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A Toast from the coast to our Hosts

This morning the Ireland team flew from Gdansk down to Poznan for tomorrow night’s match against Italy. It’s a four hours train journey for some of us as we leave the coast and Gdansk to return to Poznan having spent a very pleasant few days here on the Baltic coast (except for a certain 90 minutes).

Our hosts Poland are also out. Their 1-0 defeat by the Czech Republic last night consigned them to last place in their group. We watched the game in Sopot. We had a side bet on first goal scorer and so I don’t think the Poles around us enjoyed one of us celebrating when the Czechs got the winner from Petr Jiracek.

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By last night most of the hoards of Irish had moved on from Sopot, where the Irish team have been staying on the Baltic. The weather has been living up to location with rain and relatively low temperatures for most of the time here. The boozy Irish had been replaced by the slightly less boozy Poles on this night compared to Sopot the previous Wednesday night when we were there till all hours.

It is a pity that one of the hosts is out and it is up to Ukraine tonight now to see if they can keep a host nation in the tournament. We had watched the Polish draw with Russia in the Poznan Fanzone and that was a great occasion last week. The place was filled to capacity by Poles wearing their national colours with pride. Bedecked in red and white, there were 30,000 fans watching the game on the big screens. Lots of Polska chants and one that seemed to be “about a big semi-colon” but don’t think I got that right.

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At national anthem time the locals booed the Russian anthem and unsurprisingly didn’t seem overly impressed with the massive tier sized “This is Russia” banner that the visiting fans unveiled on what was Russian Day.

For their own anthem, we were treated to a very loud rendition of the Polish anthem by all the Poles in the Fanzone. It was like being at the stadium. Polish striker Robert Lewandowki was very popular with the locals having played some of his football with Lech Poznan before moving on to Borussia Dotmund. His team found themselves 1-0 down when the impressive Alan Dzagoev scored for Russia. When the ball hit the back of the net the Fanzone fell eerily quiet.

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In the second half, Poland raised their game and the atmosphere was intensive. That intensity was due in part to the excitable Polish commentator whose hyper style sounded like every square pass was a shot on target! Add in the high pitch screaming from the younger Polish fans in attendance and it was quite some noise.

That decibel level went through the roof when Jakub Blaszcykowski ended a fine Polish passing move by powering home an equaliser. The place went mental and it didn’t seem to matter that we were Irish as we were hugged and high fived as if we were Polish born and reared. Sadly Franciszek Smuda’s side couldn’t find a winner in that game and that ultimately proved their downfall.

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We have been staying about half way between Gdansk and Sopot in a place half way between a hotel and a hospital! Nice rooms but all a bit communist. We had taken the opportunity when in Gdansk to visit the famous shipyards. The excellent Paths to Freedom exhibition was well worth visiting at the formerly named Lenin Shipyards close to the shipyard gates where Lech Walesa had made speeches during the days of Solidarity.

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We also took the ferry out through the shipyards to Westerplatte. On the way we could see the many abandoned cranes and warehouses in the massive shipyard that now only has a small amount of work going on in it. At Westerplatte we saw where the German battleship Schleswig-Holsten fired the first salvos of World War II. The garrison of just 170 Polish troops held out for a week at the start of September 1939 against the Germany navy and Luftwaffe.
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It is probably too late for the Irish team to make history at this championship but there is still lots to play for tomorrow. Italy require a win to go through to the quarter final while the Irish team will want to leave a good final impression on the tournament from their football rather than just from the colourful singing Irish fans off the pitch. Trapattoni, his team and the fans want to end the tournament with a win. It will be a big ask.

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Categories: EURO 2012, Travel Tags: ,

We had nightmares & songs to sing

June 15, 2012 1 comment

It was all a bit humbling really. Spain came and reigned supreme as the limitations of Giovanni Trapattoni’s system and our playing squad against Spain’s fluid flowing football was visible for all to see. Ireland were torn apart 4-0 by the World and European Champions and dumped out of the Euro 2012 tournament after just two games.

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Our only consolation was the magnificent support given to the team from the stands. This wasn’t a ‘sing when your winning’ support like Spain seemed to have but the singing of ‘The Fields of Athenry’ by the Irish fans at the games conclusion was simply incredible. Despite being 4-0 down and heading out of the tournament, it just got louder and louder. For me it will live long in the memory and it was an amazing experience to be part of.

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However, whilstwe sung about “dreams and sings to sing”, the players probably felt like it was a nightmare they were in as Spain took apart Ireland scoring three second half goals to go with their early first half strike. It was a very impressive performance by La Roja who were never really put under pressure by the boys in green. Torres (2), Silva and Fabergas did the damage for the defending champions.

The Simon Cox experiment didn’t really work and Plan B after half time involving Jonathan Walters wasn’t much better. Having said that whatever team or formation Ireland put out on a wet night on Gdansk, playing against opposition of this calibre was always going to a very difficult task.

The road down to the main square in Gdansk and around the Neptune fountain was full of Irish fans from lunchtime on match day. The trains, planes and camper vans had deposited the Green Army in the very north of Poland. Some Spanish fans wandered through the Square and supporters and locals alike were treated to a few Poznans as well as the full repertoire of Ireland songs from Trap’s Army. Whether a team of Gary Breens or one containing any of the 12 days of Christmas/Paul McGrath would have helped Ireland in the game is doubtful.

There was talk ahead of the game of whether the pitch would be watered and the weather gods conspired to make it wet. In the stands, the Green Army outnumbered the Spanish probably three to one. In excess of 25,000 were dressed in green and they were silenced once again like against Croatia by an early goal with Spain scoring in the opening four minutes.

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Spain passed and passed and passed while Ireland huffed and puffed but got nowhere near to blowing Spain’s defence down. It was a real master class in passing by Spain. They could afford to bring Cesc Fabergas off the bench where as we had Paul Green and that probably summed up the gulf in class between the teams. One of the biggest cheers of the night was for the introduction of young James McClean but even the young Derry man couldn’t influence the outcome of the game at that stage.

I’ve heard comment before about it would be better if we didn’t qualify for these things because once we are at a big tournament we would get hammered. I certainly didn’t think we would get hammered but after just two games conceeding seven goals and only scoring one, that has all the hall marks of a hammering. I’d much prefer for Ireland to be here though than being at home but these results have been hard to take after the long build up and sense of occasion about the Euros.

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It is better to be at the big boys table at these feasts of football than watching on the telly. The pity is that in Poland we were being served up as Spain’s starters to be consumed by their crisp passing football. What lessons can we learn from this I don’t know as we face into our final game of the tournament on Monday and the rocky road to Rio to come after. Ireland will be remembered by the fans off the pitch rather than the performances on it when this competition ends.

The final few minutes of the game were played out under the soundtrack, not of the celebrating Spanish fans, but to the Irish in the stands. It was a powerful rendition of “The Fields of Athenry”. The haunting mournful ballad echoed around the amber walls of the Gdansk arena. Ireland will be haunted by this result for a long time to come.

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Careful now – the policing in Poznan

Poznan’s main square last Sunday was some sight to behold. You were either wearing red & white or green or else you were in the wrong location.

The thousands of Croatian fans had their red & white colours on show with red top hats, red & white chequer-board overalls or a Hrvatska flag wrapped around their waists. For the Irish it was Trapattoni masks, green wigs and lots of tricolour face paint.

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As is usual for an Ireland away game, the main square was the focal point for the pre-match festivities for the Green Army. The difference this time was that the square was shared with the legion of Croatian fans who had mobilised from the Balkans. In Poznan’s historic main square, from every point hung a Croat or Irish flag and both sets of fans mingled freely, chatting and discussing the finer points of their teams playing 4-4-2 or so it seemed!

They sung, we sung. They drank, we drank. They were definitely the more confident of the two sets of fans on the outcome of the game and as it turned out that confidence was well justified after the 3-1 win to Slaven Bilic’s men.

There was a third force also in and around the main square throughout our time in Pozan and that was the police. Pockets of Poznan police were strategically located around the main square in full riot gear wearing helmet and body armour including shin guards a lot bigger than Robbie Keane has. At night, the lights of the square reflected off their visors and riot shields that they carried. Some also had tear gas canisters and rubber bullet guns visible.

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Each cohort had someone with a small digital camcorder recording the fans around them. They will have lots of footage of Irish fans shoes in the air singing “shoes off for the boys in green!”

I’ve seldom seen such a visible police presence away from a stadium ahead of a game and they were called into action on the eve of the match. There were lots of rumours about neo-nazis and Polish football fans fighting amongs themselves. I saw the police backup arrive under blue sirens and screeching tires from 20 or so police vans, jumping out to line up in formation. It seems they were probably being deployed to protect Irish fans.

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They did move on elsewhere some Irish fans who were jumping around under a massive umbrella in an outside bar in the main square too vigorously but that’s not exactly major trouble. What is in no doubt though is that ten Poles and three Irish were arrested that night but the local mayor played it down saying that with that amount of fans and that amount of drink it was inevitable.

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Having said all that the police were still happy enough to be photographed beside smiling Irish fans who were mostly amused by the sight of all the robocops. The moment of the night had to go to the two Irish lads pictured in front of a big group of riot police in the square holding up a couple of home made signs saying in Father Ted style “Careful now” and “Nothing to see here”! Do tournaments miss out when Ireland don’t make it. Probably and Moments like that seem to justify the self-proclaimed ‘best fans in the world’ tag.

Turns out you can beat the Irish

June 11, 2012 1 comment

So after 14 games unbeaten, it turns out you can beat the Irish. Croatia were worthy 3-1 winners against Ireland in a wet Poznan on Sunday night as Giovanni Trapattoni’s men were comprehensively beaten by the men from the Balkans.

Irish fans, myself included, went into the game hoping to at least pick up a point but after this result leaving the ground we were as deflated as the many plastic hammers amongst the 20,000 or so Irish at Sunday’s game.

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The previous night the police deployed in force in the centre of Poznan as there was some trouble involving some Poles but there was no policing required to seperate the Irish and Croat fans on match day. They mingled from early morning in Poznan’s main square, in and outside the stadium and in the post match singsong back in the town centre.

During the afternoon both Croat and Irish flags hung from every vantage point in the huge main square including off the roof of some of the surrounding buildings and off several statues in the square. It was football fans at their finest as the singing, fueled by plenty of local brew naturally, echoed around the historic centre of the old town.

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Many fans headed out to ground early to watch the first game in Group C that saw Spain equalise against Italy to claim a 1-1 draw. The few local bars around the out of town stadium were rammed as fans watched the game and also took shelter from the rain that began at the kick off of that earlier match.

Inside the ground when the fans entered the stadium, it was clear which sections were supporting either team with the blocks of Croatian red and white and Irish green fans visible for all to see. The Irish team were first to emerge to check out the stadium looking smart in their grey suits. Croatia were next in their more casual track suits. The players took photos and were no doubt tweeting about what they saw including the huge number of Ireland flags hanging all around the ground.

The Ireland team line up was read out by ‘comedian’ Karl Spain – well at least it wasn’t Declan King – and we were “treated” to our own little opening ceremony ahead of kick off with lots of flags and people running around in formation. The usual blaring music was trying to drown out the fans singing as well it seemed.

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Thankfully both sets of fans were able to be heard singing their anthems and it was a robust rendition of Amhran na bhFiann – which was hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck stuff – as the green clad army sung for themselves, the eleven men on the pitch and the close to a million Ireland fans watching at home.

Pity the team couldn’t have taken that energy into the opening period as they conceded a dreadful early goal. Given seemed slow to get across, possibly unsighted, to get to an angled header by Mario Mandzukic and with what three minutes or so on the clock Giovanni Trapatonni’s men were 1-0 down and off to the worst possible start.

In their last appearance at a major championship Ireland came back from going 1-0 down early to equalise on three occasions and claim a draw and while they were able to conjure up a goal on Sunday they would go onto concede two more on this night.

The fans did get the opportunity to celebrate a goal as Sean St Ledger got his head on free kick from an Aiden McGeady centre. The goal seemed too good to believe but there was no offside flag or refs whistle for an infringement and as it sunk in that the goal would stand, the fans in the stands erupted. They were soon doing the Poznan as the fans behind Shay Given’s goal turned their backs to the play and jumped up and down in unison. It probably looked spectacular but with my back to the majority of the Irish support as I did the Poznan it was hard to see but when in Poznan it had to be done!

Ireland spurred on by the goal created a number of chances but Croatia always looked dangerous with Spurs’ Luka Modric dictating the play. The Irish fans had travelled from far and wide to see the game but for Ireland to go further in the tournament we needed to get more creative on the ball.

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Beside me on my left sat a friend who had taken a break-from-his-break of travelling in South East Asia to come to Poland (leaving his girlfriend behind to do so). On my right was a father his 16 year old son from London. The tri-colours had locations from all around the globe as well as a few witty retorts. But if Angela Merkel thought we at work, out on the pitch the Irish players weren’t working hard enough on keeping the ball. Under pressure they seemed to find a man while we ended up at the back lumping it long when pressed hard.

Jelavic’s goal just before had half time, which had a hint of off side, just knocked the stuffing out of the team. It came when Glen Whelan inexplicably let the ball run by him to allow The Croats the ball. When the former Rangers man eventually got the ball at his feet, he made no mistake making it 2-1 at the break. Trap sent his team out after thr break looking for an equaliser but the early second half goal from Mario Mandzukic, as he got his second and Croatia’s third, pretty much ended the contest.

Trap made a double switch bringing on Simon Cox and Jonathan Walters, who was particularly effective, and the Irish did go close at end with Keith Andrews. However, they scarcely deserved anything out of the game as Croatia held onto the ball with ease using their two goal cushion very effectively.

The Irish fans kept singing at the end and the final whistle had one of those ‘glorious defeat’ style renditions of the Fields of Athenry. As the fans in green filed out of stadium, the thoughts of reaching the knock out stages in Ukraine were as far away as Kiev is from Dublin.

Some started singing about “you’re hardly gonna believe it, we’re going to win Group C” and I certainly dont believe it. Ireland will need to at least avoid defeat on Thursday against World and European champions Spain but they probably need a win now. “You’ll never beat the Irish” will be fully put to the test in Gdansk against La Roja. Ole Ole!

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Categories: EURO 2012, Travel Tags:

Spain v Italy – Four years on

On Sunday, Ireland will play their first game at a European Championship in 24 years when they take on Croatia in Poznan. Meanwhile up in Gdansk in the same Group, Spain play Italy, a team they knocked out in the last Euros en route to the final. In that UEFA EURO 2008 final Spain defeated Germany 1-0.
Spain were worthy champions in the last championship playing a brand of stylish football based on crisp passing and counter attacking. In their six games they scored 12 goals whilst conceding only three. The only game they failed to score in was the quarter final when they progressed passed Italy on penalties following a 0-0 draw in a game I watched from the stands.

The tournament in Austria and Switzerland provided numerous memorable matches with impressive attacking displays from teams like Spain, Holland and Croatia. From the Irish perspective, we were only interested spectators but not participants in that finals. Four years on it is a different story. We were never in the running for qualification for EURO 2008 after some disastrous results under Steve Staunton’s managerial reign. However, let us not forget that it could have been Scotland and Ireland hosting the championships rather than Austria and Switzerland.

Back in 2002, the FAI had teamed up with Scotland in an attempt to host the tournament. Ireland were to provide two all seater stadiums with Scotland providing four. Who can forget the farcical scenes of UEFA officials being shown a stadium that they didn’t have permission to use (Croke Park), an empty field out in Abbotstown (the proposed Bertie Bowl) and a rundown stadium long past its sell by date (Lansdowne Road). Scotland, Wales and Ireland have recently put a bid in for the 2020 tournament. Let’s hope we do better with that application.

I watched Russia beat Holland in extra time from the impressive Vienna Fan Zone that occupied a 1.2 km long stretch of the city in front of the National Parliament, City Hall and Hofburg Palace. The venue had 10 giant screens, 80 food & drink stalls (selling Viennese “Krautfleisch”, picknickstangerl and official beer) and room for 70,000 visitors. It was an ideal location for fans to watch the match and enjoy the fine Austrian weather (in excess of 30 degrees on the weekend of the quarter finals).
The venue for the quarter final, the Ernst Happel Stadium on the River Danube, hosted three group games, two quarter finals, one semi as well as the final. The stadium, originally built in 1931, was renovated for the tournament with the capacity increased to 51,718 with the accommodation of temporary seating.

To be honest, it was a very poor game with little in the way of goalmouth action. It was a tight and sometimes tortuous quarter final with both teams seemingly unwilling to go on the offensive for fear of leaving space for the other team to exploit. The closest either team came to score from open play was when Gianluigi Buffon fumbled a Marcus Senna shot allowing it to hit the post.

In the shoot out, Buffon would save Daniel Guiza’s spot kick but Iker Casillas saved both Daniele de Rossi’s and Antonio Di Natali’s efforts. This set up Cesc Fabregas to score the winning spot kick as Spain progressed 4-2 on penalties.

UEFA EURO 2008 in Austria and Switzerland will be remembered for the exciting matches, good football on offer and late goals being crucial (nearly half of all the goals scored during the 90 minute play were scored in the last half an hour of the games). Whether we will see something similar in this year’s tournament, we will wait and see and we don’t have to wait too much longer now. Kick off is now only a matter of hours away.

Spain reign in seven goal thriller (EURO 2000)

Ahead of the trip to Poland, here is a look back at a couple of games I saw at EURO 2000. I saw the hosts get eliminated from the tournament at the first game and in the second saw what is likely to be remembered as one of the best games ever in the Euros.

First stop was the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels to see Turkey take on Belgium. The Belgian’s fancied themselves as they only needed a draw to progress to the quarter-finals but this was a tournament that showed Turkey were now no push overs in major championships. In a match that the home side dominated, Turkish ‘keeper Recber Rustu had superb game setting it up for Hakan Sukur to score two unanswered goals. It was certainly a case of Turkish delight for the many Turks living in Brussels after their 2-0 win. They took to the city centre streets to celebrate the victory long into the night driving around hanging out of cars and flying the Turkish flag.

Two days later we were in Bruges to see a classic as Spain beat Yugoslavia in a dramatic game. The match had everything; seven goals, sendings off, pitch invasions, injury time drama, flares and the game even saw the referee coined from an irate spectator at the end of the game.

This was back in the day when Spain were always the dark horses coming into the tournament before generally getting eliminated in the quarter final. It would be the same story this year. However, it looked like they weren’t even going to make it out of the group in this game played in Jan Breydel Stadium going initially 1-0 down after Savo Milosevic’s headed goal on the half hour mark

The Spanish fans were outnumbered several times over by the large Yugoslav cohort who didn’t seen to be too friendly to a group of us when they heard us speaking English on the way to the match. The bombing of Belgrade by UK Royal Air Force, just a year previously may have been a reason. The fact we were Irish probably escaped them.

They took over one end of the ground with only several hundred Spanish fans including the famous Manolo with his big drum at the other end. We were thankful that we were amongst the friendly Spanish fans who were celebrating after Alfonso equalized for their team as the game approached half time.

Just after the 50th minute mark it was 2-2 after two goals in two minutes thanks to two substitutes . Yugoslavia struck first from Dejan Govedarica and then Pedro Munitis equalised for La Roja. The Yugoslavs were reduced to 10 men just after the clock ticked past the hour. The match was delayed for this red card and when a spectator somehow make it onto the pitch to remonstrate with the French referee Gilles Veissiere. The ref would later be struck by a coin from the crowd after the final whistle.

Slobodan Komljenovic put Yugoslavia 3-2 up on 75 minutes and his team seemed to spend the last 15 minutes of the normal time doing plenty of time wasting and kicking of the Spaniards as they cynically tried to run the clock down picking up five yellow cards along the way. This was a team including Sinisa Mihajlovice that had two players sent off in their first group game. As the match went into injury time, Spain were effectively out as they still needed two goals to get the win they required to get out of the group.

Spain got an equalizer when Mendieta scored from the penalty spot in the 91st minute after Aberlardo was fouled in the area. Then with the stadium clock showing seven minutes of injury time, Pep Gardiola desperately hit a long ball (yeah, I know!) into the area that Ismael Urzaiz knocked down to Alfonso. His crisp volley ripped the back of the net and as he wheeled away in celebration on the pitch, the Spaniards, Irish and even some Rangers fans in our end of the ground jumped around in celebration. What a comeback! Yugoslavia 3 Spain 4. A game to remember. Don’t think we will see a similar scoreline in Gdansk this day next week!

24 years awaiting…

It is 24 years since Ireland’s one and only appearance at a European Championship and no I’m not quite old enough to have been in Germany back in ’88! I watched the Ireland v England game in between track and field athletic events in Santry Stadium. A big screen was set up at the back of the stand to watch and I remember wild rumours of a second goal as I was waiting for a relay race that day but 1-0 would be very much good enough by the end of that game in Stuttgart.

I watched the 1-1 draw against USSR at home and must have re-enacted Ronnie Whelan’s celebration at least a hundred times in the days after the game. Maybe my knees still have the scars.

And of course we all remember the infamous Holland game where we were minutes away from reaching the semi final before cruelly conceding that freek Wim Kieft goal…well I don’t as it was a friend’s birthday party and we were at the cinema during the game. I hate ‘Flight of the Navigator’ – rubbish film!

From Sunday on, we will be making new memories to hopefully rival Stuttgart, the Genoa shootout, Giants Stadium and Ibaraki. Ahead of the start of the tournament, I’m going to have a quick look back at a couple of European Championship games that I’ve attended. From this weekend, the aim will be to post a blog or two from Poland and maybe even Ukraine if things go right for Ireland!

First up will be a couple of games at Euro 2000 including one of the all time great games at the Euros…

League of Ireland opening weekend – the view from Italy

By the time February and March comes around for League of Ireland fans, we are rested and ready for the action of the new season, welcoming the return of football with relish. There is that sense of expectation, excitement and promise about the new season.

So on the first weekend of the season I was looking forward to watching Shamrock Rovers in their season opener against Drogheda. But instead of being in Hunky Dorys Park, I was in Milan following the game on Twitter and through extratime.ie match updates. Maybe I’m not getting much sympathy here though!

The previous Monday my boss had dropped by my desk and asked a leading question or two. “Do you like Italian food?” Yes, I replied, wondering where this was going. “Do you like Italian food in Italy?” I had a good idea where this was leading to and it wasn’t up the M1 to Drogheda on Friday but a trip to the airport and beyond.

So the end of week was spent working out of our company’s Milan office and having to follow the Drogheda v Rovers game online when my day’s work was done. I had naturally looked up the football fixture list to see if there was some live football I could see in Milan. However, with Milan away and Inter home but late on Sunday night, I took a trip to Turin on Saturday.

In the afternoon I took the number 15 tram towards Superga, the hill that rises above Turin to the north east. On a clear day you can see right across Turin but not today. Whilst it is unseasonably warm for early March at 18 degrees, there is also a haze that prevents me from seeing even the cathedral in the city centre that hosts the famous Shroud of Turin.

It isn’t just the view I’ve come up to try and see or the Basilica of Superga completed in 1731 but it is to pay homage to the death of il Grande Torino team. In 1949, this team was lost to the mountain when the plane carrying the team crashed into Superga when it was shrouded in low cloud. All 31 people on board were killed. Torino were reining Italian champions, having won four league titles in a row. Incredibly 10 Torino players started for the Italian national team in a game against Hungary the previous season.

Behind the Basilica, there is a simple monument to the team with the names of the Campioni d’Italia listed. Beside it is a photo of the team in their famous maroon jerseys and fans have placed on the monument a few mementoes. Sadly Torino as a club never seemed to recover from the loss of this famous team and since this tragedy have one only one further Serie A title.

It is hard not to think of similar sporting air crash tragedies like the infamous 1958 Munich air disaster or the loss in 1993 of the Zambian football team (the team talked about much recently following Zambia’s capture of the 2012 African Cup of Nations). It is so hard to fathom the loss of a complete team from incidents such as these.

That evening I head out to see Juventus, a team that at times has dominated Italian football as Torino did in the 1940s. They are playing in their new stadium completed last season on the site of their old 67,000 capacity stadium. First impressions are that it is small but that is no real surprise as it is only a 41,000 capacity arena and it is not quite full on the night. The aim of the new arena for Juve was to get a compact stadium unlike the unloved old Delli Alpi stadium. Gone is the running track and stands stepped back from the pitch. Instead there is a tight stadium with tiers close to the pitch rising steeply up from close to the sidelines.

Purchased online, €30 has got me a ticket in the second tier in the Curva Nord. The roof above has four elegant curved toblerone steel roof trusses around the perimeter. Four column ties mean that it is not quite an uninstructed view for some in the ground but there are great sight lines from where I am in the top tier. Pictures of Juventus legends adorn the stadium exterior and interior including one of current Ireland manager and former Juve coach Giovanni Trapattoni.

Juventus, who are unbeaten in the league this season, are looking get a win to keep pace with Milan who won 4-0 earlier in the day. The small pocket of Chievo fans down below me to my right make themselves heard. They give it the “Juve Juve vafanculo” chant that seemed to offend the Juve fans when the Shamrock Rovers fans sung it at them when the clubs played in Europe in 2010!

The home side open the scoring after 17 minutes. Andrea Pirlo floats a free-in evading everyone but the post. The luck is with the bianconeri though as the ball bounces out to the unmarked Paulo De Ceglie who heads home unmarked. Chievo don’t really trouble Gianluigi Buffon’s goal in the second half. They force a couple of set pieces but it looks like they can’t break down the Juve defence marshalled by Giorgio Chiellini. Or so it seems until the team from Verona score on the break with fifteen minutes remaining. The ball comes to Boukary Drame outside the box and the Senegalese player’s shot is deflected into the net off a Juve defender for the equaliser.

To find the winner, manager Antonio Conte brings on Alessandro Del Piero, a player it seems who isn’t far off the age of that famous shroud housed in the Duomo. Juventus press forward during the five minutes of injury time and Pirlo gets a right foot shot away from 25 yards. The Chievo ‘keeper Sorrentino, who has got plenty of verbal abuse all night, dives full length to palm away Pirlo’s powerful shot. It is another draw for Juve, their 12th in 25 league games.

The home crowd voice their disapproval with a chorus of boos at the end. The Chievo players run to their supporters at the north-east end of the ground to celebrate. Jerseys are thrown into the away crowd as the crowd empties in the home end. I don’t understand Italian but I can comprehend the tone of the conversations on the tram back into Turin city centre. Two points dropped was the message I picked up anyway. Time to head home for me; some domestic football awaits back in Ireland!

Four Continent Football: Part 4 – Europe (Shamrock Rovers’ first game in Tallaght)

Four Continent Football: Part 4 – Europe (Shamrock Rovers’ first game in Tallaght)

It seemed over a two decade period that Shamrock Rovers had played home games in the four corners of the world even if that wasn’t actually the case. This time three years ago everyone at the club was building up for probably the biggest home game ever – our first proper home match since the eviction from Milltown back in 1986.

I’ve reminised recently about attending football matches across four continents including Asia, South America and Africa but in this final blogpost of Four Continent Football, we are in Europe and I’m bringing it back home for Shamrock Rovers’ first game in Tallaght.

Since leaving Milltown, it was only really in the time period at the RDS (1990 to 1996) that it felt like they were home games for Rovers. In the years since Milltown, home matches were played in various grounds rented off our rivals including playing in Tolka Park, Dalymount Park, Richmond Park and, probably most embarrasingly, Turners Cross. That night in Cork when the Hoops ran out to play a home game over 250km from Dublin not actually wearing hoops but their away strip, was one of the very many low points that has surrounded the club during my time as a supporter.

The build-up to certain big games can seem like years but the build up to Rovers’ first game in Tallaght was that, it was over a decade in the making. Planning Permission had been granted in 1997, the sod had been turned with the builders coming on the site in 2000, they came off site the following year, and finally come back on the site in May 2008. In that period Rovers went bust, had the fans take over the club and got relegated. South Dublin County Council had taken ownership of the site and a lengthy court case had ensued when the GAA tried unsuccesfully to get their grubby little hands on the keys to access the stadium.

When the 2009 fixtures came out, we could finally see in black and white Rovers were finally scheduled to play in Tallaght. There was symmtery to the fixture with Sligo Rovers providing the opposition for the first game in Tallaght, just as they had done for the final game in Milltown. The first game in the RDS back in 1990 was awful and half of the 20,000 crowd didn’t come back for the next game. I was somewhat worried that the game would be an anti-climax but it wasn’t. It was everything I’d hoped for and more. There were goals, there was drama and there was a Shamrock Rovers win. We’ve kept coming back for more ever since.

That day so many people came up to me in work and wished me and the club well. It was one of those days where it was very hard to concentrate on anything but the match. At around 4 o’clock my boss told me to head off. He knew what it meant for me. Everyone knew what it meant. I got countless e-mail and texts from friends telling me to enjoy the game and enjoy it I would. When I got into stadium, people were hugging each other. This was the moment we had dreamed about for so long and now it was a reality. People were walking around trying to take it all in with a permanent smile on their faces and a ball hadn’t even been kicked at that stage.

As well as being Rovers’ first game in Tallaght, it was Michael O’Neill’s first home game in charge of Rovers. It was a much changed Rovers side with a new strike partnership of Dessie Baker and Gary Twigg. The fans were wondering who this Twigg player was that O’Neill had paid out a transfer fee for to bring from the Scottish Second Division and could he combine with Baker, a player most thought was past it.

It was telling last December when Michael O’Neill took leave of Shamrock Rovers that he spoke about that night. He was asked about what he would remember most from this tenure in Tallaght. He didn’t pick winning one of the three major trophies claimed during his time managing Rovers or one of those amazing nights against a heavyweight of European football like Real Madrid, Juventus, Partizan Belgrade or Spurs. “The most enjoyable night was my first night here at Tallaght, when we beat Sligo,” recalled O’Neill of opening night in the new stadium. “To see the look on the supporters faces after being 20 years on the road and just to see what it meant for them was fantastic.”
The passion and noise generated as the teams came out was almost overwhelming and many a tear was shed on the night. 22 years of pent up frustration at the loss of Milltown and a home of our own, spilled out in a wall of noise when the teams emerged. I certainly let out a primiordal roar anyway!

It was a horrible night weather wise in Tallaght but in every other way it was perfect. If we were wondering would Twigg do the business in Tallaght, we weren’t wondering much longer after the opening period of the game. First Twigg had a goal dissallowed. Then after 18 minutes we saw what we now know as classic Gary Twigg. He got a sniff of the ball in the box and scored. It seemed that as soon as he swiviled and got his shot away over his shoulder, the ball was in the back of the net and he was celebrating in front of the Ultras.

On opening night, there was only one stand constructed in the stadium and it was filled to 3,500 capacity and probably a bit more! In front of the live TV cameras, Shamrock Rovers searched out a second goal early in the second half and got it. Ollie Cahill made a great run down the left and found Dessie Baker whose finish put the Hoops 2-0 in front. The Baker-Twigg strikeforce would continue to do damage during the rest of the season with Rovers finishing runner’s up in the league at the end of the year.

This wasn’t an exhibition game though and Sligo did not come just to make up the numbers. The home side had to earn their win and there was some nervous moments toward the end of the game following Gavin Peer’s 82nd minute goal for Sligo. The Hoops never make it easy but had to go an earn that win on opening night. The celebrations at the final whistle continued long into the night. The win, our first home win in over two decades, was a long time coming. We were home.
KOH!

Four Continent Football: Part 3 – Africa (Italy v Slovakia)

February 19, 2012 2 comments

Italy 2 Slovakia 3, Ellis Park, Johannesburg, South Africa (24 June 2010)

There was huge disappointment with the recent postponement of the France v Ireland Six Nations game just minutes before kick off. This of course is not the first time that Irish supporters have travelled to Stade de France and have come away feeling as if they’d been cheated. Back in 2009, I stood there stunned at Ireland’s elimination from the World Cup qualification process thanks to Thierry Henry’s ‘Fagan’-like pickpocketing of Ireland.

I had always wanted to travel to South Africa and the 2010 World Cup was the great excuse to do so but I would be going now as a neutral. My disappointment at Ireland’s elimination was heightened as I already had tickets bought and paid for had Ireland qualified. However with this money refunded to me from FIFA it allowed me to buy tickets for a number of games across one week in Johannesburg and Pretoria.

I could have written about watching the host nation play Uruguay or maybe seeing South American heavyweights of Argentina or Brazil win during the World Cup but the game that sticks in my mind is the elimination of the then World Cup holder France by Slovakia.

These are two teams that Ireland fans know reasonably well. The Italians will always bring a squad bursting with household names but they were even more familiar as it was the Italians that topped the qualification group pushing Ireland into the ill-fated play-off in Paris.

The Azzurri were lucky to have avoided defeat to Ireland when Giovanni Trapattoni’s men drew 1-1 in Bari the previous year. Slovakia would end up in Ireland’s qualifying group for this summer’s European Championships but couldn’t match the expectation that their play and results in the 2010 World Cup gave them.

During my time in Johannesburg, I had stayed in a small Pension Hotel in the Sandton district of Jo’burg. All the other guests staying there were out there for the World Cup. It was great to chat with the mix of football tourists from Australia, USA, Brazil and England who were out supporting their team and also attending some other matches of interest. The Pension was also a good place to pick up tickets for games. I managed to get my hands on a Category Four locally priced ticket at face value for the Italy v Slovakia game.

Having paid top whack of in excess of US$100 each to see the other five games I was at it was nice to pay the equivalent of €14 to see the World Champions play. However €14 doesn’t exactly get you the best seat in the house so it was an awful long trek up to the second highest row in the main stand in Ellis Park. This was the venue where Nelson Mandela presented the trophy to victorious Springbok captain Francois Pienaar after the 1997 Rugby World Cup final.

Sitting beside in the nosebleed section was one of the marketing team from Nike Mexico who obviously hadn’t exactly got a prime sponsors seat. She was quite entertained when I thanked her for her country defeating Thierry Henry’s France team earlier in the competition especially when I showed her the video of the group of Irish fans celebrating their victory in a local Joburg bar.

The Italian team had lived up to there slow starters name in World Cups having drawn their opening two games. They never really got going in this final group game until they were too far behind a Slovakian team who punished their mistakes. The Slovaks took the lead half way through the first half with a goal from Robert Vittek. They double their lead with fifteen minutes to go with Vittek, the Man of the Match, scoring again nipping in front of Cannavaro to finish. It seemed Marcelo Lippi’s were going to go tamely out of the competition having drawn 1-1 in their games to date against Paraguay and New Zealand.

The last 10 minutes were as hectic a finale you are likely to see in a World Cup group game as the two teams scored four goals with each goal momentarily silencing the Vuvuzelas in the 53,000 plus crowd. With second half substitute, Andrea Pirlo pulling the strings first Italy pull a goal back from Antonio Di Natale and then think they’ve equalized but an offside flag means they haven’t. As the World Cup holders push for the equaliser though, Robert Kopunek scores to make it 3-2 to Slovakia as he latches onto a long throw to catch out the sleepy Italian defence.

Italy reduce the deficit to one as Fabio Quagliarella scores with a delicate lob over the Slovak ‘keeper. In injury time the Italians pile on the pressure seeking the equaliser that would put them through to the next round but it isn’t to be. I venture down behind the goal to collect my flag and the Slovakian team are still celebrating down there with their fans. Italy have slunk off the pitch, no doubt wary of the reception awaiting them at home. The World Champions are out and my time in Johannesburg is up. Time to head south for a few days in Cape Town before flying home from the World Cup for another four years anyway.