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Going Dutch Groundhopping


As the Shamrock Rovers squad and supporters were taking in the pre-season trip to the Algarve with the Hoops in Atlantic Cup action, there were a few Hoops fans making a football trip of our own.

 

It is a long planned groundhopping football weekend to a country steeped in football history with our trip beginning in a castle, had us standing amongst the Rats and ending up in a tub – this is the tale of a football trip to the Netherlands.

 

Don’t worry we did go to see some of the architectural and cultural sights of Rotterdam but for this group of groundhopping nerds it was the chance to take in some of the Dutch football culture.

 

We began in Delfshaven, a part of Rotterdam that escaped the Luftwaffe bombing of the city in 1940 which destroyed the historic town centre. Built in 1916 Het Kasteel (or The Castle) is home to Sparta Rotterdam, the oldest professional team in the Netherlands. The ground held a couple of matches in the 1928 Olympics but only the Castle element of the ground with its striking two brickwork towers remain from that era.

 

It is as a case of following the floodlights to find the ground which is a short stroll from 18th century windmill amongst Delfshaven’s canals. The old school floodlight pylons aren’t in the corners of the ground, as they turned the pitch through 90 degrees in the late 1990s, and so the floodlights now sit outside the footprint of the stadium.

 

The club’s wonderful club crest stands out on the front of the main stand – a player in an old school red and white striped jersey controlling a ball. One of the club officials in the club shop when we call in is only delighted to not only open up the museum for us but give us an impromptu stadium tour.

There aren’t too many trophies in their trophy cabinet – their last league title was 1959 – but having been promoted back to the Dutch top flight in 2016 and with manager Dick Advocaat in charge they hope good times are on the way back.

 

We can see some European pedigree in the museum with mementoes from matches against Bayern Munich, Red Star Belgrade and even Coleraine – with a match poster on display from their 1970 UEFA Cup tie against the Bannsiders.

 

True groundhoppers wouldn’t really count our trip to the Castle as we didn’t get to see a game in the stadium. While the club official tries to coax us to stay and watch an under 21 game later that day, we have a train to Breda to catch.

 

 

Breda is a town 50km south of Rotterdam, just 10km from the Belgian border. That evening NAC Breda is taking on VVV Venlo at the Rat Verlegh Stadion – named after Antoon ‘Rat’ Verlegh who was involved with the club all his life in various roles (player, coach, board member).

 

The 19,000 capacity stadium is sold out most weeks and we aren’t far off getting the last three tickets available and all in different location in the ground. We arrive to collect our tickets as per the polite ticket office request 90 minutes before kick off. We were wondering why fans were queuing to get into the stadium already but with a large terrace up the middle of the stand behind the goal, this is where ‘The Rats’ or the vocal supporters like to stand and where we squeeze into.

 

The club has a link up with Manchester City, with six players in their squad on loan from City. Spaniard Manu García is one such player with the 20-year-old-playmaker central to all his side’s good play but he couldn’t prevent a 1-0 loss to Venlo.

 

The home supporters don’t seem to mind their team’s poor overall performance as they are focused more on getting the beers in. That could also be due to the fact that a drinks promotion means you get a free woolly hat with a purchase. I don’t pine for bringing back winter football towards the end of the game as the temperature dips below 4 degrees on a cold and wet night in Breda!

The main aim of our groundhopping weekend though is to see Feyenoord play at De Kuip. Their stadium is an old school venue colloquially known as ‘The Tub’, a short tram ride from Rotterdam city centre for us on Sunday afteroon. We are enjoying some fast food outside the ground when the convoy of coaches carrying the Den Haag away supporters drive by.

 

There is all this banging on the windows and when I look up, we are being given the fingers and others gestures as we are mistaken for home supporters! The coaches pull into a car park behind us with the fans walking through an enclosed bridge into the back of the stadium.

Our League of Ireland connection on this day is that Brad Jones is in goal for the home team. He spent some time on loan with Shelbourne back in 2001. The 51,000 venue was close to capacity for a game with Robin van Persie making his return to make a first appearance at home since re-signing for Giovanni van Bronckhurst’s Feyenoord side.

 

With additional ‘temporary’ seating close to the pitch below the permanent lower tier and with the overhanging roof, the venue has a vibrant atmosphere, helped by the strong home team performance.

 

We are at the back of the lower tier with the home fans in front spending much of the game taunting the away fans who are high above them. It is the Feyenoord fans who are singing at the final whistle with a 3-1 win as we filter out of the stadium having ticked De Kuip off our groundhopping bucket list.

 

Published in Hoops Scene 2/2018 Shamrock Rovers v Derry City

 

 

 

 

The Lost City – Trekking La Ciudad Perdida in Colombia

December 14, 2015 Leave a comment

They call it La Ciudad Perdida – the Lost City. Nestled in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria mountains, it is the ancient capital of the Tairona people – a city laid abandoned since the decimation of the indigenous population following the arrival of the Spanish in the early 1500s.

 

To find the Lost City is no easy task. Starting from the Caribbean coast just east of Santa Marta, South America’s oldest surviving city, it requires five days trekking to cover the mountainous near 50km round trip. As if that is not enough, there are 1,260 steps to climb on the penultimate day to reach Ciudad Perdida. Throw in trekking in high humidity with temperatures in the mid 30s, it is quite a challenge and one that our group of 14 others took on in the first week of December.

 

Our trekking group came together from Ireland, Finland, Belgium, Canada, the UK and USA, along with our three Colombian guides and our local husband and wife team who would provide the meals and the badly needed calories for the trek.

 

We were told to pack light and since we would be carrying all our own stuff that made sense. Which would be harder I thought – carrying our own gear or going off-grid for five days? There may be gold up there in them there hills but there wasn’t going to be any wifi!

 

An hours fourwheel drive away from Tayrona National Park, took us to the village of Machete Pelao. From there we began our trek and a half an hour in I’m already struggling in the heat. Thankfully, the trek will take us along the River Buritaca giving us the chance to swim in pools along the way and so it isn’t long before we cool off in the river.

 

There doesn’t seem much point in drying off after, especially as after yet another steep climb through the jungle, I’m already dripping with sweat again. I’m questioning whether it is really possible to sweat out this amount of liquid and am slightly reassured when I look at some of my travelling companions and like me, their clothes are stuck to them – so much for trekking tops that will wick away moisture!

 

“Better than work” is what I usually think when I’m on holidays but I’m daydreaming of a cool December day back in Dublin as the incline increases again. A couple of unofficial water stops and there is what I think is a life-saving official stop for watermelon with a great view across the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains below.

 

We go down into the valley to come back up and we’ve finally reached our camp for the night and it is a room with a view. The setting is on a ridge with some cloud touching the high mountains above and hanging in the adjacent valley below us. It is as picturesque a place as you can hang a hammock.

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During our candlelit dinner, the stars emerge to light up the night sky as does an electrical storm beyond the far valley. The mosquito net covered hammock provides a surprisingly good night’s sleep and the days exertions mean that even the snoring doesn’t keep me awake!

 

At 11 degrees north of the equator the sun rises quickly around 5.30am (having set sharply at 5.30pm the previous evening) and we stir from our slumber soon after for breakfast. By 7am we have left camp to try and beat the main heat of the day. The morning’s journey is broken by another rock pool swim and we cross the river by bouncy suspension bridge.

 

By now our group has split into a number of cohorts who are walking at different speeds. Conversion is plentiful during the downhill and the seldom seen flatter sections. The uphill pieces are played out to the sound of breathing and the tap-tap of the trekking poles.

 

By lunchtime we are in Camp 2 adjacent to a Wiwa village and are done for the day. The afternoon affords time to swim again in the Rio Buritaca or for the braver to go diving from the 5m high rocks into the deeper sections of the river. We get a chance to play football with some of the local kids. They, like all the members of the local Wiwa tribe, are wearing their traditional clothes woven from the fibre found in the finca leafs. Alberto, one of our guides, takes us up above the village as the sun is setting to show us how the fibre is broken out of the leaves

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There amongst the coffee plants, cocoa leaves are growing and we are shown how traditionally the locals chew the leaves mixed with seashells to give a natural high. Something that would make trekking in the heat more bearable but I think I will stick with water. After dinner at 7pm, most of our group are in bed very soon after as a 5am walk up call awaits us next morning.

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The third day will take us to the foot of the climb to the Lost City. It is a pretty vicious climb out of camp first thing in the morning and we cross several streams en-route, before we must ford the river close to the busy Teyruna camp. It is the end of the rainy season but it hasn’t been a very harsh season which means that rather than waste deep, the water is mid-shin so thankfully it is not too difficult to cross. The camp has a number of other groups staying there including a group of 15 year old schoolkids – a tough school trip!

 

The kids are still stirring from their slumber by the time we leave the camp at 6am the next morning. We cross the river further up the valley, using a rope stretched across to prevent us falling into the knee high water. There had been much talk up to this point about the 1,200 steps (or 1,260 depending on which guide book you read) to take us up to la Ciudad Perdida. I don’t bother counting and am glad of having left our backpacks at Camp 3 for this ascent.

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Maybe that is why I am pleasantly surprised when after around 20 minutes or so I step up and turn to the right and see the jungle open up and flatten out. We have made it to the Lost City.

 

Our early start means we get to explore the city with only a handful of other people. We (mostly) stick to the paths as the city is sacred to the indigenous Wiwa and Kogi people. We ascend some of the uncovered terraces past the ancient jail, some fertility stones and the carved boulder that replicates the Sierra Nevada mountain range with the water courses cut into the rock.

 

The city was build between the 11th and 14th century, but has origins back in the 7th century. It fell foul of the arrival of the Spanish in 1499. Smallpox, syphilis and the violent search for El Dorado saw the city abandoned within a century of the arrival of the colonizers, before looters re-discovered the site back in the 1970s.

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The army secured the location and still maintain a presence on the site – guerillas previously controlled the territory where we are trekking. The soldiers have the best view of the city, just above where we stand to look out over the two main terraces that are perched on the central ridge below us. Only about 30% of the city is uncovered with the rest blanketed by moss, trees and foliage.

 

Our reward for getting up before dawn is for the sun to rise above the waterfall and the mountain range behind us to light up the terraces below. It is a truly stunning setting and is as good a place to take a group selfie as I can think!

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IMG_5404We are also rewarded with a couple of chocolate bars before we begin the trek out. We are going to need that energy boost as we have an hours hike back to Camp 3 before a four hour trek back to the Wiwa village. We are a pretty broken bunch by the time we arrive there after 4 days of trekking. Dodgy tummies, blisters, bites and sprained ankles are shared out in the group, as our the tablets, plasters, antiseptic cream/alcohol and bandages to help overcome them.

 

With no wifi, the evening conversation revolves around travellers tales. Stories are swapped of journeys made and journeys planned with email addresses scrawled into the back of notebooks for when we get back online. By the end of day 4 and with phones dying, thankfully someone has a battery powered mobile charger with them. For a decent price of just one beer, you can get the phone back up to 100% for those last few photographs on the final day!

 

We get a lie in on the last day till 6am! It is a tough slog up and down, up and down, up-down and out on day five. Two hours in and we are back where we stayed the first night and a combination of watermelon and chocolate cake is our fuel for the final few hours. From here the odd motorbike scrambles by us and there is a temptation to grab a lift – especially as they stop to offer. But we have sweated too much and toiled too long to take the easy way home when we are so close.

 

It is a quiet last couple of kilometres as we descend towards the river, dipping into it seems whatever reserves of energy we have, concentrating on just putting one foot in front of the other. Rounding one final bend, Machete Pelao – our staring point but more importantly our finishing point – becomes visible.

 

We have made it. Day five done and dusted and it is high fives and fist pumps all round. We have found something in ourselves to make it to the Lost City and back. Time for us to return to our own civilisation and plug back into the matrix. So whose got the wifi code?

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World Cup podcast from Cuiaba

September 6, 2014 Leave a comment

Podcast for extratime.ie from Brazil. Speaking to Stephen Pollard back at extratime HQ in Dublin, we discussed my experiences of attending the World Cup group games in the city of Cuiaba (Chile v Australia, Russia v Korea, Nigeria v Bosnia and Colombia v Japan), travelling around the Mato Grosso state and the atmosphere in Brazil. Podcast recorded from the geodesic centre of South America with bonus Brazilian birds signing in the background!

First Sportscast from Brazil
Sportcasts Special from Brazil – Extratime reporter Macdara Ferris is in Brazil for the 2014 World Cup and he took time out to chat to one of the Extratime Sportscast presenters – Gareth O’Reilly – on his experiences to date in the country.

Articles from Brazil:

1 – Postcard from Brazil – Let the football begin
2 – Postcard from Brazil – Does your telly know you’re here
3 – Postcard from Brazil – Are you Holland in disguise?
4 – Postcard from Brazil – The Colombian Three Victories
5 – Postcard from Brazil – Bye bye to Brasilia – Rio bound on Rest Day
6 – Postcard from Brazil – Saint Julio Cesar to save Brazil?

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Tickets, who needs tickets?

It may be just a month away but it is not too late to pick up some tickets for the World Cup in Brazil! Admittedly, availability isn’t for the most high profile games (Japan v Greece anyone?) – but we are talking about tickets for the biggest sporting event of the year. Other matches available include Cameroon v Croatia, Ivory Coast v Japan, Uruguay v Costa Rica and Bosnia v Iran. It doesn’t look like there are too many Swiss fans travelling to Brazil, as there are tickets for all of their games still on sale against France, Honduras and Ecuador.

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I already have my tickets ordered and will be heading to five games in Brazil. When I booked the tickets, it was before the draw was made last year so I was unsure what games I would be seeing. As it turned out I will get the opportunity to see such players as Cristiano Ronaldo, John Obi Mikel, Miralem Pjanic, Shinji Kagawa, Michael Essien, Arturo Vidal, Yuri Zhirkov and Tim Cahill in matches in both Cuiaba and Brasilia – that’s if those stadiums get finished in time but I’m thinking positively! I haven’t got tickets for Curitiba where as of last week there were still 27,000 seats yet to be installed in the stadium!

1998 France

Back in 1998 to order tickets for the World Cup in France there was no online internet ticket portal but it was done over the phone. Having been eliminated at the play off stage, Ireland didn’t make those finals (but the boys in green have a good shot at making the next tournament there in the expanded 24 team EURO 2016). Adidas’ advert for that World Cup, to soundtrack of Massive Attack, talked about “World Cup 98: it’s about those who love the game enough to do something about it”. That love for me was about spending 500 Francs (or about £60 of old Irish money), the cost of an expensive ticket hotline phonecall and flights to France to secure a seat for a second round match in Marseille. On a baking hot day in the Stade Velodrome, where they are finally putting a roof on the stadium 16 years later, we watched an awful game between Italy and Norway with Christian Vieiri’s 18th minute strike giving the Azzuri the win.

2002 Korea and Japan

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Red Devils

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I wouldn’t say I was too confident that Ireland would beat Holland in September 2001 to put themselves in the driving seat for qualification for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea but I’d already bought my tickets, via the internet, for Ireland’s games by the time that crucial qualifier took place in Lansdowne Road. A Roy Keane tackle, a McAteer strike and a Van Haal meltdown with his hourglass 4-2-4 formation and Ireland had a famous victory (see highlights here) and a play-off spot from which they would secure their passage to the World Cup.

In addition to supporting Ireland, I also purchased tickets to a couple of games in Korea. In Suwon, a few days before Ireland’s elimination to Spain on penalties, I watched eventual winners Brazil beat Costa Rica 5-2. I easily joined in the celebrations when Rivaldo and Ronaldo scored that day having backed them each way at 16/1 and 18/1 for tournament top scorers! I was also lucky to be one of very few non-Korean supporters in the stadium in Incheon when they sensationally beat Portugal 1-0 to qualify for the second round.

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2006 Germany

Fast forward to 2006 and there was no Ireland in the tournament and no clear view of the pitch with my tickets, or so I thought. With tickets in high demand the only ones I could get my hands on were “obstructed view” tickets. I did have a cameraman close to my eye-line in Hamburg and that got me a 40% discounted ticket but I could clearly see that Ukraine were far superior to Saudi Arabia as they ran out 4-0 winners. With another 40% discount, my €27 ticket got me a seat in what would normally be the away section in Schalke’s stadium in Gelsenkirchen (where Ireland will play Germany later this year). I could see about 95% of the pitch clearly with the corner flag viewed through glazing topped by metal chevrons. Eventual semi-finalists Portugal beat Mexico 2-1 in an entertaining game under the closed roof while in Kaiserslautern I saw Spain beat the Saudis 1-0 in the last major tournament Spain didn’t win!

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2010 South Africa

At half-time in the Stade de France in November 2009, with my Ireland team specific tickets already paid for, I could picture myself watching Ireland playing in South Africa. A Thierry Henry handball later and those dreams had died. Even the thud of FIFA returning to me several weeks later the price of Ireland tickets all the way to the final, didn’t improve my mood.

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With the option of following Ireland closed off I was able to pick up some spare tickets from friends who lots and lots of tickets. Five friends had applied for three tickets each for seven games in South Africa and got them all! 185 tickets was going to cost a lot of money so after cancelling a couple of credit cards, they had 63 tickets and were looking for a few people to take some tickets off their hands and I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity.

I got to five matches in five days split between Johannesburg and Pretoria including seeing the host nation lose to Uruguay, Diego Maradona’s Argentina side play in Soccer City and Brazil beating Ivory Coast. I then picked up a local Category 4 ticket and for €15 I got to see the then reigning World Cup holders Italy get eliminated (see Four Continent Football part 3).

It is all about Brazil 2014 now though and I’m still on the look out for a ticket for the second round game in Rio so if you hear of any spares, do please let me know!

Golden Katie Excels

August 12, 2012 1 comment

I wasn’t in the GPO in 1916, I wasn’t in Stuttgart in Euro 88 but for the rest of my years I will bore people telling them I was there in London 2012 to see Katie Taylor crowned Olympic champion. It was a truly magic experience to be in the Excel Arena to see Irish sporting history made.

I was one of probably about 8,000 Irish there that day. People wondered why there were so many Irish there, well it was because most of us took a punt about 15 months ago and applied for tickets for that specific event. In Athens in 2004 (see here), I’d bought tickets for the men’s lightweight double skulls where Ireland were favourites but failed. Robert Heffernan’s magnificent fourth place this weekend reminded me that I’d also bought tickets for the women’s 20km walk in 2004 when we thought Gillian O’Sullivan might medal and due to injury she never even made it to Athens.

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This time around Katie Taylor was our medal hope. I can’t claim to have seen Taylor fight before so I haven’t been on the bandwagon that long but I was hoping to climb on it now with the destination hopefully the top step of the Olympic podium. The weight of expectation on the Bray fighter was ridiculous. Even having won the last four world championships and been the poster girl for women’s boxing in Olympics, the pressure still didn’t seem to faze her. The day before a raucous Irish crowd had cheered her on when she won her semi-final. The final was to be another step up.

The amount of Irish last Thursday meant the Excel was like a mini-Poznan except without the massive drunkenness or the poor result in the sporting event. It was the hottest ticket in town to see the first ever gold medal bouts in women’s boxing. The British were here to see if Nicola Adams could win gold for Britain. A Terrific Thursday for Team GB to go with the Super Saturday we’d seen when in London for the previous weekend (see here). We had Princess Anne as well as former England cricket captain Michael Atherton stroll right by us. The Irish threw their considerably support behind Adams who won the very first women’s gold medal and then came Katie.

2-2 after the first round, there were audible groans when the second round scores showed Taylor losing by a point to Russian Sofya Ochigava. Taylor was going to have to very much earn that gold medal. The third round saw Taylor step it up and we were hoping that the “Katie, Katie, Katie” chants along with the de rigour Olé Olé were spurring her on. Even though she led by two points going into the last round, when the final bell tolled I was very much unsure.

It was as tense an occasion I have ever felt in a sporting arena waiting for the final announcement. Pete Taylor ran a worried hand over his shaven head while Zaur Antia had to look away. Both fighters had their hand held by the referee and both had their other hand pointing to the sky as if this would influence the outcome at this stage. When they read out the final result and Taylor sank to her knees in triumph that is when the tears arrived. Ireland had won an Olympic Gold medal with Taylor becoming only the sixth person to win a gold medal for our country.

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Minutes later Pat Hickey (who else!) was on hand to present Taylor with her gold medal. We then had the once in a lifetime opportunity to sing our national anthem, Amhrán na bhFiann, and see the tricolour raised in honour of an Olympic gold medal win for Ireland. Don’t mind hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck stuff, this was pure tears-running-down-the-front-of-the-face, for me anyway and most of the Irish in the arena.

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We didn’t want the celebrations to end and either did Taylor who broke away from protocol to grab a tricolour and go on a lap of honour around the arena as the decibel levels went higher and higher if that seemed even possible.

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We floated out of the arena after the final bout that saw 17-year-old Clarissa Shields win for the USA. A sea of green made it’s way out to the DLR, singing the Fields of Athenry as volunteers and press were taking photos of the joyous scenes below them as the watched from the balconies high above the mall in the Excel. Even the British Military personnel were getting high fived on the way out of the building. A gold medal, Katie had won a gold medal. It doesn’t get any better than that.

The tears returned again when I read Miriam Lord’s front page Irish Times article the next day:

“Please stand for the national anthem of Ireland.” The Tricolour was hoisted upwards to the top spot by naval officers in full dress uniform. 



We stood. And we sang. Never before, said the non-partisans, had they seen the like. The anthem was sung like never before, rattling the rafters, belted out, all the words, with breathtaking fervour.



Jesus, Mary and Joseph. It was spine-tingling. And then the tears came.”

Golden trip to London 2OI2 from Macdara Ferris on Vimeo.

Olympic Parklife

I’ve heard of exit through the gift shop but what about enter through the shopping centre. Well that is the way for most spectators to get into the London 2012 Olympic Park. The ‘Javelin’ train service from Kings Cross-St. Pancras, free with your Olympic ticket, takes you directly to Stratford station which is adjacent to the massive – and I mean massive – Westfield Shopping Centre which has over half a million square metres of retail space.

Having spent Saturday in Hyde Park watching the games (see here), on Sunday it was our day in the Olympic Park. We’d made ticket applications for athletics, swimming, cycling, boxing and basketball over a year ago but the only tickets we secured were for the basketball on Sunday and boxing this coming Thursday.

On arrival to the Olympic Park you are greeted by some of 70,000 Olympic volunteers and manning the security are British military personal who were all quite friendly; London 2012 probably a better posting than Afghanistan! Stratford station is at the main Olympic Stadium side of the Park and we entered there and strolled down towards the other end of the Park taking in the atmosphere, sights and taking lots of photos.

Here were all the sights we had seen on the television or some of the projects I had heard about in work; There was the Orbit, the Aquatics Centre, Athletes Village, the Copper Box and the BBC studio built on top of stacked shipping containers – very sustainable – and there was Jake Humphrey presenting the afternoon show.

We had tickets for the group games in the women’s basketball between Australia and Canada followed by USA against China. It was a near full house in the arena for the first game that the Aussies eventually won 72-63. There were some freakishly tall women on the Aussie team with 6 foot 8 inch Liz Cambage towering over them all. She was the player who earlier in the competition performed what seems to have been the first slam-dunk in women’s Olympic basketball.

I was sitting beside the father of one of the Aussie squad players so he was able to give me all the low down on the team pointing out the key players. These included three-time Olympic silver medalist, 37-year-old former NWBA player, Kristi Harrower, playing in her fourth Olympics.

The basketball arena is a very impressive venue especially given that it is only temporary and will be dismantled after the game. Here is a time lapse video of its construction if, like me, you’re into that sort of thing!

Sadly we didn’t have RTÉ’s Timmy McCarthy doing commentary for us, as there were plenty of “DOWNTOWN” three pointers during the game. However, the DJ in the venue blasted out tunes during stoppages in the game and the host down on the sideline had the spectators joining in with the fun – the best thing being the hilarious slow Mexican Wave around the venue.

The USA crushed China 114 to 66 in an amazing display of basketball – well so I thought but I don’t profess to know too much about the game – but the Americans looked quick and were ruthless in punishing any mistakes by the Chinese. USA will face Australia in Thursday’s semi final.

After the basketball, we got to sample exactly what the Olympics is about for some. We went to the megastore and bought stuff with our VISA cards in the shop adjacent to the largest McDonalds in the world. Citius, Altius, Fortius indeed.

The Olympic Park is an amazing feat of engineering located on what was one of the most contaminated locations in the UK. To get an idea of scale of the park, you could fit over 350 football pitches in it. ‘Engineering the Olympic Park’ is a great video about the construction of the Park here.

Having been unable to get tickets for the athletics, we did the next best thing and bought tickets to go up the 114m Orbit viewing tower in the evening. It was nicely times so we could watch the men’s100m semi-final as you can see the home straight from the tower. So there was Yohan Blake winning the semi-final before we were able to watch the men’s 1500m semi final too. We even got to see Mo Farah get his gold medal from his 10,000 win the previous evening. Not bad for £10 when tickets in the main stadium were going for £495 face value! The view of the Olympic Park and across London towards the Shard was breathtaking on what was a wonderfully clear London evening.

We finished our time in the Olympic Park down at the Park Live venue. This is a viewing area landscaped into the park with a giant double sided screen located in the River Lea. There is space for 10,000 spectators on either side of the water. It was a full house and probably more as fans sat on the seated areas and adjacent grass banks to watch the Blue Riband event of the games; the men’s 100m final.

During the athlete’s introduction, Usain Bolt was the most popular with Justin Gatland the least popular!. Under starters orders, the crowd fell silent as if we were in the Stadium that was located just a few hundred metres away. Bolt’s win was greeted as if it was another gold medal for Team GB as Bolt struck to win his second 100m Olympic title.

Our time in the Olympic Park was at an end. Our next Olympic venue will be the Excel Arena down in Docklands and the small matter of the women’s boxing final on Thursday. I hear we have a good chance of a medal in this one!

Hyde Park Heroes on Olympic Super Saturday

August 6, 2012 2 comments

The BBC were calling it Super Saturday and it was indeed super. Over in London for the weekend, we had no tickets for any events on Saturday, only Sunday, but that wasn’t going to stop us joining in the Olympic spirit.

Due to Shamrock Rovers’ semi-surprising short European season, my Olympic window had opened further than I thought it would. I had tried to pick up some more tickets but to no avail. The Olympic ticket portal was even more rubbish than the Euro 2012 website and that is saying something.

So Hyde Park was to be our venue for most of the day on Saturday. The women’s triathlon was taking place in the Park with the 1,500m swim in the Serpentine, 40km cycle and 10km run in and around the Park and didn’t require a ticket. We were there to cheer on Irish triathlete Aileen Morrison who has had an excellent last 12 months. We got to cheer her on but sadly not to cheer her to a medal.

There were massive crowds for the event with lots of Irish flags on display for Aileen and a great atmosphere for the early Saturday morning event. The crowd was five or six deep along the whole route with talk of several hundred thousand spectators lining the route. We got a good spot where we could hear the course commentary and see the Serpentine and a place which was also along the route that the triathletes would cycle seven times and run four times.

After the swim, there were four large groups on the road with Aileen in the third group. She always seemed to be at the front of that group but got little support and ultimately an early fall in the cycle put pay to her medal chances. British favourite Helen Jenkins was in the first group and she was right in the mix going into the final stages of the race meaning there was a great atmosphere with the home fans cheering her on. The lead group was gradually whittled down from six to five to four with eventually Jenkins dropped. In a race that lasted two hours, amazingly it came down to a photo finish with three or so centimetres in the difference with Nicola Sprigg of Switzerland claiming gold.

Hyde Park is also the location for the BT Live Fanzone with five big screens showing various Olympic sports throughout the two weeks. It is like a World Cup or European Championship fan zone but instead of England losing, Britain wins! After the triathlon, we headed there and were able to watch an amazing 45 minutes of rowing especially for the British. First up was a win for the British men’s coxless four and then there was the superb stunned reaction by the lightweight double skulls Katherine Copeland and Sophie Hasking. The pair’s post race incredulous reaction brought a tear to the eye and was in direct contrast to the utter dejection of the silver medal for Britain in the next race as they were overhauled in the last 100m with gold in sight.

Each gold medal was greeted with ticket tape propelled high above our heads with the British in the crowd jumping and dancing around. It was hard not to get sucked into the atmosphere of the occasion but there was plenty of support for all nations not just Britain. We got to see Bradley Wiggins and his gold medal as he had a chat with Johnnie Vaughan on the main stage. The home fans had seen two golds and a silver in those 45 minutes of rowing. It couldn’t get any better we thought but later that evening it would be triple gold for Team GB in athletics and the celebrations would crank up a notch.

In the evening we were back in Hyde Park to see on the big screen, Jessica Ennis’ 800m double victory lap. The British poster girl for the games won the final event of the Heptathlon in style and then led a lap of honour with all her competitors joining in as is tradition in the Heptathlete.

Almost straight away it was another gold for Britain as they won the long jump, just before the men’s 10,000m. I’d been lucky enough to be in the Stadium in Athens in 2004 (see here) to see Kenenisa Bekele’s first Olympic win over the 10km. We were now watching on the big screen wondering could he win a third in a row or could home favourite Mo Fareh make it three golds for Great Britain in less than an hour?

After 24 laps of the track, there were still six or so runners in contention for a medal at the bell. It was an amazing tense atmosphere as Farah cranked up the sprint on the final lap. With chants of “Go Mo Go!” ringing out in Hyde Park, Mo went clear in the home straight to win to deafening screams with hugs and tears all around us as more ticket tape filled the moon lit sky above us in the Park. Three golds on the track in one night – six golds for Britain in one day. It doesn’t get any better than that for Team GB.

Memories of Athens 2004

August 1, 2012 2 comments

An Olympic games just an hour’s flight away, well I was always going to take advantage of that. It doesn’t get any bigger for an event junkie like me so I’m heading over to the Olympics for a couple of days. Tickets and accommodation secured (think I’m sleeping Harry Potter style under the stairs in a friends place), it’s London 2012 here we come.

Eight years ago I travelled out to Athens for a week at the XXVII Olympiad. Like London, accommodation was pricey so a cheeky e-mail to any Greek person I could find in my company got us somewhere to stay. Our colleague moved back in with his mammy and rented out his one bed apartment for the week to three of us. Unlike this Olympics, back then, the tickets were fairly accessible and we had our choice of events in Athens. We went to some boxing, weightlifting, hockey, volleyball (and no it wasn’t beach volleyball!), rowing and athletics.

In this current Olympics we had just one competitor in the rowing and Sanita Puspure was eliminated yesterday in the quarter final. Back in 2004, there was a lot of talk about medal chances for Irish rowers especially Sam Lynch and Gearóid Towey in the light weight double sculls. By the time the day of the finals came around, our two man team were nowhere to be seen having had issues in the semi-final with making the weight and Towey battling shingles. Years of preparation in a brutally tough sport came down to being sick at the wrong time and to essentially being, to put it cruelly, too heavy for the boat on the day.

We weren’t the only Irish at the regatta in Schinias, close to Marathon, who had turned up on the expectation of seeing our country at the front of the race. There were lots of Irish flags on display and Pat Hickey was on hand to give out the medals but not to any Irish rowers as he had hoped. We got to see the Irish four man compete and they finished sixth. I remember clearly just how disappointing it was not to see an Irish medal win. Unlike being at a football match, where there are two sets of fans, here there were groups of fans with flags from a myriad of nations (Romania, Poland, Denmark, Germany, France) and they all seemed to be winning around us. Meanwhile all the Irish could do was contemplate what might of been.

We spent four nights at the amazing Olympic Stadium sitting under the Santiago Calatrava designed roof. We saw some famous victories; Kenenisa Bekele’s win the 10,000m, Hicham El Guerrouj amazing win in both the 1500m and 5000m, the mens 100m final and we were surrounded by Britons celebrating Kelly Holmes’ incredible 800m and 1500m double.

Meanwhile the Irish weren’t doing so well. Adrian O’Dwyer failed his first height at the high jump and had to sit there for the next two hours watching as his heat played out. Sonia O’Sullivan meanwhile made the final of the 5,000m but came home last. We didn’t win a medal that night but the events of the evening live long in my memory. Here is what I wrote the day after and some quotes from Sonia O’Sullivan:

We had an amazing night cheering on Sonia. Maybe it was a fitting finale to her Olympic career when she essentially got to have a lap of honour around the Olympic Stadium. With 30 minutes to the final, the Irish began to gather at the 250m mark. About 100 of Sonia’s Green Army including many of O’Sullivan’s fellow Irish Olympians cheered her from start to finish. In fact the noise got louder and louder with each lap so by the time she still had one lap to go and the Ethiopian athlete had already won, the whole stadium joined in.

Ireland is the gold medal winner for glorious failures and there will be no other athlete in this games that will get the reception she got. Everyone sung themselves hoarse with plenty of Olé Olés and Fields of Athenry. All the Irish knew we were witnessing the final Olympic race of our greatest every athlete.

As she came by us on the final corner there was a wry smile, a wave and then a kiss blown in the direction of the Irish support. It brought tears to the eyes. Better than a bronze medall…well maybe not! Sometimes I wonder how we would react if we actually won a medal.”

Sonia O’Sullivan (Sunday Tribune): “When I saw it back, that moment when I blew a two-handed kiss to the Irish in the crowd took me by surprise. It put a lump in my throat to see it. It was a spontaneous thing.

Being lapped was an indignity I’d never experienced before. There was only one thing that kept my legs going during those long, lonely laps and that was the encouragement I got from the Irish crowd at the top of the home straight. The only thing I wanted to at that stage was to walk off the track or at least find a hole in it so I could disappear. Yet every time I came around to that top corner, I heard the noise and I thought, ‘Well, if they’re staying, I’m staying.’”

So in Athens we ultimately came away with no medals despite certain expectations. Cian O’Connor would win gold and then have that stripped from him and his horse that failed a drugs test. The closest the Irish maybe got to a winner was Father Neil Horan’s unwanted interruption at the conclusion of the men’s marathon.

For this London 2012 games, the optimistic talk now is of medals in the sailing and the boxing. The expectation on Katie Taylor is immense and not to add to the pressure but I do have tickets for the women’s boxing final! Hopefully Taylor can join O’Sullivan as an Olympic medal winner in front of what will no doubt be a huge Irish contingent in the Excel Arena next week.

Pulling on the Green Jersey – the best fans in the world?

It was an incredible sight to see. It was a sea of green, jumping up and down rhythmically on all sides of the ground, backs to the play, singing and supporting their team. It was close to 30,000 Ireland fans doing the “Poznan” at the European Championship against Italy supporting their boys in green.

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There was a small pocket of Italian fans in the corner supporting the Azzuri. They probably had just 10% of the numbers supporting Ireland. At the end of the game the Italian players (as did the Irish players) showed their appreciation of the atmosphere generated by the Irish supporters during their lap of honour. It was clear from Italian captain Gianluigi Buffon’s expression that the goalkeeper was impressed by it all giving the Irish fans multiple thumbs up.

Spain, current World and European champions, could muster only a fraction of the Irish support in the game in Gdansk that will be remembered of course for the 4-0 result for Spain. It will also be remembered for the fantastic rendition of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ by the Irish support at the conclusion of the game. The best supporters in the world they say. They may say it but I don’t believe it.

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While John Delaney, the FAI, the PFAI and the Green Army were out supporting the national team in Poland, at home another League of Ireland club ceased to exist, their results “expunged” for the season. Monaghan United went to the wall on Monday, not that too many noticed.

What other league in Europe has a club just disappear mid-season? The United Chairman stated the lack of a main sponsor and the dwindling support that forced their hand. Monaghan have been playing in front of average crowds of around 600 but had one game where less than 200 paid in. Over 25,000 Irish fans made it to Poland for the each of the three Ireland games. That 25,000 figure would represent the total gate over a whole 16 home game League of Ireland season.

Compared with every other squad in Poland and Ukraine, the Irish squad at UEFA EURO 2012 was unique in that we had no players from our own domestic league. I’m not advocating that we should have League of Ireland players in the squad for the sake of it but it does say something about the state of Irish football that there were no players from our own league.

People say they won’t go to the League of Ireland as the standard isn’t good enough with the league being “rubbish”. Results in Europe over recent years would dispute this and I’m not just talking about Shamrock Rovers’ qualification for the group stages of the Europa League. Six of the original squad called up by Giovanni Trapattoni played in the League of Ireland; Kevin Doyle, Shane Long, Stephen Ward, David Forde, James McClean and the injured Keith Fahey. As an aside the last time Ireland played in Poland in 2005, the squad did contain one league of Ireland player, Jason Byrne.

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The fact is though that if fans don’t come through the turnstiles in sufficient numbers in Ireland the game cannot progress. The aim should be for players to emerge through the League and not just get farmed off to the UK at 15 in the hope that they will make it. If players are good enough, they will get the chance to play on higher stage like those players in the Ireland squad who progressed from the League. A certain Roy Keane began his playing career in the League of Ireland with a club, Cobh Ramblers, which have since dropped out of the league due to financial issues.

Just last month, I travelled up to Gortakeegan for my first and, as it now turns out, my last visit to Gortakeegan. Getting petrol in one of the M1 service stations I looked around and saw a car full of lads in blue track suits. Inside were a few more and then I spotted their manager, Roddy Collins. It was the Monaghan team travelling up from Dublin where they lived and trained for their home game in Monaghan. I was reliably informed that United had just one local player in their squad. Maybe this was one of the myriad of reasons the Monaghan public shunned going to see their recently promoted team in the Premier Division of the Airtricity League.

Clubs will prosper if fans come in sufficient numbers to see them. If they can produce their own talent and give a sense that this team represents the area, fans will invest their time and hence their money in the team. Clubs like Cork City, Sligo Rovers, Derry City, Dundalk and even Limerick FC have great potential outside of Dublin with their catchment areas and sporting culture.

The population of Dublin can certainly support a number of vibrant teams from the capital. Shamrock Rovers are the current success story in the League but that is being helped by developing roots in the local area of Tallaght. Having a manager and three of the playing squad from Tallaght is not a hindrance either.

The League needs to continue to promote itself to try and attract new fans. No, we can’t necessarily compete with British football but we can attract some of that floating support to, in addition to watching their UK team from a barstool, get out and see some live football at their local club. We need to get the wider Irish sporting public to be patriotic, to pull on the Green jersey (or red, white, blue etc.) and support their local League of Ireland football club.

Not quite an endless summer

The Euro 2012 theme song by Oceana is called ‘Endless Summer’. Well for Ireland, the Euros have seemed like a series of endless defeats
with three losses in our three games. It certainly wasn’t what we hoping for after doing so well to qualify for Euros.

Journeying out to the tournament just over ten days ago it seemed like it would be an endless tournament as I contemplated optimistically how to get to the knock out stages; fly home and back out or work out of our company’s Warsaw office for a few days. As it is, those Ireland quarter-final, semi-final and final tickets are simply a souvaneer now after Ireland’s three defeats. The players flew back this morning and the fans are making their way own home via campervan (imagine how depressing that journey is!) or on flights from Poznan, Berlin or Warsaw where I’ve travelled to.

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Having said all that though it has been a great trip to Poland who were excellent hosts. From the bloke who walked me 10 minutes out of his way to help find my Pension in Poznan to the guy who pulled in and gave three of our group a lift to the game when their tram broke down yesterday. The Poznan and Gdansk stadiums were excellent. We got to see some historical sights, have a week long sing-song and to see one of the best teams ever to play this game.

I’ve been to a few of these tournaments but only one until this one following Ireland. That trip to Japan & Korea in 2002 was by far the most enjoyable tournament for me. On the pitch it couldn’t have been more different than this one. Back then Ireland put in some impressive displays, getting out of the group and were unlucky not to beat Spain. Having said that we also spent a lot of time talking about Roy Keane in 2002 as well as in 2012!

Going as a neutral to tournament games means you don’t have the dispiriting depression following a defeat. You can celebrate with the winning supporters and enjoy the game for what is in front of you. I’d still prefer though to be at a tournament supporting me own team even if they arent winning. It would just be better to be singing joyfully about a good Ireland performance or result rather than the sympathy singing we have had a lot of in Poland.

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The atmosphere at last nights game against Italy was up there with the best I’ve been in. The crowd reacts to what they see on the pitch and thankfully that wasn’t the concession of an early goal for Ireland that we had in the earlier games. The sight of the 25,000 plus Irish fans “doing the Poznan” was superb.

The team put in a markedly better performance than in the other two defeats but we still finshed rock bottom of the group. It was a table that was not “upside down” as some fans chanted but accurately reflected the gulf in class between Ireland and the other teams we faced in what was probably the hardest group we had been played in ever at a finals.

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The fans sung long into the night back in Poznan’s Old Town. It was as if we had won the game so it was the type of singing that a former captain of Ireland would not approve of. Ireland rode our luck in qualifying and we got what we deserved when we did qualify. Whether this bunch of players under this manager can qualify for the next tournament is the question. With Germany and Swedan in our qualification group, it is a big ask. It is doubtful that we will be cheering on our boys in brazil but let’s hope so.

The next Euros seems a lifetime away. With France 2016 having 24 teams, we will have as good a chance to qualify as ever before. Many of the current team and our manager will have retired by the time it comes around. Will we have the coach and squad to get us to France? Might hold off on booking that campervan and ferry tickets to France just yet! It’s not an endless summer so it’s time to get back to work…

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