Archive | June, 2016

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

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Brady rekindles Irish love affair with its football team.

23 Jun

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What a night to be Irish. What a night to be a football fan. What a night to be an Irish football fan in the Stade Pierre in Lille last night. What a night to be Robbie Brady who joined Irish winning goal scoring hero Ray Houghton in the annals of Irish footballing folklore by glancing home Norwich team mate Wes Hoolahan’s sumptuous pass to send Ireland and their outstanding supporters on to a Last 16 showdown with hosts France in Lyon on Sunday.

Houghton’s winning goals against England and Italy in 1988 and 1994 were opening group games so Brady’s winner carried extra significance as Ireland simply had to win to prolong the Irish party in France.

Ireland’s dreadfully disappointing defeat to Belgium four days previously in Bordeaux resulted in Martin O’Neill making four changes to that starting eleven. Increased youth, vigour and strength saw Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh oust John O’Shea and a battered Ciaran Clark in defence while Glen Whelan and Hoolahan made way for Daryl Murphy and James McClean. The centre half clear out was a calculated gamble by O’Neill and Seamus Coleman was handed the armband.

Antonio Conte also rang the Italian changes but for altogether different reasons as key players from their opening two wins were rested with the Italians already group winners.

New skipper Coleman displayed instant intent with a crunching calling card on a yelping Italian and Jeff Hendrick followed suit moments later. Ireland were here to win and though both were lucky to escape a card from Romanian rookie ref Ovidiu Hategan, the two challenges set the tone and Ireland drove forward.

Hendrick went agonisingly close with an early piledriver that shaved Sirigu’s post and James McCarthy, McClean, Shane Long and Murphy were aggressive, tenacious and terrier like in unsettling the Italians.

Long and Sirigu squared up for a mutual yellow card as Ireland’s pressure was clearly rattling Italy and Sirigu pulled out a fine save from Murphy’s header from Brady’s corner but Ireland were well on top in the opening exchanges.

Defensively Ireland were comfortable although Duffy was nervy in possession early on but Coleman was relishing his captaincy as he cajoled and roared approval at a McCarthy challenge.

Ireland’s fans sensed blood as well and though Immobile went close enough with a snapshot it was their only shot as the half drew to a close. Before it did close however, Ireland fans were seething at referee Hategan.

An earlier Ogbonna foul on Murphy inside the box should’ve been punished by the ref, but when Brady fed McClean in a promising position, he was clearly fouled and bundled over by Bernardeschi but amazingly Mr Hategan let it pass. Robbery, daylight robbery from the Romanian.

Italy emerged for the second half with added appetite after a likely dressing down from
Conte and Zaza had a volley just too high to remind Ireland of his danger, but Keogh and rookie Duffy grew in stature as the game wore on and Ireland fans willed their warriors on relentlessly.

Murphy tested Sirigu and from the follow up Coleman might’ve done better but this pressure remained incessant as Italy were flustered and passing the ball terribly due to Irish pressure and harrying.

Ireland still needed that priceless goal and O’Neill sacrificed a much improved McCarthy for McGeady and a spent Murphy made way for the mercurial Hoolahan.

Italian sub Insigne almost gave Italy a most undeserved lead when he set off on a solo run and his excellent shot beat Randolph all ends up, but rebounded off the post to safety.

As Robbie Keane was readied after 81 minutes, Ireland looked like their moment had arrived. A defensive lapse allowed Hoolahan in on a one on one, but agonisingly his shot lacked conviction and Sirigu saved easily.

That moment looked to have passed but a moment later and with Keane still chomping to get on, Brady took possession in his own half. He advanced and fed McGeady to his right. Brady ran on. And ran on. And nobody tracked the lung-busting late run.

McGeady fed Hoolahan with a key pass and if anyone was in
doubt about Hoolahan’s state of mind, they needn’t have had
any. Hoolahan’s cultured left peg and wonderful football vision pierced Bonucci’s retreat and such was the pace on the pass, the still running Brady only had to make sure he made contact with the ball. He did. Sirigu had no chance and the Irish fans behind the goal sent up a Celtic cacaphoney of celebration as a spent and already emotional Brady slid to acclaim a memorable and bloody good goal.

He had started the move, showed desire and intelligence to keep going and Hoolahan’s magnificent delivery was final redemption for all those lonely years being ignored by Trapattoni. What a moment. Lille was in utter pandemonium.

Keane put his kit back on as Stephen Quinn came on instead to keep the Irish door shut for the final five minutes and stoppage time. Italy were done however, reduced to a cynical and beaten team by a Herculean Irish performance and the Boys in Green saw the time out without incident.

The final whistle was predictably wild in Irish celebration of a famous but ultimately meaningful win. Given little chance following the loss in Bordeaux, O’Neill deserves huge credit in having the balls to make key and brave changes to the starting XI.

The players deserve massive praise for a performance of guts, discipline, skill and belief and it was these traits and more besides that kept the huge Irish support’s similar belief. The fans deserve the extra game (and who knows maybe more) in France.

Make no mistake, Ireland have a chance next Sunday in Lyon. They have momentum, belief, purpose and unity. France will write them off at their peril. The ghost of Henry 2009 still stalks Irish fans and this team will do its utmost to banish it. Forever.

This is a turning point in the O’Neill reign. Things weren’t right in Bordeaux and he moved to put them right. He did. This is also a turning point in the Irish public and their relationship with its football team.

They are in love again. It has been too long.

 

Euro 2016: Clough Disciples can take us past Group Stage

7 Jun

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So as the Irish team prepares to leave for their magnificent looking Versailles base (Saipan it certainly isn’t) and with new contracts just hours ago having been agreed for Irish boss Martin O’Neill, assistant Roy Keane and other staff members, it should be a fairly happy Easyjet flight that leaves these shores tomorrow.

It’s been a very interesting seven days since Ireland’s final warm-up defeat to Belarus in Turner’s Cross and the squad announcement and apparent fall-out (among some sections of the Press anyhow) of Roy Keane’s perceived disaffection with some of the Irish players’ performances in that Belarus game.

In my opinion, Keane was absolutely on the money, but I would also wager there was calculated method in his comments that had the complete backing of his gaffer. The squad hadn’t been announced and a couple of spots were up for grabs on the flight, yet far too many of the eleven who started (with most if not all unlikely to feature in the starting XI against Sweden in Paris next Monday, barring injuries) against Belarus failed miserably to lay down a marker to O’Neill that they could merit a starting place if the cards fell their way.

For me, the biggest contrast in attitudes and ability on the night were Aiden McGeady and James McClean. In terms of natural ability, McGeady is streets ahead of McClean. In terms of honesty of application and attitude, McClean blows the moody and enigmatic McGeady out of the water. Aiden McGeady rescued a crucial opening qualifier victory in Georgia twenty one months ago with that world class goal (his second on the night) and looked set to finally blossom in the Irish shirt after so many infuriating performances lacking in end product and effectiveness. A move to Everton following a productive enough spell with Spartak Moscow looked set to further McGeady’s cementing of his reputation as a top class player. Sadly, it has all gone pear-shaped for McGeady as injury and loss of form saw him slip out of favour with Martinez at Everton. The fact that a well-meaning move to Premier League chasing Sheffield Wednesday utterly bombed should fill O’neill and Keane and indeed all of us, with complete fear at how low McGeady’s stock has now fallen. His first half performance against Belarus bore that out. He was ineffective, disinterested and completely bereft of any semblance of sharpness. He is lucky to be boarding that plane tomorrow.

McClean on the other hand bounced back from a pre-season slaughtering in the British (and some Irish) media over his God Save the Queen stance in a pre-season friendly for West Brom, followed by the annual November nonsense (Poppygate) by absorbing the  garbage with his usual class and steadfastness and then becoming a regular in the first team at The Hawthorns. He had a fine season (despite a couple of silly red cards) and demonstrated last Tuesday against Belarus that not only did he want to be certain of making the squad, he wanted to show O’Neill that he covets a starting spot in Paris next Monday. This he did by making some  crunching tackles from the off and covering the ground in his usual manner and getting in a quota of crosses. He was everything McGeady wasn’t. McClean however must get his timing right or he will incur referees’ wrath.

It was Keane’s post-match comments however that made the headlines and I really don’t understand the fuss that was made of them, with some speculating already that there might be unrest in the Irish camp as a result! What utter rubbish!
Has it not occurred to anyone that both O’Neill and Keane were managed by one of the greatest managers of all time in Brian Clough? Has it not occurred to those who felt Keane was out of order that these two former pupils of Clough might now be indulging in some

well-rehearsed cajoling and psychology to ensure all twenty three Irish players know what’s expected of them? Has it not occured to anyone that the players might actually agree with Keane (and O’Neill who himself was unimpressed with the Belarus showing)? And if they don’t agree with Keane and were “hurt” or “stung” by the criticism, well maybe they should pack it in and let their wives/girlfriends massage their poor bruised egos.

In my opinion, the timing of this perceived criticism of several players was absolutely spot on, be it personally from Keane, or if it was prompted by O’Neill himself, with Roy the usual “bad cop” trotted out so everybody would be listening.

We travelled to Poland in 2012 without a clue what our management team was thinking or saying due to their pigeon English. We travelled to Poland, despite several players being patently unfit, wrongly assuming all was well and smelling of roses in the camp. We travelled to Poland on a wave of utterly misplaced confidence. O’Neill and Keane are ensuring we don’t repeat that  mistake this year.

So what of our chances in the group? I am cautiously optimistic we can advance through the group. Sweden are workmanlike and honest and have Ibrahimovic. Ibrahimovic can be and has been shackled before and if Ireland can do a job in containing their big star, we can

definitely gain a point at least from the opener. Three points is not beyond us either given the O’Neill knack in getting into his players’ heads (the Clough factor) and playing above themselves when it matters.

The fitness of Jonny Walters and Robbie Brady is key to our chances in Paris. Walters was our talisman and Player of the Qualifiers. Brady has become key for set piece delivery and eye for a goal (both play-off legs v Bosnia). Deprived of one or both of them could mean the difference between no points and three next Monday. I believe both will make it as this game should determine our duration in France.

Belgium will hugely miss the absence of Kompany, when he is fully fit (if he ever will be again), he is one of the best defenders in world football. Despite the rich talent at Marc Wilmots’ disposal, Kompany’s absence will make a difference to the fate of Belgium. On their day however and depending on how we’ve fared in Paris, this is probably our toughest game of the three and I would take a point now from Bordeaux.

Italy are Italy, despite the retirement of Pirlo and the absence of a centre forward of note to score the goals they need. Despite Italy’s tradition and history, I firmly believe Ireland can win this one and an avoidance of defeat in the other two games should be enough for us to make the last 16.

Make no mistake however, this is still a bloody tough group for Ireland and history has taught us that anything is possible on any given day, be it positive or negative, so my belief we can progress beyond the group stage is peppered with caution.

If everyone is fit (and I mean 100% fit, not Euro 2012 fit), I think the starting XI will be as follows: (4-5-1) – Randolph, Coleman, O’Shea, Keogh, Brady; Walters, Whelan, McCarthy, Hendrick, McClean; Long.

We’re all set, let the games begin and let us hope we see us make it beyond the group stage for this time in a European Championship! GWAN IRELAND!