My Football Highlight of 2012, Torun, Poland.

28 Dec

Torun 2012, “You Boys in Green” (YBIG) Fans’ Team Saves the Euros!

When the Euro 2012 draw was done and dusted and the venues of Poznan and Gdansk were revealed as our match venues, YBIG went into meltdown with itineraries, flight plans, questions regarding accommodation and the rest.  It was real Planes, Trains and Automobiles stuff for many of the thousands who planned to enjoy the Festival of Football last June.

The unknown (to us anyhow) city of Torun was mentioned in these itinerary plans.  Situated between our tournament group match venues of Poznan and Gdansk, Torun would soon become a city for a few thousand Irish to rest their drunken heads for most if not all of their stay in Poland.  The name Glen Standish would also become very well known to anyone who chose Torun as their host city as our sage and go to person regarding Torun.

Soon enough also, with the help and advice of Glen, it was decided the Fans’ Match between Poland and Ireland would be played in Torun and money would be raised by Irish fans for local charities in Torun.  As fans’ team Manager, it would be my privilege and honour to lead an Irish squad of 18 and when I looked at the venue online in Torun, my anticipation and excitement grew daily.  It promised to be a memorable day on 16th June.

Selection of the panel was incredibly difficult.  I’d had several matches as Fans’ Manager and had seen many players in the various matches, which was of enormous value to me in choosing my final 18.  Interest in the match was enormous from potential players and after much chopping, changing and huge consideration, I announced the following 18 YBIG members:  Fran Carragher, Kevin Haughey, Dave Byrne, Derek Harte, Gary Malone, Ryan Kelly, Ross Kelly, Ray Kelly (none of the Kellys related!), Fergal O’Connell, Ger Keville, Finbarr Neville, Barry Elmes, Barry O’Brien, Mark Duggan, Cillian Quinn, Justin Flynn, Ciaran Flanagan and Darragh McGinley.  I was very happy with the selection in terms of ability, versatility and overall fitness (with the anticipation of hangovers!).  While the day in Torun would be one of enjoyment and relaxtion, I wanted to win in Poland and I knew I had 18 players who felt similarly.  I also had a nice representation with players from Dublin, Limerick, Ulster, London, Galway, Meath and Australian-based fans in the panel.

So eventually the tournament arrived but by the time we were heading for Torun, our mood was sombre and deflated as Spain had just slaughtered us the night before in Gdansk.  I travelled with the obligatory Polish hangover to the coach pick up spot early on the Friday morning and Steve Krijger’s various coaches pulled up for the shell-shocked Irish fans to board.  Several of my players were at the pick up point, several were already in Torun at their base and a few more would follow from Gdansk early on match day.  The journey to Torun was pretty subdued as we all discussed the Spanish hiding and realized we’d be going home regardless of what happened in the Italy match, but that was to the back of our minds, we were heading for  Torun and by Jaysus we were gonna enjoy ourselves!

Torun was a massive change to the complete carnage and mayhem of  Poznan and Gdansk and it was a welcome change to be honest.  Yes there were numerous Irish fans in Torun but the cafes and bars of Torun were managing just nicely with the pockets of Irish as against the multitudes in the group match venues so it was lovely to be able to eat and drink at a more leisurely pace having had a week of power boozing up to now.  Familiar YBIG faces greeted those of us only arriving in Torun and after checking the bags into the Bulwar Hotel, we familiarized ourselves with this lovely city and joined other YBIGers for beers and grub.  Aidan Maguire (son of YBIG’s Brian) had his 14th birthday that day and a huge crowd of fans joined in wishing him a nice day.  Aidan’s mam Eimear,  cut up the cake and with the cake sliced up nicely, Del Harte copped a couple of slices in the mush from Keville.   Time ticked on till about 1am and the players (without any orders from me!) called it an early night with the big game beckoning the following day and I headed back to the Bulwar in great form and tomorrow now looming. 

Match day in Torun dawned with the sun splitting the stones, hangovers and hydration would be tested today.   I ate a hearty breakfast and headed back to my room to settle on the starting XI.  News filtered through however from three of the boys that they wouldn’t get to Torun at all.  Apparent changes to the train timetable meant  Ryan, Justin and Franny weren’t gonna get to the match in time.  I was gutted for them but had little time to feel too sorry as I now needed three replacements.  I knew I’d need all 18 players with the weather so hot and humid so three emergency players were needed.  Luckily we had the three stranded players’ kit with us and within minutes I had called up Barry Hand and Peter Byrne as I had seen them the night before in Torun and I was delighted they agreed to bail me out.  My 18th would take a bit longer but again, was delighted at who I got.  Derek McCormack,  my nephew’s coach at St Paul’s/Artane was in Torun and I’d bumped into him the night before also and he had said he’d come to the match to watch, so he was surprised but pleased to be called up even by his own admission he was buckled the night before.  I didn’t care, I knew he could play and I had my 18 now, so all good!

We didn’t need to warm up too much given the conditions, but Paul Flanagan gave the lads a good stretch before kick off time.  Little by little, Irish fans based in Torun arrived at the stadium and a fair few Polish also.  There was tremendous colour on view, so many familiar faces and the smell of beer and farts could be felt for miles around, it literally took the breath away.   I announced the starting XI.  With Franny stranded in Gdansk, Darragh McGinley would take the goalie spot.  Starting back four was Dave Byrne at right full, centre halves Gary Malone and Finbarr Neville, with left back Kevin Haughey.  Four across the middle with Cillian Quinn and Barry Elmes wide, with Del Harte and Ger Keville in the centre and up front, Barry O’Brien and Ray Kelly so I was happy with the starters and we were set!

Firstly were the formalities and Dave and myself together with Aidan Mullen were introduced to the Mayor of Torun and a few other locals also were involved and the Mayor welcomed us enthusiastically and myself and Aido and Dave commented on the wonderful welcome the Torun folk had given the Irish.  Gifts were exchanged and Dave and meself got back to the dressing room and out we marched onto the Torun pitch for the national anthems.  That was when the enormity of the day hit home and hearing and seeing the Irish fans here was massive and the excitement was at fever pitch for me at this stage and the game finally kicked off.

The opening exchanges were very tight with a week’s beer and fast food apparent as passes were slightly astray and the heat took getting used to, but after the initial 10 minutes, Ireland started to make some chances.  A fine Del Harte pass sent Barry Elmes down the inside left but his chip just lacked height and the Polish keeper saved well.  A fine passing move involving Peter Byrne, Ciaran Flanagan and Barry Hand saw Barry force the keeper into a fine save with Barry O’Brien just wide from the follow up.  Ireland definitely had the better of things and Darragh’s only scare in goal was a cross from the Polish left which saw Kevin Haughey’s sliced clearance shave Darragh’s far post and out for a corner.  Ireland finished the half strongly and Derek McCormack beat two players down the left but just shot into the side netting with the resulting shot and the half finished scoreless.

I gave a half time touchline interview to Torun TV and didn’t use up all the clichés apart from “we need to be better in the final third” and that “if we take our chances we’ll be ok” and other rubbish like that and I disappeared down the tunnel to talk to the lads.  I’d been very pleased with the performance and we’d looked solid and though a few were concerned at their extra man in midfield, they hadn’t carved us open at all really so we left the shape at 4-4-2 and hoped we’d be sharper in the final third.

A very long half time break due to some Polish Irish dancers followed, but it being so humid I’m not sure the lads minded too much and finally we were back underway and we exploded out of the second half blocks.

After Dave had gone for glory with a 40 yard free kick in the opening minute that sailed into downtown Torun, we hit the front 3 minutes into the second half.  Derek showed brilliant skill in making space for himself in the centre and he curled a super ball down the inside right channel.  Ray Kelly had made a great run between left back and centre half and Derek’s pass was right into his path and he was clear.  Ray showed great composure in lifting the ball over the Polish keeper’s head and we held our breath as the ball bounced and kept under the bar as the net bulged………GOAL……..!!  Ray turned to acclaim the Irish roars as players and subs mobbed the goalscorer, 1-0 Ireland!

One nil became two shortly after.  Barry Elmes fed Del Harte with a nice inside pass and Del’s 25 yarder was low and on target.  The keeper parried it out and like all good centre forwards, Mark Duggan was on hand to score the rebound from point blank range and it was 2-0 Ireland.

Ireland continued to control things with the spine of the team very steady in the form of Keville and Harte in midfield and Malone and Neville at the back.  Derek McCormack’s stints as sub were telling as well as he was brilliant at keeping possession and getting our forwards on the end of his passes as in the first goal.  Darragh in goal was still relatively untroubled until 10 minutes before the end when a few tiring legs allowed Poland to pass through us and the Polish lad finished well to give the Torun folk some cheer and hope.

We finished very strongly however and got our third goal two minutes from time.  The non-stop Barry O’Brien dispossessed the Polish defender and he bulldozed his way into the box where he was upended and the referee gave the blatant penalty.  Ger Keville stepped up and thumped the ball home but was made retake it and he repeated the dose with identical assurance.  3-1 Ireland and game over.  The Polish keeper made excellent saves before the final whistle from Barry Hand and Del Harte before the ref signaled the end and the fans rose in unison to acclaim an Irish win by 3-1.  Supporters Podge Hayes and Philly Keown staged an impromptu and quite honestly, abysmal pitch invasion that was noticed by probably nobody apart from themselves!

It had been a terrific performance from the YBIG Irish team and every single player put in a shift and played with pride, heart and plenty of skill on a very difficult day for football in terms of humidity and perspiration.  I’d hoped for a win and the lads came up trumps big style and you could sense the feeling of a job brilliantly done by everybody.

YBIG’s very own John Delaney, the hilarious John O’Neill, arrived with his JD suit and wig and he high-fived his way around myself and every player and he acclaimed the best fans in the world time and time again, it was vintage Delaney and John carried out the Delaney-isms to a tee, tremendous stuff it was!

Dave Byrne was presented with the winners trophy and John Delaney milked the moment as only he can also.  We were all presented with Torun souvenir packs which went down great with everybody.  As the crowd prepared to filter out, the storm clouds finally came together and the heavens opened and this was the cue for John Delaney to do a lap of honour around the running track in the pissing rain as the crowd once more acclaimed its Chief Executive and he acclaimed, in his own thankful words, “the best fans in the world” and “thanks for coming”………..his lap of honour was the icing on a very big Irish cake!

So the Fans’ match was won and the job well and truly done but there would be some serious celebrating to be done now!  We got back to our hotels/hostels and changed out of our sweaty clothes and met up afterwards in Torun.  It was the night of the make or break Poland v Czech Republic game so the Poles were out in force to watch their country try making the knockout stages.   We all gathered around a big tent with several screens and the Polish fans made a point of painting our faces in the red and white prior to kick off.  “Polska Bialo Czervony” (Poland, Red and White) bellowed out from the kick off and it was a refrain we had learned well in the previous two Polish matches.  The tension and excitement was massive and every Irish fan joined in supporting the hosts, but sadly their party was ruined by a late Czech goal and Poland were eliminated.  We consoled our Torun friends and as the Polish filed home, Ger Keville learned there was a singsong starting around the corner in a bar called Jan Olbrecht.  The rest of us needed no more encouragement and soon we were in full voice, lifting the Cup and the Polish fans with deafening Irish folk songs such as The Wild Rover, Joxer, The One Road and of course The Fields of Athenry.  Most of the YBIG Fans’ team were here and it was a night of euphoria, delight and celebration and the Torun drinkers took delight in our delight.  The acoustics in Jan Olbrecht lent massive weight to the singsong and I’d swear the wooden beams stretched the roof to its limits such was the noise and power of the Irish singing, it was truly spellbinding.  Before drink totally obliterated my memory bank, I managed to somehow do my Alan Who monologue and that pretty much put paid to the last of my voice at that stage also.  Everyone took turns at singing, everyone joined in and it was probably the finest communal pub sing-song I’ve ever been part of, truly remarkable.

At about 3am Torun time, enough was enough.  A mixture of exhaustion and drink told me to leave it at that.  I remember bidding one or two of the Hayes clan goodnight and off I went into an electrical storm.  I half expected to see John O’Neill still in his Delaney gear running around high-fiving everyone but he was probably still buying drink for all the Irish fans at this stage, so I just made my own merry way through the small Torun streets for the very short journey back to the Bulwar Hotel.   Soaking wet, I got my breath in reception before texting home to say I’d made it through another mental day at Euro 2012.  This day however had been different.  This day had been the best.  By several miles.

To all those who made it possible, thanks!  To Torun and its people, thanks!  The undoubted highlight of my footballing year and possibly any year.

Phelim Warren, 28th December 2012.

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