It’s February 8th, Oleg sends John O’Neill a Facebook message asking when he’s coming back to Lviv. Lviv in the summer. Blue skies, beer and football. Ireland are playing Ukraine in the Nations League in June. Just a normal run of the mill message between friends from different countries looking forward to catching up again.
In 2011 we first encountered Oleg. He posted on the YBIG forum about a European fans football tournament (EuroFanz) that would be played in the largest city in western Ukraine, a country we had all heard of but where few had been to. Over the next 10 years, that would change.
Today Oleg has a small tourism business in Rynok Square in the old town of Lviv, a Unesco heritage site. He has a son we nick-named Sharkey, a wife and daughter. Now he carries a gun and has signed up for the civilian defense of their country sent to war against a Russian tyrant – with no military training.
Oleg is warm, genuine and endearing. He loves football. He loves us Irish and the fun we have. And we love him. Sharkey is in his early 20s, has foppish hair and is a musician. He is more a Californian surfer than a soldier and has a full life ahead of him. Will he be involved in this madness. We sincerely hope not?
And now we want to help our Ukrainian friends.
We didn’t know what to expect back in 2011. Ukraine was a land we knew little of. But on seven of us went – myself, Philly, Aidan, John, Ibrahim, Dr Phil and Eric.
A flight into Krakow in Poland was booked (Krakov is bloody miles away from Lviv) and we chartered a slick tinted window bus, only the finest for a semi pro footballing team with high aspirations of winning the cup.
When we got to Krakow the beast from the east was waiting for us. Basically, a 1980s mini bus/tractor. We also had a Polish driver with us for the whole trip who was, quite frankly, one grumpy prick. A bag of cans – maybe more – and we were assured we would be there in eight hours. We arrived 16 hours later. Welcome to Lviv.
The drive to the border (the one in all the news reports) wasn’t as bad as we expected, though the driver piped up every time we wanted a piss stop – and there were many. And then we got to that promised land. We’re here at last?
No, another six-hour border wait before we crossed into Lviv. It was no more than an hour and half to our accommodation – 4 hours later at 2am we arrived shattered in the middle of the sticks! Grumpy was lost more times than he cursed. We had a game the next morning at 10am. Fail to prepare, prepare to fail.
It’s there we invoked our own granny rule. It’s that moment when our seven became 14 and for the next eight years we were one. Seven Irish, seven Ukrainians.
In 2011, the first tournament, there were three group games over two days – v Croatia, Sweden and Slovakia. We got out of the group and lost to Russia in the last 16. Great. We could go on the beer now and not worry about football getting in the way.
We also got our first taste of Lviv city that night – and so we were hooked. It’s a wonderful, vibrant, lively and welcoming place and the people are affable and as friendly as they look. 2011 quickly rolled into 2018. As we said already – blues skies, beer and football. We love Ukraine.
A few weeks after EuroFanz 2011, Karpaty Lviv, the biggest football club of Lviv, drew St Pats in the Europa League. Yaroslav and Miroslav are big Karpaty fans and when they heard the game was in Dublin they really wanted to go. As it so happens, I lived in Inchicore then so I offered them a few nights accommodation. They scrambled to get visas as it had to be done through the club. They, along with a handful of other fans, flew with the team. The team stayed at the Hilton Hotel, which is about 200 meters from my gaff at that time. Providence was shining down.
Later in the day, a few of the Karpaty players were going for a walk and would have walked past Kilmainham Gaol. Little would they know the historical importance of that building to Irish history. A bloody history with an Empirical next-door neighbour. Sounds familiar.
As they went for their stroll they passed a 150 year old house painted pink (don’t ask – I still think it’s painted pink too). Miroslav was hanging out the door having a smoke. Obviously, the players were laughing, bemused. Hey Miroslav, what the hell are you doing in there? My Irish friend lives here he laughed back.
It was good to be host and show them around Dublin for a couple of days. The Luas trip to Tallaght (the game was played in Tallaght Stadium) was a particularly amusing journey, pretending to be Ukrainians speaking in a gibberish tongue winding up some Irish girls who thought we were Ukrainians too. Yaroslav and Miroslav were in tears laughing.
Apart from the football and craic, the humanity always shone through. We did charity work and always brought over some jerseys or kids’ toys for the orphanages. We brought cash sometimes, one year it was used to paint a kids’ school and fix some windows. It breaks our hearts to see schools now been destroyed by bombs.
It was important that while we were going purely for the football, piss up and fun that we would give something back as it’s a poor country with terrible levels of corruption.
We went back up until 2019, by which time Eunan, Brian and the twin towers Ciaran and Jonny as well as keeper Kevin regularly travelled to make up the core of the Irish team with myself, Philly Aidan and John. Covid put a stop to the next tournaments.
When will the next EuroFanz take place? Will we see some of our Ukrainian friends again? Surreal. We were supposed to be there again in June. Some of the Ukraine group were planning a return visit to Dublin for the NL game in September. This is a visit that they won’t be making but it will be a destination for many Ukraine refugees. It’s estimated at up to 100,000 will be coming into Ireland. How quickly things change.
We have such great memories of Lviv. To see it now as a reporting hub for war, well, what the fuck can we say? Oleg’s message on February 8 was a tonic. Now he and all the friends we made are fighting for their lives and their country.
To help the Ukrainians suffering we are hosting a YBIG Ireland fans match v Ukraine Fans. The game is on Friday March 25th at 7.30pm at Home Farm’s pitch in Whitehall, Dublin 9. Capacity is 2000, you can also donate by buying a virtual ticket.
The team of 2015 – we should have gone far that year. Don’t mention losing to Copenhagen having beat them 5-0 in the group stage 🙁
Words Liam Murray