Bradley’s Babes bearing their Teeth

14 Jul

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Twelve short months ago, Shamrock Rovers Europa League 1st leg match with Finnish team RoPS finished in a limp, depressing and abysmal 0-2 defeat for Rovers at home. If the Finnish team was half decent we could’ve stomached it, but that wasn’t the case. RoPS were poor, Rovers were wretched. Killian Brennan told fibs on Social Media that his family was abused at the game. Brennan didn’t try a leg that night, he never tried a leg in his two horrendous spells at the club. The team was dead, the season was already going down the pan, fans were staying away and the Board acted. Fenlon paid for it with his job.
I wrote a blog after Fenlon left – https://irelandfaneuro2012.wordpress.com/2016/07/ and I pleaded that the next Manager would at least give us an attacking ethos back. That he would bring in players who wanted to be at the club and bomb out Billy Big Bollockses like the Brennans and the likes of Quigley and Zayed who were toxic in a team and alienated the fans with their nonsense.
The Board appointed Stephen Bradley as Caretaker boss. His first game was the 2nd leg v RoPS and a creditable 1-1 away draw was gained, even though Europe was over.
His second game was the 3-1 battering of Bohs where Bradley gave young Aaron Dobbs a start and saw young lads Dean Clarke, Shaw and a wonder goal from teenager Sean Boyd on the scoresheet. Bradser was laying down an early marker. He was giving youth a chance.
It was by no means plain sailing for Rovers for the rest of the 2016 season. Good performances were also sobered up by some hammerings as Bradley struggled to build solidity into a good forward thinking team. Cork scored 5 in Tallaght and it could’ve been more. The FAI Cup evaded us again as again Cork swatted this honest but brittle team aside. The other loo la Gavin Brennan took to Twitter to goad Bradley about his playing of these promising teenagers and thankfully Bradley sent him up the M1 to join the other muppet.
So despite a mixture of results as Caretaker boss, I was heartened by a promising group of hungry young lads and a return to some progressive football, or at worst an attempt at it given the mind-numbing shite under Fenlon and Croly and the sheer panic and bedlam of the Kenny era.
It wasn’t a huge shock when Bradley was offered the gig full time for this season. Some decent signings came in (Meenan, Lopes, McAllister, Connolly, Burke and most of all Finn), the club was progressing well with Roadstone and while Dundalk and Cork were still a good bit ahead, we hoped we’d hit the ground running.

As we know, the opening third of the season proved to be really frustrating and difficult for Rovers and the pressure was already building on Stephen Bradley. Self-destruct buttons were being pressed too often (Burke scoring in Dundalk, then getting sent off for kicking out, Webster’s silly challenge for a Cork penalty in Tallaght, another stupid red against St Pats from Seán Heaney) and then an abject performance at United Park in a 1-2 defeat with another goal conceded from a set piece. Fans were panicky and restless, Bradser was definitely under some pressure, but to be fair to the board, they were neither panicky nor restless. They gave Bradley the job because they believed in him; they believed in his “give youth a chance” philosophy and also his philosophy on the game that is the complete opposite of the functional, “science of soccer” nonsensical philosophy of Fenlon and Croly; they believed the off the field work and building a grass roots foundation was the way forward.
It remains to be seen if this is all coming to ultimately successful fruition but the signs have been really good in the second third of the season as Bradley’s XI has settled into a recognizable formation. There have been some wonderful team goals, the set piece concessions have reduced noticeably and the fans are really with this team. Despite a poor result against a dreadful St Pats (1-1 with Burke again losing his head stupidly) and the concession of a late equalizer against Limerick, the team have pushed on really well and at the time of writing, still remain in Europe having accounted for Stjarnan 1-0 home and away which was a very decent 180 minutes.
Last night’s Europa game against Mlada Bolesav , although having lost 3-2 at home, showed us again the progress Bradley’s young team is making. Bolesav were a massive step up from Stjarnan and certainly streets ahead of RoPS twelve months ago, but Rovers stood up and were counted, created chances and Burke has by now more than repaid his debt to everybody with two goals, his first has to be up there with one of the greatest goals seen at Tallaght Stadium, it was simply sensational. This performance, despite a home defeat, was worlds away from the rubbish of twelve months ago against RoPS.
There can be no doubt the fans are identifying with this team. A 4-1 defeat to champions-elect Cork City saw no boos, but a rousing and proud send off at the end from the travelling Hoops. A sizeable support travelled to Iceland and emptied their pockets to enjoy a 1-0 win. An even more sizeable support travels to Prague next week for the second leg with Mlada Bolesav with a glimmer of hope that this young team can somehow achieve a minor miracle and advance further in the Europa League. They certainly won’t lack for effort. Effort is your starting point and Bradley has identified and signed players who’ll give you just that every week. The Big Time Charlies are thankfully a thing of the past. Hunger matched with skill is a potent force, youth will make mistakes and they do and will make mistakes, but they’re learning.
Bradley is growing into the job also with impressive and steady progress. Last season’s defence was a real Achilles heel and though the heel is still a bit creaky, the snapping of last season and the early blunders this season haven’t featured as much.
Coming forward, we are really easy on the eye. Shaw is a selfless, deceptively quick, skillful and excellent striker who won practically every long ball (not that we rely on this) last night against Bolesav. Although Trevor Clarke was tightly marshalled against Bolesav, his displays and goals have thrilled us all. Miele has been a tad inconsistent, but with Bohs up in two weeks, we know he loves a goal against that lot and he created Burke’s winner against Stjarnan. Speaking of Burke, since his stupid second red card, he has been on fire, this lad is special, a natural and has a lovely awareness of space, a silky touch and is scoring goals regularly. We should enjoy him while we can, same with Clarke.
In midfield, Finn has been tremendous after a shaky opening half dozen games as captain, he’s leading by example. Connolly has done well after early season injury and McAllister is a reliable and tough foil for Finn when we need to dig in. Defensively, Pico Lopes has brought out a real improvement in Webster in my opinion and Luke Byrne has been solid (although vulnerable to pace) since his return from his awful injury. Madden remains superbly consistent and Chencinksi seems to be keeping the rushes of blood inside his head for the moment and made two superb saves against Stjarnan.
We must also pay tribute to the medical and strength and conditioning staff at Rovers, the team has pretty much picked itself the last couple of months as nobody has been picking up injuries and that’s not a co-incidence in my opinion, let’s hope I don’t put the mockers on that now.
I got carried away after the Limerick game with where this team was going. I don’t think I was the only one. A timely and deserved rebuke from a Board member over a comment I made on Facebook has proved well founded as Bradley’s era makes palpable progress this season after that ropey start.
Third spot will be real battle this season with Derry coming into form and Bray finding some money for the rest of the season after winning in the nearby slots, so we’ll have to play really well to get third. I am optimistic we will however if we can keep injury free and suspension free. The FAI Cup has yet to begin but I won’t go there with that.
This has been the most enjoyable season watching Rovers since our last successful year in 2011 in my opinion. Holding onto players is so difficult nowadays in League of Ireland football, but there’s no reason that from the bottom team age-wise to the seniors, a footballing ethos can be grown that makes losing players a bit easier to bear with everyone knowing their job and what’s expected of them as Rovers players.
The days of mercenaries and washed up contract chasers are gone. The future of Rovers looks bright, hopefully successful but definitely entertaining. That’ll do me for the time being until we can properly compete with Cork and Dundalk.
Safe trip to everyone going to Prague and other surrounding areas next week.
KOH!

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Celtic was my First love and It will be my Last

25 May

My title is a paraphrase of a 70s John Miles song called simply “Music”, a cracking and memorable tune. I would share John’s adoration of music, I doubt he’d share my adoration of Celtic. But then again, many don’t and that’s ok, we all fall for our own clubs for whatever reason.

What I want to try and relay to these folk who for some reason despise Celtic, despite the admirable and crucial reason Brother Walfrid set up the club, which was to attempt to feed, clothe and help the poor and destitute folk of Glasgow  ( many Irish and of Irish descent), this ideal that continues 129 years on, it is primarily for me the deeds of the Lisbon Lions 50 years ago today that started my love affair with Celtic Football Club.

I was eight months old when Billy McNeill held the Big Cup aloft, alone among chaotic scenes in Lisbon’s Stadium of Light. It would be for my fourth birthday or slightly before when Celtic came into my life. My mother’s sister was living in the UK having married a Dundee United fan. Ma came home from her visit to my auntie with three football shirts for three sons (my sister was about 18 months glint away though in dad’s brown eye).  Arsenal, Celtic and curiously, Stoke were the shirts.  As the baby of the three, the green and white hooped one was mine, immediately.

Having taken possession of this random top, my Dad, a fine full back, comfortable with either foot and who played for Ireland Schoolboys in 1950 against Johnny Haynes, started to tell me about Celtic. He spoke of the great Jock Stein, of the sparkling football he read about (televised football, indeed televisions at all, were a rarity) and he explained to me that Celtic had been the first British team to lift the coveted European Cup. He told me of this wee wing wizard named Jimmy Johnstone, aka Jinky. Dad told me he was small, brave, strong, but utterly mesmerising. My Dad didn’t follow any team, but he loved good football and skilful footballers. Jinky fitted the bill for Dad, that did for me.

I immersed myself in Shoot Magazine, pasting up any Shoot pic I could get on my wall. I never missed a Football Focus or an On the Ball in case some highlights of a Celtic game were shown. European nights on BBC’s Sportsnight sometimes showed a few minutes of Celtic. I can still see Atletico Madrid kicking the shit out of Jinky in 1974 (I think was the year) and having three sent off in a 0-0 draw. Maybe this was the catalyst for my insane passion during games as Atletico’s barbarism enraged me. Celtic lost the second leg.

I can see another Sportsnight clip as the late and tragic Johnny Doyle rose like a salmon to head Celtic 2-0 in front over Real Madrid. Celtic lost 0-3 in Madrid. These clips and the scarcity of televised action added to the mystic passion I had for Celtic.

Then in 1981, my birthday present as a 15 year old was a trip to Paradise to see Celtic take on Trapattoni’s Juventus in the European Cup. It was then that I got the tradition, fervour and pride of Celtic on  European night. I was transfixed. Juve possessed Zoff, Cabrini, Scirea, Tardelli and Bettega. Nine months later, most of that team would win the 1982 World Cup. Juve also had Liam Brady. The reception he got at Celtic Park will stay with me forever. Celtic won 1-0. Of course they did. This was a European night in Celtic Park, this is what happened. Murdo McLeod scored late on. I didn’t need the Aer Lingus flight home as I floated back with the memory of a Tommy Burns midfield masterclass.

This 1981 team and every team since is inspired and maybe intimated by the Lisbon Lions. It took to about 15 years ago to finally see the 1967 final from start to finish. I was gobsmacked with what I saw. 2-1 was a ridiculous score. Celtic absolutely annihilated a massively successful Inter team. It was wave after wave of Celtic attacks and goal chances that poured in on Inter’s goal. Keeper Sarti threatened to break our hearts but the relentless skill, passing, confidence and guts of Stein’s team overhauled a half time deficit to utterly murder the defensive Catenaccio game so loved by Helenio Herrera’s Inter. Jinky was my hero, but while he was excellent in that final, as all eleven were, the performances of Bertie Auld and Bobby Murdoch really caught my attention. Auld was silky, elegant, lovely touches and balance, while Murdoch was simply a Rolls Royce and Mercedes combined. What a performance he gave. I’ve watched this game back dozens of times. It us truly brilliant and is surely the greatest performance in a European Cup Final. Watch it and come back to me before rightly mentioning Barcelona in 2011 and the Milan team of Gullit, VanBasten, Rijkaard and Baresi.

So as the 50th anniversary today of Lisbon comes to a close, I make no apology for all my tweets and Facebook posts. This will never happen again, where 11 young men from a thirty mile radius of each other will conquer Europe. So thanks Ronny, Jim, Caesar, Clarky, Big Tam, Jinky, Willie, Bobby Murdoch,Bertie, Stevie and Bobby Lennox and Big Jock. .  Thanks man and dad for the shirt and education.

But Thank You Celtic.

30 Years since Milltown’s last Hurrah: My Greatest Memories.

12 Apr

“Well Holy God” as Miley from Glenroe would’ve said when that RTE rural soap opera was being beamed into Irish homes on a Sunday night thirty years ago.  Rovers fans would probably still have been in Hoops Club bar in Milltown or the nearby Dropping Well or other adjacent pubs after a Sunday afternoon watching our beloved Shamrock Rovers.  Back in 1987, Sunday afternoon was matchday, there was no live League of Ireland action on television other than the FAI Cup Final and barely ever highlights packages.  So Sunday consisted of Mass and Milltown (and Miley if you were into Glenroe).

Holy God, I just can’t believe it’s thirty years since that Irish Press story broke in April 1987 that the Kilcoynes –  then owners of Rovers – were moving the Four-in-a-Row League champions to a “Stadium of the Future” in Tolka Park and selling off our Glenmalure Park for development.

The circumstances that enabled the Kilcoynes to acquire ownership of Milltown from the Jesuits soon emerged as the Jesuits were led to believe it was the Kilcoynes’ plan to develop Milltown into a more modern stadium.  The Kilcoynes planned to develop it alright, for housing.

At a Shamrock Rovers Supporters club meeting in May 1987, Louis Kilcoyne stood in front of us all and stated the reason the club was moving to Tolka Park was for “football reasons” and not to bail out the ailing Kilcoyne business Healy Homes.  He expected us to buy this rubbish, we didn’t of course buy any of it.  It wouldn’t be the last thing we wouldn’t buy off the Kilcoynes as the implications of the move began to hit home to us all.

I’d been going to Milltown regularly as a fan since 1979 when I initially tagged along with my late brother Myles who’d been going when John Giles returned to become Player-Manager in 1977.  My Dad had brought me a few times when I was younger, but in 1979, this impressionable 12 year old soon became hooked on the magical Green and White hoops, the smell of Bovril and booze in the shed, the merciless sarcasm towards our own players if they dared not give 100% and the colourful language to referees such as John Carpenter, Eamonn Farrell, Michael Caulfield and Aidan Gallagher when  they made a poor decision (and by God they made many).    I loved the immaculate carpet of the renowned Milltown pitch and was there when the Shamrock Rovers Development Committee finally helped cobble together the money to have floodlights installed at the old ground in 1982.

The Giles era promised much but delivered little (a sole FAI Cup win in 1978), but from becoming entrenched as a Hoop in 1979, I loved the likes of a young Robbie Gaffney, the teak tough Noel Synnott, the cat-like Alan O’Neill in goal and knew a  young  Jim Beglin (who recently blocked me on Twitter!)  would be lost to the First Division in England (Liverpool came in for him).  I resigned myself that the deadly duo of Campbell and Buckley would eventually be broken up (not before they finally delivered us a title in 1984), but for all my idols in those title-less years, there was always a Tommy Gaynor, a Denis Clarke, a Gerry McGowan or a Ronnie Murphy to have us tearing our hair out in frustration and exasperation.

The arrival of Derryman Jim McLaughlin changed everything in 1983.  Giles had left and his replacement  Noel Campbell, had also failed to bring the title back to Milltown.  McLaughlin however was a proven winner with a superbly talented and physically strong Dundalk team. They had given a decent Celtic team the fright of their lives in a European Cup clash in 1979 (3-2 defeat at Celtic Park and a 0-0 draw in Oriel Park, when the European Cup was knockout only) and McLaughlin didn’t take any nonsense from his players,  he was a proven winner indeed.  McLaughlin referred to Rovers as a “sleeping giant” when he was appointed.  The giant was roused from his slumber and ready to wreak havoc once McLaughlin got to work.

The title was clinched at the end of McLaughlin’s first season at Milltown in 1984 against Shelbourne and so began a glorious four year era at Milltown, three of them under McLaughlin (who found the lure of his hometown club Derry City too good to resist as they were admitted to the League of Ireland) with the final four-in-a-row title won under  Dermot Keely (player/manager).

There were some memorable players in that Milltown era, the predatory instincts of Campbell and Buckley (both were transferred to Belgian and Spanish football after winning the 1984 title) to be replaced by an equally deadly duo in Mick Byrne and Noel Larkin.  Jody Byrne in goal, after a disastrous debut became a reliable and consistent keeper, the telepathy of Kevin Brady and John Coady down the left led to many a goal, the experience and drive of Noel King, the explosive shooting and ball carrying of Liam O’Brien, the exciting wing play of Neville Steedman, the class in defence of Jacko McDonagh (who left for French football after that first title), the versatility and eventual centre-half polish of Mick Neville and led by example from the inspirational, tough, skilful and brilliant leader Pat Byrne.  What a combination of manager and captain in Jim McLaughlin and Pat Byrne, four leagues in a row and three League and Cup doubles from 1985 to 1987.

The European games in Milltown were also great memories.  From a bitter, nasty, spiteful atmosphere against Linfield (Rovers went out on away goals in a 1-1 draw after a scoreless one in Belfast) in 1984, to an heroic 1985 European Cup effort at home to a brilliant Honved team (a 3-1 defeat, but a brilliant performance) and then the memorable but rueful 1-0 defeat to Celtic in 1986 (a late Murdo McLeod goal sank us in game Rovers dominated for long spells), the 1987 European game against Omonia Nicosia at “the stadium of the future”  I’ll come to later.

There were also big scalps in friendly matches at Milltown when the weather in Britain forced the likes of Man United and Arsenal to seek games here.  Both returned to the UK beaten by this vibrant Rovers team, Noel Larkin heading the winner against Arsenal with Larkin again scoring in a 2-1 win over United, Mick Byrne bagging a spectacular winner.  Great nights, great games, great memories.

More personal memories that stand out from my days at Milltown are former Ryder Cup Captain Paul McGinley selling “Soccer Reporter” at the Milltown Road end of the ground after we had played football together at Newbrook Celtic in Ballyboden that morning; Liam O’Brien’s spectacular volley from 35 yards against Bohs in a 3-0 win; Pat Byrne’s late winner also against Bohs as we came back from 1-2 down to win 3-2; fans arriving on a bitterly cold and snowy morning to help clear snow off the pitch and ensuring a match went ahead at Milltown; several Rovers players playing for an Irish Olympic qualifying team and more than acquitting themselves in a thrilling game against  Hungary (I remember the late Barry Kehoe of Dundalk starring in that game, Ireland lost 2-1); Michael O’Connor standing huddled beside a floodlight pylon with his sleeves tucked into his hands as he was so cold; Kitty Mellon and Cindy; the temporary stands for that Celtic game in 1986 that would’ve miserably failed Health and Safety regulations nowadays; so many memories, so many great players (Rovers and opposition), so many great fans, so many golden times.  We’d won Four in a Row and three successive doubles, Rovers were ruling the roost.  Then it all ended in a heartbeat….

The disastrous move to Tolka almost signalled the end of the club.  It certainly tore the heart out of it.  Many fans never returned to support Rovers after Milltown.  The supporters club led a picket outside Tolka Park in the 1987-88 season.  A beatable Omonia Nicosia were Rovers’ opponents in the European Cup that season.  A sparse crowd and an atmosphere of doom saw the Four in a Row team lose 0-1 as we stood outside angry, depressed, disillusioned but determined to return Rovers to Milltown.  A four man team, Gerry Mackey, Brian Murphy (father of RTE Sport’s Con Murphy), Jimmy Keane and Ed Kenny formed the Keep Rovers at Milltown group (KRAM).  Friends and colleagues were encouraged to donate, TDs were lobbied, some of them helped us, some didn’t.  We tried, God knows we tried to save Milltown but sadly it was not to be.  The Kilcoynes acquired their planning permission for houses, An Bord Pleanála threw out any appeals.  We’d lost.  We tried but we lost.  The Kilcoynes were driven out of the club as the fans’ boycott deprived them of any semblance of gate receipt money and various new owners came and went in that dreadful era post-Milltown.   The Four in a Row team fell apart and three key players, Doolin, Brady and Neville rejoined McLaughlin at Derry City as Jim continued his Midas-like touch by bringing silverware to Derry.  Rovers languished and went from ground-sharing to renting the RDS.  A surprise 1994 title under the late Ray Treacy at the RDS brought about a false dawn as key players Alan Byrne and Stephen Geoghegan jumped ship that Summer to Shelbourne.

What followed in those post-Milltown years was 22 nomadic and  -1994 apart – miserable years.  Tallaght Stadium stalled so many times.  Rovers were relegated under Roddy Collins in 2005, on the park the misery was now complete.  The creditors were closing in and the noose was tightening around the club’s neck.  Pat Scully had replaced Collins and Rovers were back in the Premier League at the first attempt in 2006.  The fans ensured that noose was removed and finally, on 13th March 2009, the ghost of Milltown was finally set free as we played our first proper competitive home league game away from Milltown as Tallaght Stadium finally opened its turnstiles.  Fittingly, the last competitive match in Milltown was against Sligo Rovers in an FAI Cup semi-final and Sligo provided the opposition in Tallaght.  On an emotional night, Gary Twigg had to be the man to get the first goal in Tallaght as Rovers won 2-1 (Dessie Baker also scoring).  Amazingly as the week of the 30th anniversary arrives, Sligo provide the opposition this Good Friday in Tallaght.

Who knows where this club would’ve gone had Milltown not been sold?  It’s reasonably safe to say we’d have made it five in a row.  It wasn’t to be however.  While Tallaght has seen us with a fine, modern, convenient and comfortable stadium with superb facilities, it still doesn’t have the emotion or history Glenmalure Park had and Milltown for me will always be in my heart as the spiritual and family home of Rovers.

Tallaght has given us  Gary Twigg.   Despite all the great players I saw at Milltown, Twigg is my favourite Hoop of all time that I was privileged to see up close.  From his first goal in the first game in Tallaght, he set the new stadium alight and did it for four glorious goalscoring years with 88 goals in 160 appearances.  Tallaght gave us two successive titles and Europa League football.  Tallaght has made a real and tangible impact on the huge catchment area of Tallaght and nearby suburbs and is increasingly entrenched in the Community which promises to bring us talented players and more importantly, new generations of Rovers fans.

I last stood in Milltown on St Patrick’s Day in 1988 with my other brother Kevin, we got in to take photos (photos I gave to the Rovers Heritage Trust).  The crush barriers were already bent into the terracing concrete, the lush carpet of green grass was knee high, weeds and tufts of grass littered the terracing and the old rickety stand rang out with ghostly sounds of agony, ecstasy and fans no longer here to witness the demise of this great old ground.  I took my photos and got out of there after one last look, sad, angry and rueful.  What a waste, what a poxy waste.

So many great Rovers fans saw their beloved team for the last time on 12th April 1987 in Milltown.  So many Rovers fans remained after Milltown but sadly didn’t survive to see us playing in Tallaght.  Glenmalure Park will always be the spiritual home of this great club.  Every time I drive by that monument in front of those bloody houses on the Milltown Road I fill up with nostalgia, shaking my head in anger and my fist in defiance.  “Going down the Milltown Road, to see McLaughlin’s aces”.

Thirty years ago, Rovers almost died.  Slowly but surely throughout the following years, the Rovers supporters eventually won the day and took control of the club. For that we are forever in their debt.   Thankfully we didn’t die.  We’ll never die.

Phelim Warren
12th April 2017.

Happy Birthday Dad, with usual greetings from Naka!

21 Nov
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Naka and his magical left leg

I wrote this three years ago to mark my father’s 80th birthday and it was posted on the sadly departed celticjournal.org.  As it’s ten years since my father and I went to Celtic Park to see Celtic beat United 1-0 thanks to that magical free kick from Shunsuke Nakamura, I hope those of you who didn’t read this before enjoy my memory of that special night in Paradise on 21st November 2006.  Ten years eh……..where did they go to at all?

 

Happy 80th Dad, with greetings from Naka!

 

My Dad is 80 today (21st November) and given his age,  he’s doing pretty well apart from the unavoidable aches, pains and plethora of tablets he endures on a daily basis.  He loves his football.  He played for Ireland schoolboys in 1950 against the legendary Johnny Haynes (England won 2-1 in Dublin).  He passed on his love for football (and music for that matter) to my two brothers, sister and myself, but I believe it’s on me that it had the most impression.  It was my Dad who, when my mother came home with three random football shirts from the UK and I chose this striking green and white hooped shirt, explained to me how Celtic became the first British team to win the European Cup in 1967 (I wasn’t even a year old when the Lisbon Lions triumphed).   It was my Dad who showed me Jinky tormenting full backs on those precious black and white snippets of television action before live football consumed (and possibly ruined) us all.   So while my Ma thankfully let me have the Celtic shirt, it was my Dad who told me about Celtic, its Irish connection, its great players and brand of football and the rest is the most wonderful, turbulent and magical history following the Bhoys.

 

I turned 40 in September 2006 and was given a generous injection of cash to mark it. I spotted an ad for one day trips to Celtic’s three Champions League Group games that season, which would be against Copenhagen, Benfica and Manchester United.  It was a no-brainer where to spend my birthday cash and I asked my Dad did he fancy joining me, only half expecting he’d bite.  “When are we going?” he snapped enthusiastically.

 

As we will recall, Gordon Strachan’s 2006 vintage maintained Celtic’s wonderful home record in Europe. A Kenny Miller penalty accounted for plucky and defensive Copenhagen which was followed by a thumping, deafening 3-0 victory over Benfica, with Miller scoring twice and Stephen Pearson adding the third late on.  The final home game however would be against Sir Alex’s Man United.   The climax to the group was approaching and Celtic needed a win to finally make the Champions League knockout phase, a phase that remained out of reach during the wonderful Martin O’Neill era.  It was 21st November 2006, my Dad’s 73rd birthday and what a birthday it turned out to be.

 

The tension was palpable and United had a sizeable travelling support as their heroes warmed up in front of us, seated a few rows from the front of the Lisbon Lions Stand. We could almost shake hands with the United players, but I was never going to do that given what was at stake.

 

The starting XIs were as follows: Celtic:  Boruc; Telfer, Balde, McManus, Naylor; Sno, Lennon, Gravesen, Nakamura; Zurawski, Venegoor of Hesselink.

 

United: Van Der Saar, Neville, Ferdinand, Vidic, Heinze;  Ronaldo, Scholes, Carrick, Giggs,; Rooney, Saha.

 

Celtic, filled with experience and physicality and the 12th man crowd, United with seasoned internationals and arguably two of the best players in the world in Ronaldo and Rooney.  The stage was set for a battle royal and that is what we witnessed.

 

The first half was a fairly cagey affair, United had the greater possession but Boruc was relatively untested and Balde was coping well with the threat of Saha, while Telfer and Naylor were disciplined in taking care of Ronaldo and Rooney (the latter was deployed on the left). Rooney had gone close with a snapshot and Balde’s underhit backpass looked to have let Ronaldo in, but Bobo recoved the ground with those famous giant strides and he did enough to put off Ronaldo whose shot lacked the power to beat The Holy Goalie.  Celtic’s solitary threat on the United goal was a Gravesen header that flashed across the goalmouth, there hadn’t been a lot in Celtic attacking-wise.

 

Strachan was clearly dismayed at Celtic’s lack of first half threat and made two half time substitutions.   Jiri Jarosik replaced Sno, while Shaun Maloney was introduced for an out of sorts Zurawski.   The changes made an impact and both would play a part in the two major incidents of the second half.

 

United continued to look more menacing despite Maloney’s ability to keep possession meaning Celtic looked better than in the first half. Ronaldo made some very dangerous runs which always had the Celtic faithful on edge and one such run and shot had Boruc scrambling across his goal but away wide it went.

 

Saha had a glorious chance to score when Rooney dinked a lovely ball over the back four. Saha was clear with only grass and Boruc ahead of him, but Saha thought he was offside and hesitated fatally which enabled Celtic’s defence to scramble the ball to safety.  In the 79th minute, I remember vividly what happened and will for the rest of my life.

 

Jarosik made a nuisance of himself 35 yards from goal and as he fought for possession with Vidic, the referee deemed Vidic had fouled Jarosik and awarded Celtic a fairly soft free kick.  After the approving cheer from the Celtic Park faithful, an expectant hush fell over the stadium as we knew who’d take the kick.  “Come on Naka”, I said as I clenched my fists and turned to my Dad, “a bit of magic son, you can do it!”.

 

Nakamura moved forward with utter concentration and conviction and caught the ball on the sweet spot. The ball cleared United’s wall and in that couple of seconds it took from the moment it left Naka’s left peg, the trajectory of the ball swerved and dipped incredibly.  Van Der Saar in goal saw it all the way and leapt spectacularly to his left but it was utterly futile.  The ball swerved ever away from the United keeper and only the net stopped it from continuing to bend towards the corner flag.   The ensuing collective roar when we saw Naka’s delivery hit the net was deafening and in unison.  Yeeeeeeeeeeeessssssssssssss!!!  Naka wheeled away to The Jungle side of the ground as team-mates enveloped the Japanese magician.  I hugged my Dad (being careful not to wrestle this 73 year old man to the floor), while he tried to film the fans and my ecstatic celebration (he captured it well, it’s a DVD I’ll cherish) with the other Celtic fans around me in the Lisbon Lions Stand.  What a goal, what a f*cking goal!!!  Celtic 1, United 0.

 

The next few minutes were a blur as we finally ran out of breath celebrating and prayed the next ten minutes would pass by without incident. Those prayers weren’t answered as God was probably still too busy celebrating or watching Naka’s goal over and over on replay.  With the clock inching towards the 90 minutes, Paul Scholes went down outside the box under a Lennon challenge.  It looked like a dive to me but the ref bought it and gave United the free.   Heart in mouth time.

 

Ronaldo took the free and Shaun Maloney rose in the wall and deflected the ball for a corner. We cheered with relief but then we swore in horror as we noticed the referee pointing to the penalty spot for a handball against Maloney.  Expletives filled the air at the injustice of it all, though TV pictures would show Shaun had raised his arm in the wall, it was a correct decision.  Penalty given.

 

Saha placed the ball on the spot, Big Boruc in front of him.   Was Saha’s earlier miss still on his mind?  Would Boruc look even bigger in the goal than he already is?  Would the Celtic fans’ barracking get into Saha’s head?  The answer to those three questions was soon answered.  Saha struck the kick without much conviction to Boruc’s right and The Holy Goalie moved the same side and saved the kick.  Another deafening roar acclaimed the save and the retreating defence cleared the rebound away before United’s players could pounce.  Boruc punched the air, Saha stood dejected 12 yards out, hands on his knees, his head gone.  The roof remained off Celtic Park for the remaining injury time minutes as Celtic players’ adrenalin and final defiance kicked in and the penalty save seemed to empty the last of what United had in the tank.   The final whistle blew, Celtic 1, United 0, what a victory.  Qualification for the knockout phase for the first time, what an achievement.  Nakamura’s goal, what a player.  Boruc’s save, what a keeper.  60,000 singing Celtic fans, what an experience!  My Dad kept filming following the final whistle, the fans kept singing, I’d died and gone to Heaven, this was magic, utterly magic.  I’ve witnessed Ray Houghton’s goal to beat England at Euro 88, his goal to beat Italy at USA 94, witnessing Naka’s sensational free-kick matched those experiences and the Celtic support pushed that experience into a different league altogether.  The fact that my Dad was with me and on his 73rd birthday only re-inforced that feeling.

 

So Happy 80th birthday Myles, that night in Celtic Park seven years ago we’ll cherish forever and Naka will always be to the front of my mind for Dad’s subsequent birthdays, of which I hope there will be many more yet.

 

Phelim Warren

@freewheeler12

Robbie Keane: An Irish Fan’s Appreciation.

26 Aug

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145 caps, 67 goals. Attention grabbing stats  for any player, but then Robbie Keane has been grabbing attention since he burst onto the scene as a professional footballer.  His debut as a precocious teenager for Wolverhampton Wanderers saw him score twice and immediately his name was out there as one to watch, not only as an Irish talent, but a worldwide talent.  It is however his Irish career that I will recall in this tribute.

 

Having identified this kid as one to watch, Sky’s coverage of Wolves’ games enabled me to take a closer look at this 17 year old from Fettercairn. The fact that he hailed from Fettercairn, in the heart of Tallaght and only a stone’s throw from where I was living at the time made sure I watched his progress.  And how Robbie Keane progressed.

 

He was one of a sadly dying breed, the street footballer. I grew up in the 70s and there would be street football matches everywhere back then, using jumpers or bags or whatever for goalposts and being unable to maintain continuity in these games as the roar of “CAR” sent us scattering to the pavements to avoid an irate motorist’s right of way.  Robbie Keane would’ve played hundreds of street matches, honing his tricks, deftness, quick feet and learning to look after himself against the bigger lads who also would’ve clogged their way around street games.  He was doubtless the finest street player  in his locality as he grew up and progressed to organised schoolboy football with Crumlin United.

 

Mick McCarthy was rebuilding an exciting young Irish team around the time Keane was breaking through at Wolves and having given young players their chance in the Irish team already, McCarthy had no reservation in handing Keane his Irish debut as a still 17 year old pup, a friendly away 2-1 defeat to Czech Republic in Olomuc in March 1998. It was however his home debut in April of that year at Lansdowne Road against World Cup hopefuls Argentina that gave the Irish public the chance to see what this kid could become in the future.  Although Argentina won 2-0, Keane delighted the Dublin crowd with his fearlessness, talent and natural ability as he upstaged the then world-class Argentinian star Ariel Ortega.  Robbie Keane was here and here to stay.

 

Keane’s first goals in his beloved Irish shirt were in a home Euro 2000 qualifier against Malta in his fifth cap. His first was a goalscorer’s instinct, turning and scoring in the six yard box following a Mark Kinsella corner.  His second however gave us a real flavour of this former street footballer.  He pickpocketed a Maltese defender 30 yards out, hurdled another defender’s despairing lunge and with the remaining defence panic-stricken, Keane curled a beauty with the minimum of fuss to bring the Lansdowne Road crowd to their feet.

 

He scored two more goals in that Euro 2000 campaign, in the return game with Malta and another absolute nugget in a 2-1 victory over a strong Yugoslavia in Dublin, running onto a Niall Quinn flick on to effortlessly and instinctively drill a low shot into the corner from the edge of the box. It wouldn’t be the last time Quinn would set up Keane for a crucial goal.  Keane also netted the opener in the qualification play-off with Turkey at home, but a 1-1 draw in Dublin and a scoreless draw in a bad-tempered game in Bursa saw McCarthy’s team miss out on Euro 2000.

 

The World Cup qualifying campaign for Japan and Korea in 2002 saw Keane open the scoring in Amsterdam with a wonderful headed goal (2-2 draw) but curiously this was the last goal Keane would score in that campaign until he again got the crucial opening goal in the 2-0 play-off victory against Iran in Dublin with another finish from a Quinn assist. Iran won the return leg 1-0 meaning Robbie Keane was bound for the World Cup.

 

That World Cup was of course memorable for the Saipan Affair, so there would be only one Keane appearing in the Irish team that year. Keane was most unfortunate not to score in the opener against Cameroon (1-1 draw) striking a post in a second half Ireland dominated, but it was the second game against Germany that led to one of those never to be forgotten moments in Irish football.  With the Germans a goal up from early on and time ticking towards the 90th minute, a diagonal from Steve Finnan was won in the air by Niall Quinn. His knockdown was right into Keane’s path and this now polished diamond from Fettercairn never broke stride as he controlled the ball, held off the German defender as he had held off those street cloggers  years before and as the commanding German keeper Oliver Kahn came out to foil Ireland one last time, Keane steered the ball past Kahn and the ball nestled in the net via the post.  The pub I watched the game in shook, glasses were knocked off tables as I embraced everyone around me and the island of Ireland almost visibly levitated at Keane’s wonderful, heroic rescue of a priceless World Cup point.

 

His momentum carried him into the last group game as he yet again (how many times did he do this?) scored the nerve-settling opening goal against Saudi Arabia in a 3-0 win and incurring the wrath of British hack Rod Liddle in the process for his cartwheel/crossbow celebration, which was a joy to behold, both the celebration and Liddle’s ridiculous fury. Still Keane raised  his profile in the knockout phase, showing ice in his veins to convert the penalty to make it 1-1 against Spain at the death of 90 minutes and although Ireland were knocked out on penalties, Keane scored his penalty in the shoot out.  He now had 37 caps, but for a still very young man of not yet 22 years of age, this kid had maturity, composure and balls to add to his God-given talent.

 

Unfortunately it would be ten years before Keane got to show off his talents on the international world stage again, as Ireland failed to qualify for Euro 2004 and 2008 and the World Cup of 2006, under the managerships of Brian Kerr (Keane’s under-age international coach) and the hapless Steve Staunton.  Keane however continued to rattle in the goals in those campaigns and in his 56th appearance for Ireland, he broke Niall Quinn’s goalscoring record by scoring both goals against Faroe Islands in a World Cup Qualifier in 2004, bringing his tally to 23.

 

Bizarrely enough, despite his attaining the new record, some sections of the Irish public were continually scathing and dismissive of Keane’s achievement and contribution to the teams that hadn’t qualified for three successive tournaments. I believe these were armchair and bandwagon “supporters” who latched onto the team post-2002.  Knowledgeable supporters knew the importance and value Keane continued to bring to the Irish team and Keane himself retained that unshakeable belief in his own ability and always turned up to play for his country.  International football remained a must in Keane’s career, yet some chose to berate him at every available opportunity.   A peculiarly Irish trait that both angered and bemused me…………

 

Nevertheless, he continued to take responsibility for taking and missing chances as Giovanni Trapattoni took the reins. It had to be Keane to score that (again!) opening goal on that fateful night in Paris in November 2009, finishing off a wonderfully built goal from the back to level the aggregate scores in the qualification play off second leg.   Henry’s infamous cheating deprived Keane of captaining his country in South Africa that following Summer.

 

Keane would retain the armband as Trapattoni steered the team to Euro 2012 with the skipper netting twice in Estonia in a 4-0 rout in the first leg to ensure the Irish would party like never before in Poland. Sadly the party was all that was remembered as Trapattoni’s team (and fans) endured a miserable three games, scoring one (St Ledger) and conceding nine.   Unlike his great mates Damien Duff and Richie Dunne however, Keane wasn’t ready to pack in his Irish career.

 

The Martin O’Neill era and Keane’s ageing legs saw him play a lesser part in getting the team to France for Euro 2016 and although he scored five goals in the qualifiers, they were against whipping boys Gibraltar home and away. His influence, selflessness and support for the team however was notable and well-publicised as he didn’t throw his toys out of the pram when others were in the first eleven.  While no longer guaranteed a starting place, he was always going to be on the plane on that never to be forgotten couple of weeks in France.

 

Another Robbie, Brady, took the plaudits in 2016 with his emotional winner against Italy in Lille and his opening penalty against France in Lyon (what is with lads called Robbie scoring opening goals?) and Robbie Keane made only two late substitute appearances in the opening two games against Sweden and Belgium. His support however for the bigger picture, the squad and his gratitude to the fans remained 100%.  While Seamus Coleman had inherited the armband, Keane was still the General.

 

So to the opening line again. 145 caps, 67 goals.  His goalscoring record will surely never be beaten by another Irishman.  The street footballer from Tallaght will make his international farewell at Lansdowne Road against Oman next Wednesday.  Nobody deserves to bow out in front of his home fans more than Keane.  We have been blessed with great players down the years, from Jackie Carey, Liam Whelan, John Giles, Liam Brady, Paul McGrath and Roy Keane and more.  We will never see a greater striker than Robbie Keane.  We will see him as a supporter.  We have been most fortunate to be around to see his goals, his passion, his honesty and that street footballing wit and intelligence (his off the ball running and positioning was totally under-rated).  He will deserve every plaudit next Wednesday and hopefully he will bow out with an addition to his 67 international goals.

 

That’d be nice.

All we want is attacking football!

5 Jul

 

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So Shamrock Rovers are in turmoil again with another managerial casualty in Pat Fenlon, a man widely expected to restore the club to some sort of glory again following the short and disastrous reigns of Stephen Kenny and Trevor Croly and since Michael O’Neill’s contract wasn’t renewed in 2011, following two successive titles and the historic qualification to that year’s Europa League group stages.

Being Ireland’s most successful club will always generate discussion among pundits and supporters when things have turned sour.  Things have been pretty sour up at Tallaght Stadium for almost five years now and the supporters are getting pretty sick of it.

They’re not as deluded or unrealistic however as Soccer Republic’s Alan Cawley might think.  Fans may be many things, but the vast majority of them aren’t stupid.  They don’t expect silverware every year, that is impossible and completely deluded.  Rovers (or any other club) aren’t going to win matches every week, or two out of every three weeks for that matter.  We’re long enough going to matches and watching matches of every competition to know that.

What Rovers fans (and I would expect every fan of every club) do expect and demand however is to see a team that is set up to have a go at the opposition (particularly in domestic competition as European football is a different ball game altogether).  They expect to see a team attacking the opposition, or at least be seen to attempt to do so.  They expect eleven players to give 100% effort and application to the team and the supporters.

Rovers fans have become increasingly exasperated by and sick of the cautious, sterile, unadventurous garbage that has become the norm since the departure of Michael O’Neill, who has proved himself to be an outstanding manager by bringing Northern Ireland beyond the group stage of Euro 2016.  They have become disillusioned and angry at some of the absolute chancers and prima donnas who have donned the famous Green and White Hoops since the heady days of Europa League football only five years ago.

Gone are the team leaders of that era such as Dan Murray, Craig Sives, Alan Mannus, Stephen Rice, Chris Turner, Ronan Finn, Dessie Baker and the incredible Gary Twigg.  In their place we’ve seen imposters such as Kerrea Gilbert, Killian Brennan (in both his spells at the club), Mark Quigley, Jason McGuinness, Conor Powell, Oscar Jansson, Conor Kenna and other sub-standard players and questionable characters somehow masquerading as Shamrock Rovers players.

This is why in my opinion the supporters who were attracted by the initial novelty of Rovers arriving in Tallaght in 2009 and being immediately successful are now staying away.  Tallaght Stadium is now seemingly down to the hard core fans again and this is seriously worrying for the board as the club continues to do outstanding work at grassroots level.  Being a great grassroots club however should only be a stepping stone to developing young players and young men worthy of reaching the first team and staying in it.  Rovers fans want a Manager who will bring back the attacking ethos to Ireland’s most successful club.  They want players and characters worthy of the shirt.   Silverware will follow eventually if that model is rebuilt and sustained, but the immediate goal of the next Manager should be attacking football that results in the team being competitive for the League title, something that hasn’t been the case since the last title win in 2011 under O’Neill.

Last Thursday’s limp, clueless and dreadful 0-2 defeat to a very average (at best) Finnish side Rovaniemi in the Europa League had to be seen to be believed.  It was diagonal ball obsession from the back making every delivery up to young Gary Shaw a 50/50 battle.  That Shaw managed to win more than his fair share of these tussles was admirable but with usually nobody on hand to get on the end of Shaw’s flicks on, the Finnish team were under no pressure defensively.  Fenlon’s playing of the exciting and talented Brandon Miele on the left of a “front” three has been an utter waste of this lad’s talent.  What passing moves Rovers did have were sideways and more usually backwards, followed by the diagonal welly towards Shaw.  Is this the best a “modern” coach/Manager such as Fenlon can muster?  It was the same mind-numbing, sterile football under Trevor Croly who was there immediately before Fenlon. One up front at home in league and cup games is ridiculous and ill-befitting a club like Shamrock Rovers.  The fans can’t and won’t stand for it.  That it’s claimed by some that the formation is 4-3-3 is an insult to the intelligence of the supporters.  It’s 4-5-1, it’s safety first and it’s not working and hasn’t worked and won’t work.

A quick look at the goals for column under Trevor Croly and Pat Fenlon makes for grim reading.  138 goals scored in 84 games under Croly and an even more paltry 119 goals scored in 83 games under Fenlon.  That is just pathetic and unacceptable.  Even Gary Twigg would’ve struggled to score goals playing under these guys.

Stephen Kenny’s Dundalk have won two successive titles playing attacking, progressive, strong, winning football in a team packed with strong characters and leaders and hungry young players.  I expect this to become three by the end of October.  This makes Kenny’s failure at Rovers both bizarre and galling for Hoops fans.

The Rovers board really need to get the next appointment right.  They need to start getting fans back through the Tallaght gates quickly.  That can happen with a Manager who has the balls and strength of character to set up Rovers in an attacking way, by passing the ball progressively and with players moving into positions to receive a pass.   By playing two up front as often as possible.  By signing players who want to play for the club with honesty, bravery and passion.   These players should also come with a semblance of a thick skin to take criticism from fans on the chin and not go onto social media whingeing and telling fibs (Gavin and Killian Brennan for a start) when their dreadful performances merit supporters’ wrath.

I don’t know who that Manager may be, but he must exist.  The players required to play for Shamrock Rovers and their fans certainly exist.   The time has come to finally ditch the rubbish football that continues to drive Rovers fans up the bloody wall in frustration and that has driven recent fans back to their armchairs.

Come on Rovers’ board, get it right this time.

Euro 2016 Diary: A week with Catalpa and the Irish Fans

30 Jun

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Day 1, Tuesday 14th June 2016. 

A very unpromising start to the trip as Ciarán, who had been in Paris for the Sweden game, texted at 7am to say the French air traffic controllers were on strike again so a furious trawl through the Ryanair flights soon revealed that our second flight from Stansted to La Rochelle was still unaffected, despite many others in French air space having been cancelled.

Ray’s wife Louise collected me and I spent the trip to the airport checking the flight status and thankfully it remained active.

Two mid-morning airport pints and a “Howya buddy” to Keith Duffy later (travelling out for a sponsored cycle), we boarded the Dublin-Stansted flight, accompanied by a few dozen other Irish fans making their way out to France.  On arrival in Stansted, the departure board told us the flight was an hour delayed so in we went to Wetherspoons and ordered a pint and as the head settled on my Guinness, Ian Byrne from Springfield breathlessly told us the gate was closing for the La Rochelle flight, so the Guinness lay unslurped, Ray took his Carlsberg with him and Ian’s roast chicken lunch went ordered but uneaten as we all legged it to the departure gate.

I said to Ian “but the departure board said it’s an hour late”.

Ian: “When did you check that?”

Me: “Ten minutes ago”.

Ian laughed as we continued to leg it up and down stairs and escalators and the two earlier Guinness sloshing around me stomach.   We got to the departure gate and they hadn’t even started boarding, shower of shite.  Could’ve had me pint but best not take any chances and we were grateful the plane was leaving, whatever time it was, given the strikes.   We took off, relaxed and prepared for arrival at La Rochelle.

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We breezed through the tiny La Rochelle airport about 7pm and took a taxi to bring us to our digs at Pierre et Vacances and as reception had closed, a voice message had given me the instructions to get in to the place and drop our bags as we were keen to catch up with Ciarán and also Dessie and Glenn Sommerville who’d brought out our instruments last week.  Ciarán himself had only arrived at the digs before us so we got in and unloaded the instruments from Des’ car and happy that all were in one piece and we headed up to The General Humbert bar who had kindly given us the two gigs this week.

The Humbert was already very well packed with Irish fans, several of whom were known to me from YBIG so within minutes our hosts, Pépé and Nicolas Bourdel had a steady supply of welcoming pints of Guinness flowing for us and the playlist of various Irish music (including our Irish to the Core track) was beating out through the house speakers.  Fáilte go La Rochelle!!

Welcome to Humbert's

First night,Gaz and Del

We finished the night in a local bar with Belgian beer but by then we were all running on empty, tired, fairly bevvied and ready for the bed, so I don’t think we actually finished off the one beer we ordered there.  Lightweights………….oíche mhaith!

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We emerged from the beds about 10.30 I suppose.  Our room consisted of bunk beds and a sofa bed in the back room.  Ray’s height meant he couldn’t sleep in the bunks so after my initial night sleeping in the top bunk and having a pain in my hole going up and down the ladder at night needing several pisses, I was glad Ray took to the sofa bed for the remaining six nights.

We headed out for a first wander around La Rochelle and looking for some breakfast after a heavy enough first night, although it had been heavy, I’d no hangover which was a big help.  After walking up and down the harbourside a couple of times and my tongue hanging out for some food, we settled on a place beside the two big towers of La Rochelle, each notable by the tricolours of both France and Ireland being flown, La Rochelle was certainly throwing out the Céad Míle Fáilte mat to the Paddies arriving.  We devoured our French brekkie of bacon, eggs, lettuce, orange juice and coffee and enjoyed the really scenic and relaxed atmosphere around La Rochelle.  Two Irish lads joined us and after a bit of banter they told us they’d heard there was a “RA band” playing later, to which to their surprise we revealed our identity as being the “RA band” and we all had a good laugh at that label.  We told them the RA band would be playing at 7 that night, we put on our balaclavas and headed off.

We went for a little stroll around the rest of the immediate town and then had our photo taken by a photographer from Inpho.ie who was doing plenty of snapping as the fans began to steadily appear.

We headed back to our digs and took out the instruments back to the quayside as we felt it mightn’t be a bad idea to tell as many Paddies as we could that we had a gig later in the Square at Place de La Fourche opposite the General Humbert bar and indeed many were glad to know there was something for them to (hopefully) enjoy rather than just sitting in a pub all night getting hammered, it’d be nice to be outside listening to ballads and getting hammered.  So we did two or three songs down at the quayside and that was enough and we headed back up to The General Humbert with the instruments and leads and all the rest for the gig later.

As the digs were self-catering, we raided the local shop for some food and water and groceries so we could at least try to cook and eat some proper healthy food while we were staying and after filling up the fridge we headed back up to the Square to get the sound check sorted out as the gig was starting for 7pm in order that we’d be finished by 9pm when France were playing Albania.

Sound check done and start time up, Irish fans and French locals slowly but surely trickled into the narrow but picturesque Square and by midway through the two hour set, the heat was really on and the middle-aged blonde lady who owned some sort of boutique or craft shop was rocking and boogeying her way through Catalpa’s lively set of songs.  By the last half hour or so, the Square was positively rocking and as we finished the set with our usual end number “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life”, the Irish were in party overdrive by now and it was a great sight to see and lovely to hear the big crowd bellowing it back to us.  Our encore consisted of an acapella “Come on You Boys in Green” and a memorable “I just Can’t Get Enough” (a RA band playing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life and I Just can’t Get Enough – some RA band!) brought the house down and nearly brought the adjoining buildings down such was the noise and bouncing Paddies and French.  Amhrán na bhFiann brought the curtain down on a really brilliant night and we sold a few albums and packed up the gear.  One lad finally succumbed to his drunkenness and the by now severe perspiration by finally removing his jocks with his shirt and shorts having earlier been removed.  It wasn’t a particularly pretty sight, but it was pretty damn funny………. Only one naked fan wasn’t a bad return in fairness.

First Gig

General Humbert’s was absolutely jammed so we decided we needed a quiet comedown from the huge gig high, so we strolled down the street and around to the small but very hospitable Café La Renommée, accompanied by our roadies Des and Glenn and also Paul Lucas from Clondalkin and his beer glove.  The landlady was delighted at our custom as we reflected and wound down with some really nice beers (landlady stood us one on the house) and word got to us that the Irish Daily Mirror had captured our last few numbers and posted on its Facebook page, with views already at some 30,000!!!  We laughed and saluted our good vibe from this and called for five more beers and a Coke for young Glenn.  Dessie then decided he’d buy a glass of champagne back for the landlady, but Dessie being Dessie, decided to buy the whole bloody bottle and share it amongst us.

Ciarán: “For Fuck’s sake Dessie, that’s too much, thanks a million but that’s too much”

Dessie: “Memories Ciarán, memories!!”

Sláinte Dessie.

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First gig in Cafe Renommee

We headed back to Humbert’s and were treated to a hilarious rendition of “Where’s Me Jumper” from Paul Lucas with Ray weaving about behind him.  Very funny it was.

A great night, which I believe we finished with a kebab and fries down the road in Le Rif.

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Day 3, Thursday 16th June.

Bit ginger getting out of the leaba this morning but again, despite some tiredness and a raging thirst, the headache was missing and once Ray had kindly rustled up a decent bacon omelette and Ciarán had delivered some coffee making filters, we were up and running again and ready to face another day of football and beers in La Rochelle.

Tommy Shields from Loughrea had been on during the morning.  Tommy had done an incredible amount of preparatory work to promote La Rochelle to the Irish YBIG members and had, with the also incredible support and generosity and tenacity of Pépé and Nico at General Humbert’s managed to organise a Fans’ game for charity in the local football stadium for the Friday.  So it was arranged for 4pm that Tommy and I, with Nico and Pépé would meet with the Mayor and some of his entourage and get some photos ahead of tomorrow’s game.

YBIG shirts to Bourdels

We  (Ray and Ciarán and myself) first headed up to a fine little bar called Le Diplomate where about a dozen Paddies were playing pool and some of the women playing board games so the landlady was enjoying the good atmosphere in her boozer.  We left there to go back to last night’s venue Café La Renommée to watch the England v Wales game and I legged it at half time with YBIG shirts to give to the Mayor, Nico and Pépé and took a few photos outside the pub.  A players’ meeting was also set up for later, but on reflection it wasn’t a great idea with the Northern Ireland v Ukraine game on after the England game so I didn’t really get to meet any of the players ahead of tomorrow (I only previously knew five of the twenty three) but that was ok.  England got a jammy last minute winner to beat Wales, while Michael O’Neill again proved what a canny gaffer he is by steering the Nordies to a 2-0 victory over Ukraine to all but guarantee their Green and White Army a place in the last 16.  Remarkable but not altogether surprising given my knowledge of O’Neill.

We were all Hank Marvin anyhow and Ciarán persuaded us to get some grub at the café beside the stage where we did the gig.  A U2 Tribute band were playing there and we reckoned it’d be good to see what they were like while having some grub and a glass of wine.  The band was excellent, the glasses of wine became several bottles and I hated the seafood platter.  Ciarán went to town on it, Lucas was 50/50 and Ray seemed to enjoy it so much he went and fell against the French quare wan beside our table knocking over her beer.  The rest of us fell about the place while Ray, with not a word of French and barely audible English, apologised profusely to the stricken Mademoiselle and replaced the spilt bottle while the rest of us regained our breaths from the laughter.  Pépé and Nico joined us and helped finish off the platter and to our amazement and gratitude took care of the bill. We headed back over to the Humbert for a bit, but after listening to Shane Long’s on Fire the last two nights, we took our leave of the heaving and singing Paddies and went for a quiet one down the street in The Troll Bar, again by that stage the livers were crying enough and my disdain for the seafood platter meant I was absolutely ravenous so I nipped next door to Le Rif Kebab shop and filled my boots before strolling back to Pierre et Vacances at a late hour.

Seafood Platter

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Day 4, Friday 17th June.

Fans’ Match Day.Another non-hangover morning which was becoming increasingly impressive given the volume of beer I was putting away so once breakfast was consumed, all was well with the world again.

Des drove us all out for an hour down the motorway to Ile De Ré (via McDonald’s for Glenn) for a bit of a change of scene and it was a nice enough spot where we enjoyed a quayside beer.  Ray particularly enjoyed the trees and bushes and he was actually very upset that we were leaving all that shrubbery and scenery behind and heading back down the road to our base.

After arriving back in La Rochelle, we watched the first half of Italy v Sweden in Le Café Renommée and Glenn (who would be my assistant for the match) and I headed up to Humbert’s as we were due to leave on the bus to the Fans’ game at 4.30.  Tommy decided (rightly) we’d watch the end of the Italy game and there were huge cheers when Italy scored a late goal to make it two wins out of two and increase our chances of qualifying from the group if we could get a win in either of our last two games.

So we all barrelled into the bus about 5pm and I was at last able to meet all the players who I wasn’t yet familiar with.  All seemed keen and ready to go but with 22 players in the squad, I had a real test to make sure everyone got sufficient and as equal minutes as possible so me brain had to work harder than it did since arriving in France.

The set up was very impressive, a very nice local football stadium, bars open at the end of the ground (also selling food) and Nico and Pépé had done amazing work in getting commemorative kits for the team with their names on the back as well, really brilliant and went down a treat with the players.  The pitch was in decent nick but my concern was its size, really wide which would test the hangovers of the players!

So we kicked off about 6.30 and national anthems and the French lads presented Tommy with a commemorative shirt with “O’Malley” on the back (for the Carl O’Malley Trust, the Irish side of the charities, “Neuf de Coeur” was the French charity) and a La Rochelle shirt also and off we went.

It soon became apparent that the French selection had eh, played before as our defence and Barry Donovan in goal were very quickly working overtime and although it took an unlucky own goal off Kieran “Scamper” O’Donoghue (another bloody own goal following Ciaran Clark in Paris) to open the scoring, the French team just were too good for our thrown together team.  Despite everyone doing their complete best and giving 100%, the half time score read 6-0 to the French.

I changed the formation to 9-1-0 for the second half.  Sorry, 3-5-2 and shoring up midfield helped somewhat, although France stretched their lead to 7-0 early second half, but finally came our moment.

Patrick Lynn volleyed a fine shot home to open our scoring and away he went on a triumphant sprint to celebrate.  Forrest Gump would’ve been proud of him and as it was turn to be withdrawn, he did it for me anyhow, finishing his run on our touchline and puking his ring up.  I thought I was seeing things, but another vomit made its way onto the grass as we all pissed ourselves laughing while Patrick probably near pissed himself while heaving up last night’s ale.  We rallied and reduced the arrears to 7-4 and their keeper made some fine saves so we made a game of it (Ross Zambra scoring two and Mick Donnelly making up for a hilarious early fall on the touchline with the other Irish goal) and the game finished on a 7-4 scoreline and everyone seemed to enjoy taking part in the game.

I wish to thank very sincerely all the lads who lined out for us and kept going to the end and again to Nico, Pépé and Tommy for all they did in getting this organised, an incredible amount of work went into this day.  The 22 brave men and true from Waterford, Nenagh, Omagh, Athlone, Dublin and Galway were as follows:  Barry Donovan, Kieran O’Donoghue, Damien Ryan, Mark Beaumont , Ciaran Kiveney, Eoin O’Flaherty, Joe McCormaic, Patrick Flaherty, Lewis Brien, Francis Creaven, Patrick Lynn, John O’Neill,  Alan Forrestal, Ross Zambra,  Colin McKenna, Ian Campbell, Padraig Brock, Shane McNamara, William Condon,  Mick Donnelly, Ryan Kelly and John O’Connor.  I gave my commemorative shirt to Glenn.

We availed of a quick beer and hot dog before boarding the bus back to town.

Fans Team

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We then were invited up to the wine bar just up from Humbert’s called Le Guignette for a small players’ reception where drinks (Ricard’s pastis, very nice and Jameson whisky) would be served. Eventually all (or nearly all) the lads filed in and we enjoyed the drinks that were put on for us and both national anthems were sung to put the seal on a very enjoyable afternoon

Tommy and Gaffer

With Bordeaux looming large early in the morning (buses would leave at 8.30am), it was hoped I’d hit the bed early.  Some hope.  Ray and Ciarán did do the sensible thing but I was going about many of the players thanking them for today and having a pint with many of them, so before I knew it was fuck off o’clock in the morning again and I eventually wobbled back to Pierre Et Vacances.  A really enjoyable day and night all the same!

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Day 5, Saturday 18th June.  Ireland v Belgium.

Got out of the pit gingerly at 7.30 but excited nevertheless at the day ahead.  Steve Krijger from YBIG had his work cut out with the French coach drivers as they had completely altered the agreed lists of names to the allocated coaches so we left about an hour late as Steve had to pretty much start from scratch and then there were issues with the drivers over rest periods and whatnot, they make our unions look exemplary really.

We brought the instruments on the bus which in hindsight was a silly idea.  Everyone was knackered, hungover and other emotions so a singsong was low on everyone’s priority and the coach to Bordeaux was very quiet.  We reached Bordeaux about midday and the weather was slowly improving.  Ciarán’s wife Catríona had arrived in Bordeaux so he went into the city to meet up with her and the rest of us hung about the vicinity of the stadium to find some food and drink stalls.  I decided to stay off the gargle ahead of the match and glad I did, but all round me most lads and lasses were tucking in again and fair play to them.

Eventually about 1.30 we decided to head up to the stadium and the security check was passed pretty quickly.  The Nouveau Stade de Bordeaux it must be said is absolutely top notch inside but the steep walk up to our 2nd from the back seat was arduous enough but we settled into the seats about 2pm and soaked up the pre-match atmosphere.

The game itself isn’t really worth going back over, we were very disappointing having played so well against the Swedes and the match is particularly memorable for an abject refereeing performance from the Turkish clown, but that’s not to say he cost us the points.  We were shite on the day and Belgium recaptured a bit of form, so 3-0 wasn’t a particularly unrealistic scoreline.

I was  however raging at Aiden McGeady’s full time disappearance down the tunnel at full time without so much of a wave of acknowledgment to the Irish fans.  Robbie Keane ensured all player and subs did so, but McGeady had gone and I was bulling at him.  We filed out of the stadium bewildered, deflated and chastened.

Stade de Nouveau

We didn’t fancy a trip into the city centre and back out again for the coaches (8.30 departure time, it was now 5pm) so we braved the big queues and scant bar service in the nearby Ibis Hotel for some post-match sorrow drowning.  The mood was understandably flat but the beers kicked in after an hour or two and my past and present Social Welfare lads in Frank Aherne, Paul Doolan, Liam Butler and Dave Galvin and their gang got a bit of a singsong going which lifted spirits and killed another hour, we’d a bit of crack anyhow.  Ray and Dessie headed off to get a case of beer for the coach back and having bumped into our old pal Gerry Reardon from the FAI and several more YBIG lads in the Ibis, I strolled up philosophically but slightly giddily up to the coach back having rang Louise back home with the story of the day.

Social Welfare Heads

Catríona joined us in the coach and again, the instruments remained in their cases, although the Aherne crew (those who stayed awake after the post-match beers) tried and failed to sing Celtic Symphony several times and those of us at the back made our through the Kronenburg 1664 bottles, as did a certain individual who raided the fridge of Dessie/Ray’s beers knowing they weren’t his.  Ray spotted this mortal sin and reminded him gently to whom they belonged and he returned them to the fridge smartly.

We arrived back in La Rochelle near 11 I suppose and went back to Pierre Et Vacances and dropped the instruments back into the room.  I reckoned it was way too early to go to bed on a trip like this despite the defeat and tiredness and with a goo on me from the coach beers, so Ray and I and Dessie headed back to Humbert’s.  Jaysus you’d think we’d won the match such was the atmosphere.  Some lads were a bit horrified at the idea of Irish fans enjoying themselves after such a crushing defeat and I may have had that view years ago, but I’m of the view nowadays that we only lost a game of football and we may as well make the best of it afterwards.  We spent most of the rest of the night down the back at the smoking area and I again had a bit of a wander to chat to various YBIG/Fans team lads.  Nenagh’s Kieran O’Donoghue who has really caught the Ireland bug, fervently and repeatedly told me of how he hopes one day to have a “Houghton moment” supporting Ireland.  I promised him he would.  It would come a lot sooner than both of us imagined……….

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Day 6, Sunday 19th June.

Yet again, despite another long day and night on the sauce, I didn’t have to reach for the Disprin.  I did however decide Dioralyte would be a good call given the gig later on where nervous and physical energy would be used up, but up to now, the health was standing up really well.

Ciarán headed out on a drive to L’Ile de Ré with Catríona so Ray and I headed up to Humbert’s early afternoon as Ray’s beloved Tyrone were playing Cavan in the Ulster Semi and that’d be shown in Humbert’s.   Tyrone blew a match-winning position to draw the match and Ray’s head in his hands at that levelling Cavan goal was a sight to behold as were the expletives towards Tyrone’s carelessness.

Today was also our second gig day and while many Irish had departed in comparison to Wednesday’s gig, we were still optimistic of a sizeable audience and so it proved.

Second Gig

Again, many French came to hear us and as hit the home straight and again with the audience now dancing and doing a conga to “Always Look on The Bright Side of Life” (captured for Joe.ie), the aforementioned blonde lady from Wednesday was again rocking and rolling in her upstairs window.  She was spotted by the Irish crowd below and when “I just Can’t Get Enough” started up, the Irish fans serenaded her from below and it was a great sight to see as the blonde lady lapped up the attention laughing her head off.  We gave Antoine (the sound engineer) the option to head off to watch the French game as we ran overtime, but fair play to him, I think he was enjoying it too much to leave anyhow so he stayed till the end and we ended the show with a grand reception from the Irish and French crowd.

We hurriedly packed up the equipment and headed back to Humbert’s and managed to find seats so we settled into them and enjoyed watching Wales make shite of Russia to top the group while England laboured to a scoreless draw with Slovakia.

We had great bit of crack anyhow after two really satisfying gigs and Catríona had christened me and Ray as “The Odd Couple” as the theme music from that movie was sung our way.  Tommy Shields again appealed for the last few euro of charity donations with the slogan “Fuck it in the Bucket” and as the night wore on and Shane Long became yet again a raging inferno and the Welsh fans in Humbert’s celebrated their qualification to the knockout stage, the night ran into familiarly late territory indeed.   I have no idea what time we ambled back to Pierre Et Vacances.

Second Gig After

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Day 7, Monday 20th June.

So, last full day for us in La Rochelle, the time just pissed in, which it always seems to when you’re having so much crack and whatnot. Catriona was heading for Dublin so Ciaran headed out the airport in the morning and meself and Oscar just lazed about the apartment, with Oscar doing a spot of clothes washing in the basement.  We then had the oul beer thirst so strolled up to Le Diplomatique and enjoyed a couple of quiet ones with virtually nobody else in the place for an hour or two.

Having put the instruments into Des’ car, we then headed back to Humbert’s as Nico wanted to just conclude all our business and have a pint or two with us before it got full in the boozer again so we did that and enjoyed the crack with Nico.  How Nico and Pepe aren’t on their knees at this stage is a mystery, their stamina is incredible.  They’ve slept only 2 or 3 hours a night for the past week so I’m sure they’ll enjoy their rest after the thirsty Paddies have moved on finally, much as they’ll miss us all taking our shoes off for the Boys in Green, bellowing out Shane Long’s on Fire, Putting them Under Pressure and all the rest of the Irish playlist we heard the past week at General Humbert’s.  The staff have been seriously under pressure for a week and fair play to them, the wait for a pint was never overly long and they remained smiling, professional and brilliant in the face of a Paddy boozing onslaught the likes of which I’m sure La Rochelle has never seen and likely will never see again.

As it was the last night, we really enjoyed just chilling and having the crack and Nico kindly offered me a lift back to the airport tomorrow.  Ciaran and Oscar (Ray) were taking the train to Lille in the morning so I’d be Billy No Mates from early tomorrow. Again, what time we left there is completely unknown to me.

Final night in Humbert's

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Day 8, Tuesday 21st June.

Awoken early enough as Ciarán and Ray headed for the train station to take them to Lille and Wednesday’s deciding match with Italy.  Went back to sleep and then spent the morning tidying the apartment before checking out, visiting the Aquarium and then having my first proper meal with proper food (apart from breakfasts) for a week.  Killed the hours pretty well and Nico left me back to the airport as promised…………………..Au revoir La Rochelle.

Au Revoir Humbert's

So that’s it.  It was an absolutely brilliant week in La Rochelle and I’m so glad we stayed here for our Euro 2016 base.  Getting to play two gigs with Ciaran and Ray and the reaction to the gigs will stay in my memory bank forever.  Meeting old and friends and making new ones is always another highlight of Ireland trips, but above all, the kindness, hard work and decency of Tommy Shields, Nico and Pépé Bourdel was what made our week in La Rochelle possible, so a special thanks to those three as I conclude this diary.

To the Irish fans who enhanced an already enviable reputation in world football, bloody well done lads and lasses.  As Jock Stein said all those years ago, “football without fans is nothing”.

Once more with feeling……………”Shane Long’s on fire, your defence is petrified, Shane Long’s on fire”……………etc

The End