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!!