I’m scripting this on the train from Maribor to Ljubljana, the morning after the night before. I’ve lost count of the number of games I’ve been to across Europe to watch Northern Ireland, but I do know that this is the fourth time I’ve seen us win away from home. However, this one is definitely the sweetest. My previous include:
- Finland – Friendly Match
- San Marino – World Cup Qualifier
- Lichtenstein – European Championship Qualifier
Now, to that list I can add Slovenia – European Championship Qualifier. So why more sweet?? Well, firstly, it was a competitive game… no matter which way you cut it, they mean more, it’s part of a bigger picture and a bigger dream. Friendlies are the whole process in terms of results – yes new things and learning is taken from them, but at the end of the game, that’s it. Secondly, with all due respect to San Marino and Lichtenstein, they’re not very good, and you would expect (yes I know you should never expect anything from NI) NI to beat them almost every time… and to be fair, we beat them comfortably enough the times I witnessed them.
Some of the guys are even saying it’s our best away result in decades… we beat Austria in the 1990’s in Vienna, and others claiming since we beat Romania away in the 1980’s!! I think it’s fair to say, it’s up there. Slovenia are a good team. They play good football, and they’ve got pace, height, and power. They’ve just returned from the World Cup in South Africa, so clearly they’re no mugs!!
So all in all, very satisfying.
The whole trip itself has gone well too… I flew from Mumbai to Ljubljana via Istanbul (Turkish Airlines) with no problems, and plenty of good aeroplane sleep (not proper sleep but not a complete absence either. Ljubljana is a beautiful place, the people are so friendly and polite that it rates as one of my top five destinations in the world (Helsinki, Sri Lanka, Croatia and Northern Ireland (obviously!) filling out the list to date. On Thursday, I headed up to Lake Bled for the first time, and it is simply stunning beautiful. A pristine lake, with a little island in the middle – only big enough to hold a church – with the whole thing being overlooked by Bled Castle – location to be seen to be believed!! – perched on top of an out crop of rock in the Julian Alps.
Friday consisted of getting over to Maribor for the match. The weather in Slovenia has been a bit mixed… the sunshine, when in it, is lovely and warm, yet in the shade & in the evenings, it’s somewhat nippy. True to form, I was the only one complaining in the main square in Maribor about the chill… clearly I’ve acclimatised to Indian weather a touch!!
The mood before the game was pretty bleak to be honest… yes there was singing, a bit of dancing, and the usual carry on… but no one I talked to expected anything from the game. We would all have been delighted with a draw!! And yet, here we are the day after, top of the world despite the rain enjoying the feeling of success abroad. As like the last time, the atmosphere in the ground was sensational. The Slovene’s are definitely up there in my mind as the best home support in Europe. The ground may only hold 12,000 but the noise generated is brilliant. We sang our hearts out, but I’d hazard that only occasionally prior to scoring did we get air time in the ground. When we scored & shortly after, I’d hazard we made ourselves heard mind!!
And so, the journey home, for the first time in a long time, is a little bit more bright and happy.
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