A Greek Odyssey

Last month’s Europa League away trip was a real Greek Odyssey for Shamrock Rovers. The Hoops had to journey south to take on tonight’s opponents PAOK in Thessaloniki on the fringes of the Aegean Sea. It is a turbulent economic and political time in Greece. In Ireland, we can empathise with the Greek economic difficulties with the IMF now having a say in the running of both of our countries but Greece in particular is struggling to emerge from their country’s economic morass. This had an impact on Shamrock Rovers, as a general 48 hour strike was called by the Greek Trade Unions for the time Rovers were due to play in Greece. This included a plan by the air traffic controllers to close the country’s airspace. Would the Gods conspire to prevent Shamrock Rovers and our fans getting to Greece?

Thankfully the official Shamrock Rovers travelling party was able to make their way safely to Greece the day before the strike along with a small number of Rovers fans. The rest of us were facing the option of either cancelled flights resulting in having to watch the game on TV or looking at alternative routes to get to Greece. There was talk of ferries from Italy, flights to Skopje or Sofia. In order to make the game I, along with another 30 fans, booked new flights the weekend before the game flying into Sofia on match day with one fan organising a bus to get us to Thessaloniki for the game. The bus company were assured we were not football fans, as that seemed to be an issue with them, so I think the cover story was that we were a group of journalists or maybe religious pilgrims!

As it turned out the air traffic controllers only undertook a 12-hour stoppage so, with less than 24 hours notice, my flights to Thessaloniki through Stansted were back on. A group of seven Rovers fans having cancelled their original flights did travel to Sofia with their plan B seeing them fly to the Bulgarian capital and travel five hours south in a mini-bus over the border getting in at six o’clock on match night. Other fans were not so lucky with it turning into a Greek tragedy for them as they were stranded in Rome due to electrical storms and didn’t even make it to Greece.

The flight I was on out of Stansted the day before the game was only half full, no doubt due to the fluid situation with the strike. 50 or so Rovers fans were on the flight and, with public transport and taxis on strike on our arrival, we were all a bit unsure as to how we would get the 15km from the airport into the city centre. Some arranged private transport with their hotels while the airport police assured us that the airport bus still running but on a reduced service. After a 90-minute wait, eventually the bus did arrive to take us to into Thessaloniki.

It was a long build up to the game on match day. With the game kicking off at 22:05 local time due to TV, there was a lot of time to kill during the day. Hotel staff had warned guests not to stray to the north of the city centre where protests were held at the Arch of Galerius. The police were also visible on the notably quiet city streets. These streets had significant piles of rubbish littering them due to the local binmen being on strike. While in Athens, 50,000 protesters took to the streets with rioting leaving one man dead and 200 injured, alongthe seafront it seemed relatively relaxed in Greece’s second city. Many Thessalonikians seemed to be enjoying the strike by spending it in the many cafés and bars on the seafront. If you can’t beat them, join them, which is what the Rovers fans did. The locals were all very friendly when they saw our Rovers colours especially the fans of Aris, PAOK’s main rivals, who wished us all the best in the game! The only strife I saw during my three days there, was some people arguing over access to the comfy seats in the October sunshine outside one of the local coffee shops where inside customers played backgammon, monopoly and jenga; the last game maybe being a simile for the Eurozone economic crisis!

For the second consecutive away match on continental Europe, the Rovers fans were bussed into the game under police escort. 171 fans had made the trip and squeezed into the three buses for the journey to PAOK’s stadium with a police van front and back and motorbike riders stopping the traffic. The main PAOK fans group known as ‘Gate 4’ generated an incredible atmosphere during the game and especially ahead of kick off in the Toumba Stadium or ‘Black Hell’ as their fans sometimes call it. Three of their Ultra group made their way to the centre of the pitch. One with a giant tifo flag, another carrying a drum and the third with a large drumstick that he used to beat out an initially slow rhythm that the fans matched by clapping with their arms above their heads. For the time in between the slow drumbeats, the fans stood statuesque with their arms outstretched as if live TV had been paused. The rhythmic clapping gathered in tempo, building up to a crescendo as the two teams emerged from the tunnel area to AC/DC’s ‘Hell’s Belles’ playing over the PA.

There had been some mention of a protest ahead of the game to coincide with the general strike but the only visible protest to my eyes was a massive banner hung behind one goal saying “IMF – Get the **** out of here” but the PAOK fans could have been singing non-stop about austerity during the game but it all sounded Greek to me! The Rovers fans generated our own atmosphere during the game including singing a couple of songs slightly tongue in cheek in recognition of the economic situation. There may have been some sympathy with Greece in singing that there was “No surrender to the IMF” but whatever the result “The Hoops are having a party – and Greece are going bust”!

When the draw was made for the Europa League group stages, the games against POAK were the ones Rovers probably felt were our best hope of gaining a pointor a win worth that is worth 140,000 euro (40,000 more than winning the League of Ireland). No doubt, PAOK were looking for maximum points against us in their home game and they went at Rovers from the start. Rovers manager Michael O’Neill made a number of changes to his side facing PAOK, a team that was managed by another manager from Northern Ireland, Billy Bingham, in the mid 1970’s. Ryan Thompson returned in goal for Rovers in Europe after Richard Brush’s heroics in Rovers’ last Europa League game away to Spurs. But Thompson could do nothing when Romanian international Costin Lazar opened the scoring after 12 minutes with a fine shot from outside the box. Rovers were very disciplined in their performance with Karl Sheppard, in for the injured Gary Twigg, proving very effective as the lone man up front holding the ball up and bringing other players into the move. Billy Dennehy went closest in the first half with a shot that whizzed past the post which some Rovers fans thought had gone in.

The equaliser did come for Rovers early in the second half with Dennehy the provider. He won a free kick that he sent into the box which Karl Sheppard met with his head after 47 minutes for his ninth headed goal from the fourteen goals the twenty year old has scored in all competitions this season. The pocket of Shamrock Rovers in the stadium went delirious with some climbing the railings in front to celebrate. Parity lasted for a little over fifteen minutes. On a week of strikes in Greece, the 1-1 deadlock was broken by a fine strike by Vieirinha from outside the area. PAOK created a number of chances after that with Rovers also exerting considerable pressure forcing a late corner that unfortunately we couldn’t convert.

At the end, like in our last three European away games, the players and fans were applauded off by the home crowd. They recognised a spirited performance by Shamrock Rovers who managed to score against a Greek side that had only conceded one home goal in Europe in close to 600 minutes of play. Yes, it was another heroic Europa League defeat but the Hoops can learn from the defeat in the Toumba Stadium. The team can rightly be proud of their display as we reached the half way point of our Europa League group stage campaign.

It was after midnight by the time the Rovers fans left the ground and the talk in the pub later on was of how disappointed we were not to claim a point. It shows how far we have travelled as a club in recent years when this is the case. The talk and the singing soon turned to thoughts of two in a row and maybe more with the League of Ireland title within our grasp. Some words from Homer’s epic poem ‘The Odyssey’ come to mind of the post-match activities:

“The wine urges me on, the bewitching wine, which sets even a wise man to singing and to laughing gently and rouses him up to dance and brings forth words which were better unspoken.”

Published in Hoops Scene 22 (Shamrock Rovers v PAOK Salonika – Europa League- 3 November 2011)

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