Up until a couple of months ago this weekend was going to be spend in the wonderful city of Kiev, watching England put the finishing touches to their World Cup qualifying campaign against Ukraine. Then a couple of things happened. Firstly, the Ukranian FA was put on the spot by UEFA concerning arrangements for Euro2012 that they were co-hosting with Poland. Concerned by the lack of progress on building work on their four stadiums, UEFA issued an ultimatum to Ukraine. Start digging or the tournament goes to Poland, lock, stock and vodka barrel. Kiev was the main issue – one of Europe’s ten largest stadiums, the Olympic Stadium was in urgent need of an overhaul, especially as it was due to hold the final of the tournament in June 2012. As work hasn’t started UEFA specifically pointed out the short comings and so the chances of England playing their final away game in the group became slim to say the least.
But they flately refused to name an alternative venue. Donestk was the favourite, with Lviv the second choice. Both of these were doable in terms of air transportation. Oh how we all laughed when they announced the venue as Dnpiropetrovsk- a location some 300 miles away from the capital, and a city without a commercial airport.
Of course our friends at Thomson, the FA’s latest money making partner wasted no time in launching their “official” packages at just £569 for a day trip – hardly fair considering the money spent in this qualifying campaign already. Their USP was that they were allowed permission to fly direct to the city, although this was not enough to fill a plane and with three days still to go to the game they had seats still available – shame that.
Secondly, I had grown out of love with following England abroad. Too many wankers to pardon the pun. Too many so called “fans” who wanted to travel to drink in the Irish Bar, abuse the locals, try and engage in “banter” with the local football fans and generally do very little of actually supporting the team in the stadium. The degeneration of the EnglandFans message board is a case in point, with anyone who offers decent advice or information about new places, or asks a simple question getting abuse for their troubles. It had got to the point where I simply could not be bothered to travel. Finally, England had qualified. Ukraine at best could hope for a Play Off spot but with Croatia playing Kazakhstan needing just two points for a play off spot it seemed a fruitless task. Hard to see many of the players actually trying their hardest for this one.
I was not alone. I knew of at least a dozen EnglandFans in the same boat, disillusioned with the FA. Dagenham Dan was one such fan and he suggested we try something different. What about Dublin for Ireland v Italy? The game was being played at Croke Park – tick, never done that one. Flights were just £38 each – tick, bargain. Croke Park hotel secured – tick. Friday night league game anyone – tick. So all the makings of a decent weekend away. Press passes secured early doors meant that we also built in some cultural time alongside the Guinness, football and of course the lovely Irish ladies.
But first we had to endure a slice of service Ryanair style. No faults with the actual service on this occasion, although the 100% Eastern European crew (Maric, Stefanov, Vlad, Margeriz etc) did their best to scowl at us as we boarded. Our dear captain also needed reminding on numerous occasions when to turn the seat belt sign on and off and got a ticking off from the senior cabin crew make up woman for turning it on at random as we passed over Redditch. Perhaps he, like Dan and I reacted as if they had been presented with a bill for a glass of “champagne” in a Hungarian gentlemen’s club (sorry an in-joke there for those who attended the 2008 GroupNBT Sales Incentive trip to Budapest and visited THAT bar) when he saw the price of refreshments on board our flight of fancy. Are you sitting down? Then I will summarise:-
A Cup-A-Soup (you know those things you buy in packs of 5 for £1.30 in the supermarket) – £3.25
A SMALL tub of Pringles (sold at 2 for £1.89 for the large tub in most Tesco’s) – £2
A Bag of Mini-Cheddars – £1.80
A bottle of water – £2.70
A mini can of Pepsi – £1.60
A small can of Carlsberg – £4.05 (approximately twice the price per volume I paid in Oslo, the most expensive city in the world on Tuesday)
And finally, ladies and gentlemen may I introduce you to a 330ml can of Pear cider for just £5.40
After fleecing most people for their food and drink they introduced us to their latest product. Fed up with promoting the “Bullseye Baggies” (premium spirits in a sachet at only £4.50) they pulled out “Smokeless Cigarettes” for those passengers who couldn’t get through the flight without their addiction – for Christ sake it is a 65 minute flight! Still a few people coughed up their £6 for a pack of 20 which looked suspiciously like those candy ones you used to buy when you were 12 to make yourself look hard.
A bus and the a twenty minute walk found us outside our hotel, the Croke Park Hotel, which was errr opposite Croke Park. Our room looked out onto the main entrance and officially became “The nearest hotel I have stayed to a football ground, without being in a football ground” – quite an honour on TBIR I can tell you! We had to try and track down our accreditation, which proved difficult as we were sent from one side of the stadium to the other, before Seamus eventually said we had to come back at 3pm tomorrow, but we could come back later for the Italian “walkabout”.
So we headed off to the city centre in the pouring rain and did what everyone does in Dublin, headed into a bar in Temple Bar and paid €5 for a pint of Guinness. Did it taste any different to at home? Not really but it bloody well should’ve done! Filled with food (from the €5 Burger factory) and good spirits from the musician in the Temple Bar we walked westwards to visit St James’s Gate and get some pictures in front of the famous Guinness sign. No time for the tour today as we had a date with 18 Italians, all male I’m afraid. Yes we were back for the official Italian Team Walkabout. We headed back to the stadium where a security guard asked who we were, then secretly wrote our names down on a bit of paper and whispered we were on his list (Of course we were – you just wrote our names down!) and we could proceed. We stood, along with a dozen or so other media types on the far side of the pitch whilst the Italians stood on the near side, looking very stylish in their grey jackets and shoulder bags looking completely uninterested, or Italian as we would more commonly say. They stayed out for 30 minutes, obviously confirming it was a proper pitch and not one made of cheese and then went back inside. Dan and I nipped back to the hotel, bagged a taxi and told him to “Go West” to Dalymount Park, home of Bohemians.
Bohemians 4 Drogheda United 0 – Dalymount Park – Friday 9th October 7.45pm
Two seasons ago this would have been a championship decider. Two season ago Drogheda came without a hairs breadth of a post of knocking out the mighty Dynamo Kiev of the Champions League qualifying (playing the second leg at Bohemians home ground). The Irish League Champions had a bright future, or so they thought. Just a few months later they went into administration (called examinership in Ireland) and were docked 10 points, killing off any hope of a title and opening the door to their finest talent to walk away. Bohemians took their chance to retain top spot and won the 2008 Irish league and nearly created their own Champions League upset this season with a narrow defeat to Red Bull Salzburg.
We pulled up in a cab, just a mile down the road from Croke Park and went through the gate into the ground. Well, when we say through a gate it was more of a door where a bloke with a bucket just collected money and us with tickets were manhandled inside. We went and sat with the away fans, simply because of the noise they were making and the colours they were displaying – Claret and Blue. The Drogheda fans are known throughout Ireland for their passionate (but harmless) support. The Famous45 Ultras travel all over the country to watch their team and made us very welcome especially when they found out that I was a West Ham fan, as a number of them also followed the Hammers, apart from one fan in front of us who revealed his Spurs shirt to us (He wasn’t that bad though as he then shared his Curry Chips with us). Chaps you can be very proud of the support you give to your team.
The game wasn’t that good, and the surroundings are quite desperate. Dalymount Park is really showing its age. Only two sides of the stadium are in use – the main covered stand and a shallow uncovered stand behind one goal. The rest is left empty. They club had hoped by now to have moved to a new stadium near the airport but the construction is being delayed by a number of legal issues. Bohemians finally broke the deadlock on twenty seven minutes when Byrne capitalised on some slack defending and rolled the ball into the net. Highlight of the half was a young kid, specky twat we will call him, who ran along the row of seats doing the “V” signs to the away fans. Hilarious and in other situations he would have got a big slap. One became two a few minutes later when the impressive Ndo volleyed over his shoulder in off the underside of the bar.
Left back Powell scored the goal of the game in the 54th minute when his miscued cross flew over the keeper and into the net. He duly obliged us with a photo opportunity and slide down towards us, nearly making me drop my curried chips. By this stage we had been joined by a motley crew. We had a dozen or so Italians, taking an opportunity of a game before the main attraction tomorrow and they had dressed the part. Stone Island and D & G were the order of the day. And then we had the young boys who were keen to trying to invade the pitch or swap their Primark finest for the Italians fine togs. You had to admire their cheek and when Crowe scored a fourth in injury time they decided to run along home. We followed suit, heading back to the hotel and a fine pint of Guinness (the best of the weekend actually) in the trendy hotel bar before retiring to bed.
So after a fantastic breakfast, which incidentally went straight into the Fuller Hotel Breakfast Hall of Fame (The award for the 5 best hotel breakfasts in the world with number 1 still being held by the Emperador in Madrid from 1999) we headed south to take a peak at preparations on the Aviva Stadium, or Lansdowne Road for those who are Naomi Klein fans. The stadium is still a building site (doh, of course) but is taking shape nicely and is due to open officially in August next year for a sell out game versus Argentina. It has already been given the honour of hosting a major European final when the Europa League final comes to town in May 2011. With the Irish white pudding still sitting heavily we opted for the taxi option for our next venue on the whistle stop tour of Dublin. Or should I say Blackpool? For it seems that according to our latest chauffeur the city is actually named Black Pool which was a tributary of the Liffey just about where Dublin Castle is today and used to be used as a mooring point by those pesky Vikings when they popped in for a quick plunder, pillage and a Guinness. With such a stunning piece of information in my mind I failed to notice on alighting the cab that I had dropped my glasses – you know those things that mean that I can actually make out players on a football pitch from 100 yards up in the sky – so not important then at all!
Kilmainham Gaol is one of the most visited sites in the city, and the most popular that does not involve alcohol. It is an amazing place, full of history (some of which does not fill us Brits with pride I can tell you) and very eerie in places. The more modern part of the gaol was used in films such diverse as In the Name of The Father, Michael Collins, The Italian Job and The Face of Fu Manchu. Culture over for a few hours we headed east back to the Guinness Storehouse for our €15 pint of the black stuff. The “Guinness Experience” has changed dramatically over the years and is now a multi-million pound tourist experience in its own right. Essentially we wanted to get to the Gravity Bar for the view of the city, and of course our pint of the black stuff. So we enjoyed a moment – Dan and I at one of the highest points in the city tasting a real bit of Italy…..along with hundreds of foreigners squeezed in the bar. Hardly atmospheric!
After we had completed our complex swapping of hotels (the Croke Park price had now gone up to €279 for the night) we headed back to the city for the final part of the “big 3” – the Jameson Whiskey Tour. Somehow we managed to get on a tour with a dozen Spanish, a dozen Italian and a few other nationalities who between them could understand 1 in every 20 words our very cute Bridget (I haven’t got the foggiest what her name was but she deserved to be called such a lovely name) and so we essentially enjoyed our own private commentary cumulating in a drop of the hard stuff, which shamelessly Mr Campbell drank with Coke! Take the man out of Dagenham but Dagenham stays in the man!!! We were also unsurprised to hear of the events in Ukraine, firstly that Rio Ferdinand had cost his country another goal but the game had been held up due to crowd “issues”, which of course would be swept under the table by Mr Blatter or even more realistically somehow blamed on the travelling English fans.
So off to the cathedral of Croke Park. We were whisked up to the 7th floor aka God’s Waiting Room where we expected exquisite canopies of the finest Dublin Bay prawns or at least some tender Irish beef. Instead we had a choice of Chicken and stuffing, BLT or Ham salad – sandwiches. We had been starving ourselves all day for some inferior M & S sandwiches. Still, I reminded myself, Football was the winner here and so we headed upstairs for our seats for the main event.
Republic of Ireland 2 Italy 2 – Croke Park – Saturday 10th October 8pm
National anthems, salutes, team announcements and the like out of the way a massive cheer went up, both to signify the fantastic 4-1 victory for Cyprus that had guaranteed the Irish 2nd place but more importantly as a rally call for Trapp’s men to rise to the occasion and record a notable scalp. And what a start. Noise levels had been cranked up to 11 when on nine minutes a free kick on the right was pulled back to the edge of the box and Glenn Whelan hit the ball better than he had ever done and it was 1-0 to the Irish.
Passion took them through the next fifteen minutes without Shay Given having to make a save. Then the Italians turned up the heat in the twenty fifth minute when a smart Grosso shot got the first save of the game out of Shay Given. But just thirty seconds later it was 1-1 as a powerful Camoranesi header from a corner was too much for Given to keep out.
Half time and honours were even and news started filtering through of the next wave of teams now able to the officially be robbed in South Africa next year. Denmark (top work chaps), Germany, Ivory Coast and Serbia had all guaranteed their spell in a police station filling out pointless forms, with Bosnia, France, Russia and Greece ensuring a play off spot. So not the easiest of teams to play if Ireland did finish in second place. Italy started the second half the stronger and had the ball in the net after 47 minutes but the goal was ruled out for offside.
It was stalemate for most of the rest of the second half. The odd cynical Italian foul here, the odd negative sidewards pass from the Irish there but it exploded into life with just 2 minutes remaining when Sean St Leger dived low to head home a Stephen Hunt free kick. The joy of a whole nation was clear to see as everyone to a man jumped in the air to celebrate. The Italians still saw time on the clock and for the first time in an hour stepped up their game and played a patient passing move up the pitch, finding Gilardino on the edge of the box and he broke the Irish hearts again, levelling the scores and sending the Italians through to South Africa, and meaning the Irish had to go onto the pot with the likes of Russia and Bosnia to fight it out for one of the final four European spots.
So after the press conferences, bizarrely for an International game both done in English and Italian by both managers we were off back to our little hotel. We looked on enviously at the Croke Park Hotel as we wandered past it, with the party in full swing and headed north in a taxi. We got out of our cab and were immediately propositioned by two girls who with heavy make up and short skirts could easily pass for 12 or 13, drinking a strange coloured liquid out of Fanta bottles (it could have actually been Fanta but that would ruin the story). They offered a “Saturday night special” which I assumed involving them coming up to our room before nicking our stuff and then claiming we had tried it on with two underage girls – I don’t think our case would look that good in a Catholic country so I threw back my best Danish and disappeared into the bar for one final pint of the black stuff. I never knew Blackpool could be so much fun!