On The Road To God Knows Where – Paris

WE’LL always have Paris ….It’s the beginning of a new year and it’s a massive one for Giovanni Trapattoni and Ireland. Euro qualification lies in the balance. This time 12 months ago, the pain of Paris was all too palatable. We’d do well to remember it as we now look to get over the finish line. Póg Mo Goal returns to that fateful night and journeys with the fans. Those with a weak disposition, look away now.

We go in hope more than expectation. The first game has put us up against it. A lucky deflected goal from Nicholas Anelka leaves us trailing 1-0, but the team put in a stellar performance in Dublin and 20,000 Irish fans will descend on France to cheer on the boys in green and drink the Paris bars dry.

The night before is spent packing three Ireland tops for three days. Have to make sure to show the colours for the whole time we are over there. Two Ireland polo shirts, one FAI t-shirt, one Ireland tracksuit top, one Ireland jersey with Houghton 88 printed on the back, to commemorate Ireland’s victory over the English in Euro ‘88 and one green Barrack Obama t-shirt declaring “Yes We Can!” The French have the vital away goal. Anelka ran the show in the first game but Ireland let him. We sat deep but that’s the way Trapattoni sets out his teams. It was the best atmosphere I’ve seen since the Irish team have being playing in Croker. It was helped by the Irish Examiner handing out 70,000 green cards to hold aloft when the teams came out, transforming the ground into a sea of green. The cards could also double as noise makers. The Irish fans really played their part. They belted out the songs from start to finish. But the team also inspired us to sing. In one passage of play, constant snapping at Anelka’s heels by captain Robbie Keane roused the crowd. It was just the sort of battling display that the Irish crowd love.

Following our internaional team abroad is a great shared experience. Experienced with like-minded people in some of the most beautiful cities in the world. Paris, Bratislava, Prague, Stuttgart. In the past couple of years I have been lucky enough to travel to games in all these great European cities with the Green Army.

In Paris in 2004 outside one of the Irish bars where a few thousand fans had gathered in the city and were drinking and singing, the riot police arrived and were preparing for action. However, after around twenty minutes of waiting and posing for photographs with the merry Irish fans they left because the fans were not going to cause trouble. Most other international supporters when abroad would be drinking and tearing the town squares apart. The Irish have never engaged in this activity. The Irish fans never cause problems in these cities. If someone steps out of line we police ourselves.

Our journey begins in Dublin, travelling over to London to get the Eurostar down to Paris. Before going anywhere I always get the fry-up in Dublin airport. It’s expensive but it’s tradition. I always do it because you never know when you will be eating again. It could be hours. My mate Grogy is excited. He is more optimistic than me. I don’t hold any great hope. I’ve been let down a lot before by the Irish team. They have broken my heart lots of times so I’m not going to let my hopes get the better of me. I’m going to go and enjoy the trip. But still, there’s always hope.

We get to London and only have two hours to get from Heathrow to King’s Cross. We are not hanging around, taking it easy, but we didn’t give ourselves enough time. We touched down in London at half one and the train is at half three. We are supposed to be at the Eurostar a half an hour before it leaves but we get there at half three on the dot. We tell the guy at the counter that this is common practice in Ireland. That we could hop onto the train even if it was moving. We meet lots of English who wish us luck over in Paris. They want to see us do well. (When we get back to London there are so many people telling us we were robbed. A guy selling the big issue is gutted for us. Is he not homeless? How did he manage to see the game?)

The playoffs made news all around the world. Henry’s handball was on the front of every Irish newspaper for days after the game. It was on world papers. The Taoiseach mentioned it to the French president, Sarkozy. He was appealing for a replay and started an international incident. The French president was saying that Brian Cowen should keep his views on football to himself and leave it to FIFA and the governing bodies.

We were robbed. There’s no other way to describe it. We played amazingly. We were the better team. The only luck we had over the two legs was bad luck. We had lots of chances to put the game beyond the French and they scored a deflected goal in Dublin and a blatant handball-assisted goal in Paris. It makes it even harder to take that we did play so well. If we had played badly and lost out on the World Cup it would have been the better team that had won and made it. But to have performed heroically, to dominate over in Paris with the players that we have at our disposal compared to the players the French have to pick from- French players number 50 playing in the Champion’s League, Ireland have only got one, John O’ Shea.

We only got to see a replay of the handball when we arrived back in the airport in Dublin. They wouldn’t have dared show a replay inside the stadium because there would have been a riot. Imagine if they had. Twenty thousand fans in the ground would not have put up with such a blatant handball. Not that Irish fans would normally do that sort of thing but it was such an obvious handball that it boils the blood even thinking about it as I write this, over a week later. Looking at replays, the linesman had a perfect view of the incident. Two players offside and two handballs all in one move. An absolute disgrace. It’s really hard not to be bitter and not to think that there is some kind of conspiracy against us and the smaller nations.

Even the ref’s reaction, “Life goes on,” sarcastically dismissing the hopes and dreams of a nation, makes the blood boil. A Swiss ref got a major decision wrong in the Champion’s League a couple of years ago and had to quit the game. He was getting death threats and he retired. Irish fans would not do this but when you look at the reaction of the Egyptians who got beaten by Algeria, our reaction is of unbelievable restraint. When Algeria beat the Egyptians on the same night we played France, they attacked the opposing supporters as part of their celebrations. The Egyptians responded by attacking the Algerian embassy.

Calls for a replay were the correct thing to do. We shouldn’t put up with the injustice but you can look at it from the argument that it would set a precedent that in every game in which there is a contentious decision they would have to replay the game. This is true, but I can imagine that if the shoe was on the other foot and it was Robbie Keane or Kevin Doyle who cheated in such a blatant manner, then Michel Platini would be up in arms demanding a replay.

The night before the game was spent down in Pigale drinking bottles outside O’ Sullivan’s Irish bar right beside the Moulin Rouge. We learnt our lesson from the last time. The pints were 8 or 9 Euro and we are all on a tight budget. Bottles on the street will do. The bouncers don’t even mind that we are sitting on their patio chairs when we have brought our own drink. They are actually wearing Irish scarves and seem to be enjoying the craic along with the rest of us. We spend the night drinking and singing Irish songs. Stephen Ireland, the traitor who won’t play for his country anymore is the target of a lot of hate. The guy doesn’t deserve to even have the name. The songs are funny and keep the crowd in good spirits. Another few guys come down with “John and Edward 4 X Factor.” The crowd get a great laugh out of this too.

The day of the game we drank cans underneath the Eiffel Tower. It’s not every day you have experiences like this. We turn the corner and see the tower. We hear over a thousand Irish fans singing ‘Come on You Boys in Green.’ The chant echoes off the giant metal structure and makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. All the American tourists don’t understand what’s going on.

Grogy, one of my friends who has never been to Paris before or even France, has no interest in scaling the Eiffel tower. We note this and laugh. His priority is to stay with the fans and have the craic. When Johnno and his friends arrive they tell us they were on an open bus tour ride. We laugh at them for this and ask “What are they doing?” They are here for the match not to see the sights. The fact that they didn’t wear any green on the day of the game or on the night before leaves them open to more ridicule. It must be their first away game. They need to learn a few lessons about how to follow the Boys in Green.

The craic is brilliant throughout the whole trip. It starts off with pints in the airport bar and chatting to other Irish fans sitting next to us on the plane. Everyone is up for this game, and everyone is friendly. There’s no aggro like you get when you are out in Dublin or at home. If you bump into someone they will probably buy you a pint.

The stadium is on the outskirts of the city in a grim neighbourhood. It’s easy to get to though thanks to the Metro. Coming up from the underground we are like an army of green ants. Thousands of us have come on the underground train networks. Singing on the way. The carriages full of fans, having banter with the French. I remember the train to the Necker Stadium in Stuttgart. It was the exact same thing. Filled with Irish, singing and trading beers with the German fans. On the carriage we were on, it was so packed an Irish fan started crowd surfing. Crowd surfing on a train. Where else would you get it but on an Ireland trip?

The magnificent Stade De France is lit up like a spaceship in the Parisian night. It’s one of the nicest stadiums in Europe. I’ve been to a few great stadiums now. This one is one of my favourites, partly thanks to the trip in 2004 and the sight of 30,000 Irish fans taking over the French stadium and outsinging them on their own national anthem. They must have been thinking “Crazy Irish.”

On the way to the ground disaster happens. We lose my brother. Two of us went to the toilet and when we came back out we couldn’t find him. We jump to the conclusion that he has gone into the ground already. He is the one who has all our tickets. We start frantically trying to ring him off random Irish fans phones. My phone is dead and Grogy hasn’t brought his. The problem is, I’m trying to ring his Irish phone and he doesn’t have it with him. We have no way of contacting him so I buy a ticket off a tout. Think I paid about thirty euro for it. But then we meet another tout who is selling two together so we try to  buy two off him. He wants thirty each but we say we will only pay 20. Another tout over hears and he sells us two for twenty each. That’s an extra 50 euro on top of the 60 I paid on the original ticket.

So now we have a spare. I start walking down back towards where we originally lost my brother. We start asking everyone does anyone need a ticket. Nobody does. Everyone is sorted out. I end up giving the ticket to a French policeman. He probably won’t use it. He is hardly going to go the match when he is supposed to be working. When we get back to the hostel my brother is in bed. “Where were you?” we ask him, “You left us to go into the stadium and you had our tickets.”

Well it turns out that he was waiting outside where we left him for about an hour. He missed the first twenty minutes of the game because he was waiting for us. I feel terrible. We were so drunk that we just weren’t thinking straight at all. If we had just went back and had a look for him, he was there all along. I would be about 50 euro better off and we would have all been together. We would have been in the Irish section and I would have had my glasses too. My brother had them in his pocket and I spent the whole game squinting trying to guess who the players were. What a disaster. Our new tickets are in with the French. The Irish section looks class. All green down in the corner. It’s disappointing that we are not down there but there is about twenty of us all around the same area. Everyone gets talking to each other and there is some sound lads around. We try our best to make as much noise as we can when the Irish are singing. We make a lot of noise for a small group.

We played magnificently and in extra time we really had a chance. Penalties are always a lottery but we have one of the best goalkeepers and shot-stoppers in the game. The French goal was a sickener. It made me feel like I was punched in the stomach. Couldn’t believe it. Absolutely gutted. After the game we just file out of the stadium, dejected. The Irish are burnt out. A day of drinking and the highs and lows of the game has deflated us. In the city centre the Algerians are all out in their cars celebrating qualifying for the World Cup. We go up and congratulate them, get in pictures with them and wish them good luck in the tournament. They are going and we are not. It’s going to take a while for us to get over the defeat but we can hold our heads up high. What makes it harder to take is that the French don’t really care as much as we do. They are not out celebrating at all but I suppose they really expect to win the World Cup, not just qualify for the competition.

All the same it was still a brilliant game and experience. Even though we lost my brother, it doesn’t really matter if you are on your own at the game anyway because you can chat away to everyone around you and when the goal went in everyone is hugging each other even if they don’t know each other. I fell about four rows down and landed on an Irish fella when we scored. We just started cheering and hugging each other on the ground.

How can you describe what an Ireland away trip is like? To fully understand it you just really need to experience one. It’s like no other holiday. I’ve been on sun holidays. I’ve been on skiing holidays. I’ve been on city breaks, tourist holidays, family holidays, lads’ holidays, camping, you name it. I’ve tried them all. Loved them all. I’ve been to San Francisco, Las Vegas and New York City in two weeks. That was a great trip. Lots of laughs and Vegas was mind blowing.

But none of them compare to going away to watch the Boys in Green. It’s a shared experience between, mostly, men of all ages. Three generations of the same family supporting the lads. Men of fifty and sixty years old regaling the whippersnappers with stories from away trips of the past. Getting robbed in Moscow. Giants Stadium ‘94. Stuttgart ‘88. These auld lads are shown respect and in turn they respect the younger lads because we are all in this together. The older lads are forever young, kept young by their adventures. There’s also a lot of male bonding going on. It’s predominantly men on the trips. It would never occur to me to bring a wife or girlfriend. It’s just a place where men can be men. Drink beer, watch football, talk football and have the craic with the lads.

The sense of humour of the Irish is seen all the time on the trips. In Bratislava when we arrived into town on the train we were met by riot police with dogs. This didn’t faze the fans. A chorus of “Who let the dogs out?” greeted the stern faced officers. I have photographs of drunken fans posing with riot police and army officers with massive machine guns in their hands. Hilarious to look at and to think about afterwards. It’s funny to see the lads walking around during the day. Trying to do the tourist thing but at a loose end. We are all really just waiting until a reasonable hour of the day to start drinking. Usually around lunchtime.

Following Ireland abroad has allowed me and the lads a chance to see parts of the world we might not normally see. Bratislava and Prague in one week. We played in Slovakia on Saturday and spent three days there. We then got the train down to Prague to play Czech Republic on the Wednesday. The train down was packed with Irish, drinking cans and singing songs. We were standing for three hours because there were no free seats, but we didn’t mind because we were having the craic. Bratislava was cool. The architecture was amazing. It looked like a fairlytale. We also went to one of the largest clubs in mainland Europe. Then we went to a nightclub that overlooks Prague. It can only be reached by elevator. In Stuttgart we drank cans in the main square all day on the day of the game. We might have been drunk but we still got to see some great places following Ireland. Through drunken blurred vision maybe.

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