Tag Archives: irish supporters

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

30 Jun

 image

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.

***********************************************************************

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!

***********************************************************************Day 2, Wednesday 15th June.

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.

IMG_0186

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.

***********************************************************************

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

***********************************************************************

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

***********************************************************************

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!

***********************************************************************

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……….

***********************************************************************

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

***********************************************************************

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

***********************************************************************

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

Ireland Team Report: A Good Year, not a Great One.

17 Dec

mon

So another year has slid by in the blink of an eye. A much anticipated and hugely enjoyable World Cup in Brazil ended with worthy champions in the form of Germany. That Ireland missed out was of course disappointing but the scars of Euro 2012 carried into a very disappointing World Cup qualifying campaign under Trapattoni, who paid for our missing out on Brazil with his job. Martin O’Neill took up the reins as we know in 2013. So how was 2014 for the still new Irish regime?

O’Neill had to remain very patient for the opening nine months of the year as only friendly matches were available to him until the Euro 2016 matches kicked off in September. It was very hard to gauge where O’Neill’s team was going in the friendly matches we witnessed and many of the players remained from the Trapattoni era.

One notable change in those friendlies however was O’Neill’s inclusion of Wes Hoolahan, who was so disappointingly snubbed for almost all of Trapattoni’s tenure. Wes responded very well in most of those friendly matches, with eye-catching performances and being given leeway by O’Neill to show us the ability we all knew he possessed.

Two successive Dublin defeats however (both 2-1 to Serbia and Turkey) led to some early impatience among fans, but a hugely impressive 0-0 draw against World Cup bound Italy in London would have given O’Neill real encouragement. Excellent individual performances from Anthony Pilkington, David Meyler, Geoff Hendrick and Hoolahan hinted that the new era would exorcise the dreadful World Cup campaign as O’Neill then took his charges Stateside for two games against also World Cup bound Costa Rica and Portugal.

A bad-tempered 1-1 draw with Costa Rica was followed by a 5-1 slaughtering by Portugal and given what befell both nations in the subsequent World Cup, it still remained very difficult to assess how O’Neill’s team was taking shape. Costa Rica excelled in Brazil, while Portgual bombed and with only one more friendly match at home to Oman ahead of the opening qualifier, it was proving difficult to accurately predict O’Neill’s likely starting XI for the Euro qualifiers, not that it’s easy to second guess the Derryman’s mind anyhow.

Oman were despatched 2-0 in a boring enough encounter at Lansdowne, so O’Neill’s record in the seven friendlies in 2014 read two wins, two draws and three losses, enough for some pessimism among some fans and enough for the optimists to maintain that friendlies are no real indication of what will happen in competitive games.

The real business began in September, the opening Euro 2016 qualifier as Ireland headed to Tbilisi to play Georgia, always a difficult place to go at the best of times. Georgia were coached by former Newcastle United player Temuri Ketsbaia.

As stated above, it is very difficult and probably futile to predict what Martin O’Neill’s team selection would be and so it proved in Tbilisi. Despite the excellence of Hoolahan’s friendly match displays, he didn’t start in Tbilisi and O’Neill opted for a 5 man midfield of Jon Walters and Aiden McGeady wide and a central trio of Stephen Quinn, Glen Whelan and James McCarthy. Robbie Keane was the lone striker.

Ireland won 2-1 thanks to a McGeady double, with the second goal worthy of winning any game such was the breathtaking nature of McGeady’s skill and finish. The overall performance however was patchy, with a fine opening 20 minutes followed by a shaky last 20 minutes in the first half; little was happening in a dull second half until McGeady’s brilliance sent the travelling fans bananas in the 90th minute. Three points was three points however, job done. O’Neill’s tetchiness in the face of the post-match interview was disappointing and certainly misplaced, but as a results game, the perfect start.

Gibraltar were next up in October in Dublin. Matches against so-called “whipping boys” usually prove frustrating for Irish teams, but there are whipping boys and there is Gibraltar. Seven goals was a decent return (with Robbie Keane scoring a first half hat trick) with most of the talk again revolving around O’Neill’s selection as Germany away were next up three days later.   O’Neill made five changes from the Georgia game (Coleman and McCarthy were injured, with Quinn, Walters and Whelan “rested” ahead of Germany), with O’Neill again stating those rested wouldn’t necessarily return in Germany.

All those latter three did return as O’Neill sprung a real gamble by choosing McGeady in a role behind lone striker Keane to accommodate James McClean out wide (who had impressed in the Gibraltar rout). The McGeady gamble didn’t work, although the selection worked elsewhere as Germany never really opened Ireland up the way it was feared and Ireland looked quite comfortable despite Forde making one excellent save in each half.

Germany’s Kroos did however force O’Neill’s hand in the 70th minute when he scored from 25 yards with Hoolahan sprung from the bench (Hendrick had replaced the injured Whelan before the hour mark and Gibson replacing Keane prior to Kroos’ goal). Two of the three subs would play a huge part in a dramatic Irish equaliser as Hoolahan’s cross was deftly volleyed back across goal by Hendrick for John O’Shea to steer a glorious shot past Neuer in the German goal in the 93rd minute.

So a priceless point was stolen at the death from the World Champions, 7 points from the opening three games was a very fine haul for O’Neill and his team and the euphoria from that German game led to huge interest in Irish people looking for tickets to the November match against Scotland at Celtic Park.

The scramble for tickets has been well documented on this blog (see Archive for November) and the idiotic failings of the FAI in this regard. The match itself never really happened from an Irish point of view, as it seemed O’Neill’s mindset was to frustrate Strachan’s Scots and play for a point. Shaun Maloney’s 74th minute goal was the least Scotland deserved on a hugely disappointing night for O’Neill’s team.

So the four competitive games have resulted in 7 points, possibly what we would have expected when the draw was made (we would have written off getting anything in Germany) and our group remains extremely close at this point in time as we can see below.

Euro 2016 – Qualifying Group D – Latest Standings
Nation Played Won Drew Lost Goals F Goals A Points
Poland 4 3 1 0 15 2 10
Germany 4 2 1 1 7 4 7
Scotland 4 2 1 1 5 4 7
Republic of Ireland 4 2 1 1 10 3 7
Georgia 4 1 0 3 4 7 3
Gibraltar 4 0 0 4 0 21 0

I think as fans we can be reasonably happy with that state of affairs, but that there is serious room for improvement in general play and approach. After the bravery and delight at the point in Germany, the defeat in Glasgow was a bitter pill to swallow and the manner of it was worrying in my opinion. Ireland’s philosophy relied far too much on lumping balls up to Shane Long (who was deployed as the lone striker) and hoping that Walters would pick up loose ends, with McGeady and McClean helping from wide. None of that happened. By the time Keane came on after Maloney’s goal, Scotland sensed we were already a beaten team and we got what we deserved on the night, nothing.

The Scottish game was followed four days later by a convincing 4-1 win over USA with eye-catching debuts from David McGoldrick and Cyrus Christie in a much changed XI so the year finished on a relative high for O’Neill and it is hoped those fringe players who impressed will remain in Martin’s thinking in 2015.

So 2015 is a huge year now for Martin O’Neill and this group of players. O’Neill wasn’t helped by the absence of James McCarthy in Glasgow, but all international managers are hampered by unavailable players. What O’Neill needs to nail down is a recognisable playing identity among this current group and a consistency of performance for 90 plus minutes. Forget the Gibraltar games, everyone will slaughter them. Four of the next five games are in Dublin. Ten points would be great, nine is completely essential if we are to hope to reach the French Soirée the Summer after next.

I believe we will make it, but will give ourselves plenty of grief getting there!

Happy Christmas to you all and Peaceful 2015.

Phelim Warren, 17th December 2014.