So having witnessed the humiliation from our nearest (perhaps not dearest) neighbours, I was back in Belfast for a few days, staying with Dina & catching up with the rest of the family. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t achieve a great deal whilst in the city on the Wednesday and Thursday, beyond arranging for my day trip to Dublin on the Friday for Northern Ireland’s final ‘Celtic Cup’ match against Wales.
The arranged bus for this game left Belfast’s Grand Opera House in the mid afternoon – though it was delayed by 10 minutes due to a single ‘no-show’ – and was scheduled to get to our stop near the ‘bed-pan stadium’ in Dublin around 1900. The reason for the incredible journey time was an hour stop over at a motorway service station along the route as an act of mercy… some people have a weird mercy based system if you ask me.
The highlight (?!) along the way was a guy called Michael who is a regular at NI away matches… and also a regular for being so drunk when you meet him that he often hasn’t got a clue where he is. At the start of the journey, he sat down with me, with a coffee cup and we actually had our first sensible conversation on a football trip in years. Just before he got up to leave me, he did in form me that it wasn’t in fact coffee in his cup, but whiskey & coke… oh dear.
He then proceeded to get even more ‘banjaxed’ drinking more whiskey, attempting to drink more beer (though me managed to spill half a tin on a seat beside me in a failed attempt to multi-task (with one of the tasks being to stay awake)) and when he got to the motorway service station, a full bottle of Rosé. He also spent most of the bus time singing football songs… or rather shouting football songs in a queer, atonal fashion and sometimes just straight out of tune. He seemed particularly enamoured about a ditty which mentioned Ballymena & Heroine frequently…
Fortunately the bus got to the stadium stop off point on time, having acquired all other NI supporters from NI travelling to the game… all 3o-odd of us. There were about another dozen in the stadium who were from ‘overseas’. When we got to the stadium, we were informed that we were to go directly to the stadium… Richard & I thought we’d strike our own path. We started walking away from the stadium, when we were challenged by a Garda Constable.
“Were are you going lads?” in a thick Dublin accent… “Just around the corner for some food & drink” was our reply… to which he then told us that they wanted all the supporters in the stadium early “as you can imagine for the obvious reasons.” Obvious reasons?! there were going to be the smallest crowd of the entire tournament at the game… no animosity exists between the Welsh & the Northern Irish and there were probably less than an hundred of the two of us combined… was the Guard saying that the locals were out to get us?!
We made our case once more and when the Guard said “well I can’t stop you”, we were off. We headed for a building which looked like a pub, but appeared to be a restro-indian-pub… in Dublin. We weren’t quite sure what to expect upon going in, either from it’s odd facade with uncertain signage, or from the ‘welcome’ we got from the door man.
“I hope you’ve no Union Jacks with you lads?”. After a short chat about how Dublin represented downtown Tripoli after a NATO strike, following the NI v Scotland match a few months ago (in his mind at least) and how he was a peaceable sort when he went to the Sandy Row to work (aye, right) we just laughed at him & walked on in. We spent the next 35 minutes in peace, with a school friend of mine joining us eventually and then quietly made our way to the ground. I say quietly because there was no one to see on the way, nor indeed in side the Stadium Grounds.
The official total was something like 529 people. I’d say there were more employees inside the stadium. I’d also hazard that there were more locals in to watch a ‘free’ match than supporters of the two teams competing. Again, most of our first choice team were also absent, which meant that the team we put out tonight was even weaker than the one we’d put out against the Beggars on Tuesday!! Oh dear. We’re not altogether sure if Nigel Worthington appreciated our chants of “Nigel, Nigel, give me a cap!”
The game itself was bit of a non-event. Wales scored two goals… not quite the gifts we gave the South earlier in the week, but poor goals to concede nonetheless… we scored none. They probably deserved it on the day all the same. So our record for the tournament read:
P 3 – W 0 – D – 0 – L 3 – F 0 – A 10 – Pts 0
… brutal stuff if we’re honest about it. Our record in friendlies is woeful… I believe it’s something like one win in our last 19 friendlies… ouch. Over the following days, pretty much everyone associated with NI football came out & slated the tournament, the timing of the tournament, the players who stayed away, the supporters who stayed away, the Recession, Player Poaching and anything else involved in football. I think it’s safe to say, that unless the IFA made significant money from the exercise (and the rumour is that they did) then we won’t be involved in it again.
A big part of me says that’s good news… but a part of me also says that this was not a complete waste of time. I’m all for experimental teams in our friendlies and in a tournament like this, against other British style teams, our U-19’s and U-21’s deserve their chance to a) show us what they can do and b) gain experience against much, much better players. I predict that they’ll all be stronger for it and if or when the time comes for them to step up to the full team in a Qualifier, they’ll know more about what it means to play at this level.
Anyways, game over, bus home and time to forget about Northern Ireland football until the late Summer… an opportunity for the defeatist in me to subside, the optimist in me to rear it’s ugly head again and the rollercoaster to continue. Next up in August is the Faroe Islands…