering the last chance salon now. 

This seemed to reinvigorate us somewhat as we weathered a spell of Italian possession and Wes starting influencing proceedings.  But with 6 minutes to go, we were convinced our chance was gone.  Hoolahan had been played through on the right hand side of the box and found himself one on one with the keeper. It looked easier to score than not but he seemed to freeze for a second and placed his shot straight at the keeper!  He could also have played it to Long who was free in the centre so everyone in the stand seemed to look at each other and say that was the chance.  

That miss would have been enough for a lot of players to put their head down and hide but fair play to Hoolahan as he kept going and within a minute found himself back on the ball after we'd regained possession and McGeady played the ball out wide to him.  What happened next will go down in the annals of Irish football history along with Houghton's goals v. Italy and England and Robbie's equaliser v. Germany in Japan. Wes looked up and played a perfect ball into the centre of the box. Sirgiu charged out but he was never getting there before Robbie Brady who smacked a header past him and into the back of the net!  Well, what can I say about the scenes that followed! The mood of despair following the missed chance moments before changed to one of elation, relief, disbelief and whatever else you want to throw into the mix!  There's a famous line in The Italian Job where Micheal Caine says "You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!". Our Italian job nearly blew the bloody roof off!  I grabbed Louise and we bounced around grabbing anyone near us as we roared our heads off. I actually had to lean onto the back of the seat to try and regain my breath after about a minute of this with the heat in the ground.  Robbie Keane had been waiting to come on in a last throw of the dice just before the goal but this plan was immediately changed as Quinn came on for Long to shore things up.  My memory was flashing back to that night in Croke Park when Sean St Ledger had put us 2-1 up only for Italy to equalise straight after back in 2009 but back then, Italy needed the point to secure World Cup qualification whereas now they had nothing to play for.  Still, the clock suddenly seemed to slow down as we entered stoppage time and screamed for the final whistle.  We had one false alarm when Martin O'Neill mistook the ref's whistle for a foul for full time but moments later the whistle blew for real and that was that.  We were there! 

The celebrations in the ground were emotional to say the least and you could see what it meant to the players as they came down to acknowledge the fans as The Fields of Athenry rang around the stadium.  And when we did make our way out of the ground it was hugs and high fives all the way back to the train and on the train back to the city.  The security at the station even softened their approach as the one person who was insisting on thousands of us queueing to buy train tickets was overruled by a supervisor who just told us to get on the train and get back to the city. 

When we arrived back at Lille Flanders and came up the escalator onto the concourse the scenes that greeted us were just incredible.  The entire balcony had Irish flags draped over it as thousands of Irish supporters bellowed out The Fields once again. I've seen some of the videos since but even they can't capture the joyousness on display, it really was emotional.  We made our way back to meet some of the others at the square where most of the bars had already closed but got a heads up from the Quinns who'd found a bar called Crazy Lounge open about a ten minute walk away so the gang of us made our way there to hook up with them and spent the next couple of hours just soaking in the atmosphere.  To be honest, I was that drained after the game and the heat that by around 3, myself and Lou decided to grab some food and on finding everything closed, cut our losses and made our way back to the taxi rank to get back to the hotel and crash. The walk back was class as we serenaded every fan we met with our new "Hey, Robbie Brady, Ooh Ahh, I Wanna Know Oh Oh, How You Scored That Goal!" and it was clear the craic would be ninety till the morning but with plans to make tomorrow, it was time to leave it to the youths! 

You have to give immense credit to the management and the team for the way they bounced back from the Belgium defeat and the fact that Italy had nothing to play for shouldn't take away from that.  The game had to be won and they did it.  And while we may not score many goals, we've now beaten the World Champions 1-0 in a must win game in qualifying and done the same to another traditional powerhouse in Italy.  We've consistently fought to the end and scored numerous late goals to prove it.  The team goes on to the end and so do we!  Lyon, here we come!  France, we owe you one! 

Monday, 20 June 2016

Bordeaux? Bordeaun't More Like....

Unfortunately, we just couldn't come up with a performance to match the beauty of the city and it looks an uphill task to progress from the group at this stage.  A combination of Belgium's poor performance against Italy, rumours of discontent in their camp and a hope that we could build on our first 50 minutes against the Swedes had led me to think we could possibly take a point away from Bordeaux but our limitations were ruthlessly exposed by a Belgian side who clicked to devastating effect in the second half.

The after effects of Paris had been treated by a great few days in the picturesque port town of La Rochelle where an estimated 1,500 Irish fans had gathered for some rest and recreation before moving en masse to Bordeaux.  Myself and a good YBIG crew had wined and dined from Tuesday till Friday and my better half had arrived on Thursday to join the ranks of the green army for our final two group games.  After ten of us had a final meal out on Thursday, myself and Louise spent Friday morning getting a nice breakfast by the port and exploring the town before we got an afternoon train down to Bordeaux where we had an apartment rented for the next two days.  As the other lads I'd travelled with had spent an extra night in Paris, we got in touch with them as soon as we arrived and arranged to meet outside The Connemara, an Irish bar that seemed to have been designated the congregation spot for the weekend. A call from my Da, who had arrived over for the last two group games with a gang of his mates meant that we stopped off at a bar beside the fanzone en route to meet up with them and there was a huge crowd gathered there already.  That end of the town was dominated by the Belgian support but there was a great atmosphere between both sets of fans, although the Belgians were definitely winning the chanting battles there!  However, that all changed the further down the town we moved as the numbers in green swelled and by the time we got to The Connemara, there were very few Belgian colours to be seen and the street was swarming with thousands of Irish fans, chanting and dancing with the usual abandon and making as much noise as possible.

Although the tournament has gone off without a hitch so far, it has to be said that there does seem to be a bit of a laisee faire attitude in terms of organisation from both the organisers and the service industry. Taxis seem to be practically non existent and getting served anywhere there's a huge crowd gathered is nigh on impossible.  I'm amazed that bars and cafes in certain areas haven't put on extra staff to deal with the demand as they're missing out on an absolute fortune. This has resulted in the majority of fans hitting the supermarkets for carry outs and drinking out on the streets. Given how many Irish fans travel to tournaments and given the scenes outside the Moulin Rouge over the couple of days either side of the Sweden game I'm also amazed that there have been no portaloos installed anywhere that big crowds are gathering. Despite the self congratulatory coverage our support has been getting in the media back home, this again resulted in hundreds of lads urinating on the nearest wall they could find and while the levels of mayhem were not as full on as in Paris, it wasn't pleasant to be consistently avoiding pools of vomit and urine in addition to the broken glass strewn everywhere. Although I'm a bit long in the tooth to be in the thick of the crowd leading the chants these days, it's been a different level of madness over here and while there's no malice involved,  the level of messiness with the drink is beyond what I've seen at any tournament before.  I have to say the media coverage at home has gone over the top as well, we've always behaved impeccably at tournaments before but the reporting on web sites of how great we are seems to bear the hallmarks of click bait and in the same way that the social media culture seems to be encouraging lads to try and out do each other in the bravado stakes, the media seem desperate to produce the story that proves that our fans are even sounder than they were the previous day.  It's a bit tiresome at this stage and the old adage about self praise being no praise is ringing true.
Due to all the above we found a spot far enough away from the main crowd to avoid the worst of the messiness and after an aborted attempt to order a Guinness in The Connemara, settled for drinking a couple of cans with the rest of the gang.  All 7 of the lads that are the season ticket holders for the home games with me were over for the trip and although Frank, Greg and Philly were with me in Paris, this was the first time the 7 of us had met up so we had a good bit of craic catching up with how we'd got on so far.  There was a Pizza Hut around the corner which seemed to be doing a roaring trade judging by the amount of Pizza Boxes on display so myself and Louise headed that direction for a bite to eat but instead found a really nice Brazilian restaurant and decided to stop there for a slap up meal.  Funnily enough, we got chatting to a couple of lads at the table next to us from Swords who knew a few of the lads we know from out that way proving that regardless of how far away you go you really have to mind your p's and q's!

After we'd eaten we rejoined the rest of the gang but by the time we'd finished the wine we'd brought over from the restaurant the heavens opened and after sheltering for about half an hour decided to make a break for home. Had there been any taxis on the streets they'd have made a fortune but again there were none to be spotted so we trudged home sheltering where we could.  We even stopped in another restaurant / bar but after sitting for 20 minutes waiting  for the drinks we'd ordered, we got tired of it, just left it and trudged the rest of the way home through the rain.  Another example of the lack of customer service that's been prevalent on the trip so far!
After a good night's rest we got on the road relatively early (well, at noon anyway!) and met up with a few of the gang on the far side of the fanzone after the obligatory dive for shelter from another torrential downpour to make our way out to the ground.  The trams were packed with fans of both teams and there were chants being swapped back and forth as we tried to ignore the fact that the amount on board meant that it felt like we were travelling in a sauna!  The stadium was a fair distance out from the city so by the time we got off the shuttle bus from the terminus we had to make our way straight up to the gate to get in for kick off.  Again, the organisation at the ground left a lot to be desired and after a very poorly organised queue we finally got to the top to be searched only for Louise to be stopped and told she couldn't get I'm straight away as this was a men's queue and she'd need to get into a ladies one.  There had been no one directing people into any gender based queues after we'd had our tickets checked and despite the fact that the ladies queue was a couple of rows across, the female security officer on duty refused to search Lou and was insisting on sending her to the back to queue again. The girls who were queueing had no problem letting Lou go ahead of them but the guard was having none of it and was taking a real jobsworth stance.  I tried to get back and argue the point but the male guards wouldn't let me across the cordon and were insisting I move on. After hanging around for about ten minutes, Louise shouted over at me to head on in as we were nearly at kick off time. The delay meant I missed the anthems and I was livid with the lack of commonsense on display by the time I got to my seat.  Surely it would make more sense to have indiscriminate queues with a number of female guards ready to step in to search the girls once they get to the top as would be the norm at any festival I've ever been to.  As it turned out, they finally let Lou through a couple of minutes later and she joined us about 3 minutes in.

So, onto the game itself. The team Martin O'Neill picked wasn't surprising given Jon Walters injury with Robbie Brady moved into midfield and Stephen Ward slotting into left back.  But the Belgian team looked a stronger one than had capitulated against Italy. I've been impressed by Carrasco for Atletico Madrid so was nervous about him starting and the fact that Kevin de Bruyne had been moved into his central position also concerned me. I was also sorry that Fellaini had dropped to the bench as I felt that his presence generally means that Belgium play more directly which would have suited us.  To be honest, we were on the back foot from the off.  There was a sign of things to come only 5 minutes in when Brady left a pass short and a quick Belgium counter ended in Randolph claiming a Carrasco cross but the speed they moved forward at felt pretty ominus. It was pretty clear early on that we seemed to be set up for a nil all draw and our only out ball seemed to be long punts at Shane Long's head.  I said after the Sweden game that if we're playing it to Long that we need to be directing balls into the channels either on the ground or at waist height, giving the defenders a decision to make to either play the ball or try and turn. But we consistently pump balls in at head height which defenders are heading clear as Long tries to play on the shoulder and get in behind.  There's very little support coming from midfield and I don't think that asking Long to hold the ball up is playing to his strengths. The fact that we were consistently giving away possession almost as soon as we had it meant that we were under solid pressure and although a series of Belgian corners and frees led to nothing of consequence, I always felt that something was round the corner for Belgium.

That something seemed to have arrived on around the half hour mark when Carrasco knocked in the rebound after a Randolph save and the roar from our end when we saw the linesman's flag go up for offside was as good as it was going to get for us. All we created in the rest of the half was a free which Clark flicked on only for none of our attackers to gamble on it and when the half time whistle came it was a huge relief after seeing a final Belgium chance from an Alderweirald header cleared off the line by Hoolahan in the final minutes of the half.
I'd hoped that Martin O'Neill would put a rocket up the players behinds during the interval but what happened within the first few minutes of the second half meant that anything he said went out the window anyway.  A rare Ireland foray forward ended up with another high ball in towards Long.  Regardless of our poor first half performance, the ref certainly hadn't helped with a number of free kicks not being awarded, a very harsh Hendrick booking and every 50/50 decision seemingly going Belgium's way.  But he excelled himself here as Long rose to head the ball and was caught from both the front and the back by high boots from Alderweirald and Vermaelen.  Everyone has seen the pictures by now and it was a stonewall penalty in my opinion.  Our entire end rose as one to appeal it but inexplicably, the ref waved play on.  Immediately, Belgium broke as Long lay on the ground and worked the ball to De Bruyne who then teed up Lukaku who skillfully bent the ball beyond Randolph into the back of the net.  It was a real double whammy and there's a further argument that, even if he wasn't awarding a penalty, the ref should have stopped play for the head injury to Long. Obviously, all that matters not,  as the ref's decision is final but it meant that our tactic of playing for a nil all was out the window.  The question now was whether we could change tack.

It didn't take long to realise that we couldn't and after that all we could muster was a speculative shot from Whelan and a couple of set plays that came to naught, we found ourselves two down on 60 minutes.  Belgium played the ball around us and into the right hand channel with ease, Munier pinging in a cross and, with our defence caught napping, Axel Witsel had a free header which he powered downwards into the goal.  Given that our average goals per game total was around the one mark in qualifying excluding the Gibraltar games, I held out no hope that we could somehow get two in half an hour against a team of Belgium's quality and it was no great surprise that when another goal came it was against us rather than for us.  A hopeful ball out of the Belgian defence from an Ireland attack on 70 minutes looked like it was going out before bending to stay in play by the right touchline just beyond the halfway mark. Hazard looked like he was unsure whether to go for it or not but his mind was made up when he saw Clark charging at it like a headless chicken and once Clark had totally mistimed his slide and missed the ball completely, he scampered down the wing, squared it to an unmarked Lukaku who calmly swept the ball home.  3-0 and now it was simply a case of whether this could overtake the Spain defeat of 4 years ago as our worst major championship defeat ever.

As it happened, Belgium seemed unconcerned about trying to utterly embarrass us by this stage and seemed to settle for the three goal victory as their fans enjoyed some synchronised arm waving which seemed to sum up how easy it was for them by now.  The game petered out amongst a rash of substitutions, none of which ever looked like having a positive impact for us and it was almost a relief when the ref blew for full time.  As usual, the fans stayed to applaud the players as they came down to acknowledge our support but there wasn't one player who could have been happy with their performance and it was a very deflated fanbase that left the stadium.

I'd arranged to meet my father after the game and given that one of our lads was still on crutches and there was a huge crowd looking to get out of the area, we decided to head back to the bar in the hotel that Da was staying in to pick through the performance and kill a couple of hours before hitting the city.  Once again, the abysmal customer service was on display once we got to the bar as their draught beer taps were all dry and they'd resorted to selling 330ml cans at a rate of €105.60 for a crate of 24!  I mean, apart from the fact that they were utterly fleecing us, who the fuck came up with a price of €105.60?!  Had they charged a flat €100 or even €110, people would have paid it but by insisting on the 60c, it meant that the time it was taking to count out change led to the queue getting bigger and more annoyed and the hotel themselves were missing the chance to make more money by not applying a bit of commonsense!  I finally went splits on a slab with the lad beside me and the 6 of us went out to the beer garden with our 2 cans each to disect the game.  A trip to the restaurant across the road fared little better as we waited for 40 minutes for our drinks order to arrive and a further half an hour for our meal by which point we were so hungry we'd almost forgotten how pissed off we were with the result.  A second generation couple over with their two kids from Derby were enduring a similar wait but we had a good chat with them and it's always nice to see another generation of Irish fans born abroad coming through the ranks and staying in touch with their roots.

Once we'd been fed we headed back into the city to meet up with a few of the others and said our goodbyes to Frank, Greg and Philly who were heading back home as they were skipping the Italy game having planned to come back for what now looks like an unlikely last 16 game.  Myself and Lou hung out around a nice bar called L'Apollo on a little square away from what was undoubtedly going to be carnage up by The Connemara.  As previously mentioned, spending hours dancing around like a loon is not how I want to spend my time after any defeat, let alone one like that but each to their own.  As it was, I bumped into a good few of the Bohs / Drumcondra crew who were over for that game and we had a good bit of craic despite the defeat before calling it a night around 2.

So, the question now is where does this leave us?  The only positive is that Italy have already topped the group and have 7 players on yellow cards so should make significant changes to their first XI.  On the negative, the players they have coming in will have a point to prove and will be looking to stake a claim for a starting place in the round of 16. The win against Germany proved that anything can happen in football but let's not forget we were under the cosh for the first hour of that game so it wasn't indicative of us being able to match their quality.  And while I think it's simplistic to point to how the North and Wales have done (Ukraine and Slovakia are nowhere near the quality of Belgium and there's no reason we wouldn't have picked up a win in an easier group), there are legitimate questions to ask of our tactical approach in comparison to our neighbours.  And that's not even getting into the debate about our grassroots football culture and development which is light years behind mainland Europe.  For all the criticism of the performance on Saturday, there is an argument that we don't have the talent to qualify out of a group such as this one or the one 4 years ago but I'll keep the post mortem until we exit the tournament whenever that may be.  We're moving on to Tours for a couple of days before making our way to Lille the day before the game where we'll hope for a miracle. As predicted, we're already rueing the 2 dropped points v Sweden but hopefully it'll be immaterial.  The illogical optimism of the football fan is already kicking in!  COYBIG!!

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Bitter Swede

When it comes to tournament football, we don't really do wins. From our 19 games before yesterday, only 3 have been victories with England in 88, Italy in 94 and Saudi Arabia in 02 the only numbers under the W column. We do however seem to love draws with 1-all appearing with surprising regularity and so it proved yesterday with Sweden following Russia (88), England (90), Holland (90), Cameroon (02), Germany (02) and Spain (02) onto the list. And although there are definitely positives to be taken from the performance, it was hard not to feel a bit deflated at how we surrendered the initiative once we scored from a position of complete dominance.

The 72 hours before we left had been a little fraught, to say the least as we were due to fly with Air France on the Sunday and their pilots strike meant that there was a good chance our flight would be cancelled. And when the equivalent flight on Saturday morning was cancelled 24 hours before it was due to fly it's fair to say that a little bit of panic kicked in. I spent what seemed like half of Friday on hold in the Air France system attempting to work out a re-route but as the flight had yet to be confirmed as cancelled the only alternatives available were with the airlines affiliated to Air France such as KLM. And all of their flights from around Europe to Paris were fully booked. Eventually we managed to get a provisional booking on a flight to Amsterdam with KLM with an Air France connection to Paris. While we knew that the connection was likely to be cancelled, I also knew that Steve Amsterdam was running buses from his Molly Malone bar in the Dam so if worst came to worst we could hook up with them for the 6 hour bus ride. A quick call to him to confirm there was space and at least we had a contingency plan in place. Saturday was spent refreshing the Air France website on my phone every 10 minutes to see what the latest news with their schedule was. Although the flight wasn't showing as cancelled on the system all day, it was still a huge relief when finally, at around 7 in the evening, a notice came up stating they'd finalised their flight schedule for Sunday and we were definitely flying! Having been on the phone all day to the lads discussing our options, we were finally able to put concrete plans in place to meet at the airport at 7 on Sunday morning!

A 6am alarm is never a pleasant thing but it's tolerable before a big trip so I was able to drag myself up and Louise was good enough to drop me out to the airport where Frankie, Philly and Greg were waiting along with an army of green clad supporters. Bags were checked in and a couple of early roasters were acquired to set the tone and before we knew it, it was flight time. Given the drama of whether the plane would go or not, it was nice to have an easy uneventful flight and having touched down in Paris, we hopped a taxi to our rented apartment. Unfortunately, on arrival we discovered that you couldn't check in until 4 so there was nothing for it only to find a local hostelry to kill a couple of hours and escape the rain! It was actually closer to 5 by the time we got moving again and after a couple of hours settling in, we headed down to Montmartre to catch the second half of the Northern Ireland game and try to meet some of the lads.
While Paris is a great city to visit, the sheer size of it means that it's not as ideal as other tournament host cities I've visited. Although there was a focal point where fans gathered by the famous Moulin Rouge windmill, a lot of fans were staying in different quarters around the city and while we were able to meet up with the Quinn towers and Niall (one of our travelling party from the last Euros), the likes of the Brummies and Terry the Tash's crowd had settled down closer to where they were staying. There were also a few cousins over that I was hoping to catch but the spread of fans around the city meant this was a forlorn hope despite our best intentions. After Philly and Greg bailed out early enough, it was left to myself, Frank, Niall and the Quinns to fly the flag and with things getting a bit messy with the huge numbers drinking on the street we found a spot around the corner that was a bit quieter and wasn't charging the extortionate prices that the bars on the main streets were. If Poland was a trip where you could hardly give away cash, then France is the other end of the scale altogether with pints (actually half litres) generally costing between €6 and €10 and even the on-street off-licenses took advantage of the demand by charging upwards of €3 a can. Not that this was stopping anyone, but it's fair to say that the Credit Union accounts will take more of a hammering than they did 4 years ago! The fact that the beer on sale was generally of questionable quality (and that's being generous) meant that by 2am we were starting to flag a bit and with Gameday 1 around the corner called it a night.

The butterflies in the stomach that I normally associate with a gameday were accompanied on waking with a reminder of the questionable quality of the previous nights’ beers but after grabbing an omelette in a cafe across from the apartment, we were raring to go. Although the same issues with lads staying in different parts of the city meant we wouldn't meet up with a lot of the gang until after the game, there was a huge crowd gathered at the Moulin Rouge strip and a huge carnival atmosphere with footballs being kicked everywhere and every tourist bus that passed being serenaded with Ole Ole chants. Mr. Tayto had even made an appearance and was wobbling through the crowd throwing out bags of cheese and onion to all and sundry! We found the Quinns and soaked up the atmosphere for a few hours before giving ourselves a couple of hours to get the train out to the ground. There was the usual craic on the train out, with plenty of songs and some good natured banter with the out-numbered Swedes that we came across. And by the time we got through the various security checkpoints and up to our seats, there were about 15 minutes to kick off.

I was fortunate enough to bump into a couple of the cousins and an uncle that I'd missed the previous night who happened to be in the same section of the ground as us, so had a quick catch up with them before heading back to my seat for the anthems. I'd say at least 65% of the crowd was dressed in green and while the intensity of Amhran na bhFiann might not have reached the levels of the opener v. Croatia 4 years ago, it was still a stirring rendition and a huge cheer went up halfway through as President Michael D. flashed up on the screen singing his heart out! And then, with the formalities over and a new OTT UEFA countdown from 10 to kick off finished, the real business was underway.

The team and formation Martin O'Neill had picked was the same as I'd expected, bar his selection of Ciaran Clark at centre half. When talking about it the previous day, I'd said that I'd pick Shane Duffy in there but there really isn't much between all 4 of our centre backs so I was happy with the line up. As hoped, Wes Hoolahan started at the tip of a midfield diamond and although I had concerns about Jon Walters’ fitness, I thought it was worth the gamble given his huge impact in qualifying. The rest of the team pretty much picks itself and the set up seemed to be justified as Ireland started the game in a very positive fashion. The first real chance fell to John O'Shea when a corner was flicked on by Clark, but O'Shea just couldn't stretch to get any touch on it when even the slightest contact would have resulted in a goal. It was eerily reminiscent of the same players’ chance in the same stadium v. France 12 years ago when he'd poked a late chance wide which would have won the game for Ireland on the day. But that first opportunity was simply the beginning of a purple patch for us as we took full control of the game. With Hoolahan pulling the strings and Jeff Hendrick having his best game in a green shirt, we began to create chances at will. Next up, Hendrick got on the end of a move and got a decent shot off but it was too close to the keeper to trouble him. Then Robbie Brady made a foray forward and skimmed the bar with a fierce drive. Better followed as Hendrick drove forward again, played a neat one-two at the edge of the box and hit a beautiful strike that had the keeper beaten all ends up but just didn't dip enough and instead of rippling the net the ball crashed back off the crossbar. What looked a potential foul in the box by Martin Olsson on Shane Long followed and, although possession was even enough, all the momentum and chances were with Ireland. As we reached half time it wouldn't have been flattering to be at least a goal up, if not two.

All the talk at half time was about whether or not we could keep up that level of dominance as we've had a habit under O'Neill of playing well for portions of games but not doing it over 90 minutes. This was the case in both qualifiers against Scotland, both games against Germany, the home game against Poland and away play off v. Bosnia. I had hoped that we'd put it to bed with our excellent home play-off game v. Bosnia and the early signs in the second half were good as we started it in the same manner as we'd finished the first with another chance coming Hendrick’s way and going begging before another attack would yield the best moment of the game. Seamus Coleman had gone on a run on the right wing and just when it looked like he was going to go past Emil Forsberg and ping a cross in from the dead ball line, he instead checked back, taking the defender out of the game and pulled the ball back to where Hoolahan was making his run about 15 yards from goal. Although the cross was onto his supposedly weaker foot, he read the bounce of the ball beautifully and caught it with his right foot just above the half volley. I can't emphasise enough how good the technique was to get his body into that position and manage to keep the ball down but manage it he did! As soon as the ball left his foot, it was only going one place. We were in the end behind that goal and had a perfect view as the ball arrowed past the keeper and nearly took the net off! And if the shot had nearly taken the net off, the roar that followed it nearly took the roof off the Stade de France! Everyone had been standing for the whole game in our section so when the ball flew in it was good old-fashioned pandemonium as lads and a few girls leapt across rows of seats in a mass explosion of emotion and celebration. It felt like all the pent up frustration going back to how poorly we'd fared in Poland had been released and the manner of the goal had just added to it. My heart felt like it was going to burst out of my chest and the guttural roar I'd let out pretty much knackered my vocal chords! Surely we could now push on and finish the Swedes off given how dominant we had been?

Unfortunately, as we now know, this was not to be the case. I don't know if the emotion from the stands got to the players, if the release they got from seeing the goal go in disrupted their focus or if the goal acted as a wake-up call for Sweden but almost immediately afterwards the pattern of the game completely changed. It can be easy to slip into a conservative mindset on the pitch when you have something to hold onto and throughout the campaign we have played better when we've either been at nil-all in a game or chasing a single goal deficit. This time, immediately after the goal, we started to sit back a bit deeper and suddenly the chances started to come at our end rather than theirs. Clark foreshadowed what was to come by miscuing a clearance which Randolph had to scramble to save. Forsberg shot wide and Zlatan put a shot past the post. A succession of corners had our defence creaking and our nerves were jangling in the stands as we hoped to weather the storm and see out the game. It wasn't to be. With 19 minutes left Zlatan, who had finally started to become more influential, got the ball wide on the left and having shaken off Coleman, managed to fire a cross across the box which the unfortunate Clark stooped to head into his own net as he attempted to clear it. It was a little harsh on him as he'd actually played quite well but I'd have to question if there was a need to play the ball given the pace on it and, if there was, if using his head was the correct choice with a Swedish player coming in behind him, he may not have got on the end of it but that's immaterial now.

Jon Walters had already exited the fray at this stage nursing the achilles injury that had been troubling him in the build up to the tournament and we'd seemed to lose our shape a little as James McClean came on and was drawn to his natural position on the left.  I thought he seemed to say to Hendrick to move further across but we definitely seemed a little congested in the centre at this point.  That said, immediately after their goal Hendrick managed to get a run at the Swedish defence from the right hand side only to over run the ball slightly and the chance was gone.  Other than what would be a stretch to even call a half chance from McClean that was it as an attacking force from us with Keane and McGeady not having much impact once they came on and as the game reached it's end, it was Sweden who looked more likely to snatch a win with another Zlatan shot flashing across the goal the closest they came before the ref brought proceedings to a close.

In the immediate aftermath my he main emotion was one of disappointment that we'd let such a commanding grip on the game slip.  As we left the ground we hooked up with most of the lads we hadn't managed to meet yet as the Quinns, Brummies, Karl and Caimin, Terry, McCoy, McGarry and the rest of the London crew and ourselves all hung around Saint Denis for a couple of beers and to analyse what we'd seen. Pretty much everyone shared the disappointment but at least we've got points on the board which is more then we managed in Poland and after Italy put Belgium to the sword later that night then we may have a situation where if Italy beat Sweden on Saturday they will have already qualified and potentially topped the group which may work to our advantage when we come to play them if they decide to rest players or take their eye off the ball somewhat.  Having gone into yesterday's game thinking it was our best chance of 3 points and really hoping for the win, I'd be happy enough with a draw v Belgium on Saturday provided Italy can beat Sweden.  It's still all to play for in any case and how Belgium react to their defeat will be huge.  They looked a team less than the sum of it's parts yesterday and a lot will depend on how we approach the game. I had originally thought that O'Neill would start Hoolahan v Sweden and possibly rest him v Belgium and play a more containing game.  But it would be a brave (or foolhardy) man to leave him out following Wessi's performance yesterday.  Still, a point from Belgium will keep us in the hunt and O'Neill's innate conservatism may sway him.

We wound up staying on in Saint Denis till the end of the Italy Belgium game and had a good bit of craic with the Swedish fans in the area with a few impromptu kickabouts going on outside and plenty of colour (including a Swedish Elton John lookalike) helping to bring us out of the disappointment somewhat. After sharing a taxi with a few lads (one of whom coincidently turned out to be a pal of mine's brother that I'd never met before!) back into the centre, we hung around for an hour or two before heading back to the apartment. It was good natured mayhem around the square but to be honest, I'm never in the mood for major celebrations when we've had a result I'm not happy with. While I've no problem with lads who are over for the craic and the session regardless of the result, for me it's about the football first and foremost, so I was glad to get out and home for a nightcap before we called it a night. As I write this I'm moving onto La Rochelle with a big crowd from You Boys In Green on Steve Amsterdam's bus and my better half, Louise, will join me in a couple of days before we head down to Bordeaux for Saturday's game. Unlike Poland, people are a bit more scattered around the country this time with Frank and the lads staying another night in Paris before hitting Bordeaux tomorrow and Tash, the Brummies and the Quinns heading to Biarritz and Bergerac respectively before we all get together again in Bordeaux. A win or at least a draw that feels like a win will do nicely!