In all the years I’ve spent following the Irish team, we seem to have drawn Georgia on an inordinate number of occasions. An initial meeting in 2003 during Brian Kerr’s first campaign ended in an ill-tempered 2-1 victory best remembered for the various knives, bottles and ball-bearings thrown at Kevin Kilbane, Shay Given, Gary Breen and Gary Doherty.
This was followed by an August 2008 clash in Giovanni Trapattoni’s first away game which ended in the same score and is best remembered for the fact that it was moved to the neutral venue of Mainz in Germany after the Russo-Georgian war broke out that month, much to the chagrin of the hosts. Fast forward to Martin O’Neill’s reign and Georgia once again provided the first away opposition with 2-1 also the scoreline as a bit of Aiden McGeady magic secured the 3 points. Throw in the home fixtures and a friendly and I’d imagine we’ve played Georgia more than any other opposition in the last 15 years. And I even include Oman in that!
The sheer distance of travel involved (and the lateness of the venue change in ‘08) meant that I’d skipped those games so when we inevitably drew them again for this campaign and having heard good reports from previous trips, I decided to take the plunge and undertake my longest trip since Japan and Korea in 2002. The big difference being that this was a three dayer rather than a four weeker!
With no direct route in, many convoluted options were available and after deciding the rollover option via a lock-in till three in Steve Amsterdam’s Molly Malone’s bar before heading for a 5:30am flight from Schiphol, was too much to take on at the start of a trip, a Wizz Air route through Luton to the city of Kutaisi suited best. The only fear was that a ninety minute connection at Luton might be cutting things a little fine if the Ryanair flight from Dublin got delayed at all. As it happened, any worries were unfounded as a two hour delay on the Luton-Kutaisi meant I had plenty of time to meet with the lads I was travelling from Luton with, Borussia and Charlton’s Child from YBIG and their mate Seamus, over a couple of pints.
On boarding, it was clear that the bulk of the flight was made up of Irish fans and there was a good-natured atmosphere for the duration of the five hours. That said, the two hour delay on top of the three hour time difference meant that there were some fairly tired heads disembarking when we finally landed at 4:30 in the morning. While the bulk of the fans on the flight were going straight onto the final leg; a four hour bus journey to Tbilisi, the four of us had booked into a hotel to grab what we thought would be about five hours sleep before getting a 10am train. This necessitated getting a cab from the airport to the city which is where the fun and games really started.
There doesn’t seem to be any regulation of the taxi industry in Georgia so it’s basically a free for all. There are no meters in the cars and it seems that everyone fancies themselves a cab driver. With no metering, a price has to be agreed beforehand and you have to be prepared to haggle. Walking out of any airport or train station you get accosted by any number of lads looking for a fare and with us not knowing how much was a fair price at this point, we ended up agreeing to pay a guy 40GEL (about €3 each) to bring us to the hotel. We were all pretty certain that was over the odds but at that price and at that hour of the morning we were beyond caring.
The other thing that’s noticeable about cabbies in Georgia is that none of them seem to have a rashers where they’re going. So, despite giving him the address at the start of the journey, it was clear as soon we got into the city centre that this lad was hopelessly lost. A stop at a 24-hour store yielded no leads and a couple of phone calls didn’t seem to get him anywhere. We were starting to get a bit unsettled by now and this went to the next level when he turned down some side-street and brought us into a dead end! I think we all expected his mates to appear and Borussia already had the front door open while the three of us in the back were entering flight or fight mode! With no-one appearing from the shadows, we all calmed down a bit as it turned out he’d genuinely taken a wrong turn and managed to persuade us he’d get us where we wanted! A three point turn got us back on the main road and ten minutes later, he finally found the street we were looking for when we finally managed to convey that it was beside Kutaisi train station.
By the time we checked in, it was 5:30 and despite being dog tired, sleep wasn’t easy coming. I think I finally nodded off around 6:30 and with an early train to catch, was back up about 2 hours later. As there was no train from Kutaisi till 12:15, which didn’t get to Tbilisi till after 5, we’d decided to get the 10am train from Rioni, a town about 10km away. This meant another cab ride, this time from what seemed like a more legit taxi. That said, when he turned onto a dust track with a pack of stray dogs roaming around, we began to wonder what was going on until we saw a few Irish shirts waiting on a Soviet-era platform that had definitely seen better days. The lads waiting had got in earlier the previous day via Warsaw and despite having a few beers the previous night told us that we hadn’t missed much in Kutaisi, which still seems quite underdeveloped in comparison with Tbilisi.
After two hours sleep, a four hour train journey wasn’t much fun and nor was another haggle with a cab driver. As I was staying with Terry the Tash and Pete McG who had arrived earlier in the week, the rest of the lads went off to their hotel and I jumped a cab on my own. Despite having the route saved in Google maps, this driver still managed to miss a turn and take another ten minute detour to get back on track. It’s worth mentioning that the driving in Georgia is full-on insane with the rules of the road seemingly more suggestion than actual laws! There are cars weaving everywhere, cutting across lanes, pulling u-turns and drivers roaring abuse at each other constantly. All the while trying to avoid pedestrians who just walk out wherever they want to cross. I’m talking about pensioners with walking sticks, mothers carrying children, the whole nine yards! I thought Italy was bad for traffic and Dublin bad for jaywalking but this was next-level stuff!
So by the time I got to the hotel it was 2:30 and as I knew a walking tour had been arranged on YBIG for 3: 00, literally had time to drop the bag off in the room and head straight back out. Terry and Pete had gone on a day tour up the mountains with the Amsterdam crew so, after another roundabout taxi journey, I hooked back up with Borussia and the lads at Freedom Square to see a huge crowd of assorted YBIGers getting sorted into two groups by a pair of tour guides.
The walking tours are a great way to see a city and get your bearings, as well as learning something about where you’re visiting. Plus, the older I’m getting, it’s a good excuse to get a few hours out of the pub! This tour took in a number of old churches, some Catholic but mainly Georgian Orthodox, where the green clad hordes walking in raised a few eyebrows. After walking around some local food markets where we were given a lesson in the importance of being a toastmaster at a wine drinking session and treated to some freshly baked Georgian bread and some Churchkhela, a local fruit and nut type of salami, we walked over the Bridge of Peace which straddles the Kura River and links the old and new towns.
Heading on towards the Presidential Palace, we were given a potted history of the city since independence following the collapse of the USSR before getting the cable car up to the Narikala Fortress where the panoramic views of the city were absolutely spectacular. As was the sight of a helicopter overhead with a huge water bucket attached attempting to quell a small forest fire caused by the searing heat, which was hitting the mid 30’s at this stage.
Having spent three hours on the tour, we finished up by getting some mountain top snaps with a peacock and a peregrine falcon perched on either arm followed by a visit to the Mother of Georgia statue. As I promised the missus, these would be the only birds on my arms while I was away!
Although there was still a visit to the sulphur baths and a wine tasting to come, we’d promised to head to the YBIG fans match which was due to kick off at 6:30 so we slipped away to haggle yet another taxi and headed to the Mikheil Meskhi Stadium where Ireland had actually played their 2003 qualifier. Although this game was on the back pitch with only a single stand, the venue would still put plenty of League of Ireland grounds to shame. We even managed a quick sneak into the main stadium before being collared by security and politely told to move on.
The fans match was played out against a backdrop of thunder and incredible forked lighting which must have caused a bit of worry for the Quinn Towers who, as the centre-half pairing, were by far the tallest things in the immediate vicinity of the stadium! A good crowd saw the YBIG team lead 1-0 and 2-1 before a late Georgia equaliser sent us to penalties. The drama wasn’t finished there as Ireland thought they’d won it only for the ref to demand a retake due to the keeper moving before the kick. With nerves now playing a part, the Georgian keeper saved the retake only for the ref to call it back again for the same reason meaning a third kick had to be taken with Keitho holding his nerve to eventually win the shoot-out 5-3!
Although we’d arranged to meet the gang who’d gone on the day-trip after the game, their tour seemed to have taken a lot longer than anticipated so by the time they arrived around midnight we’d already had a few beers and had hit a cracking restaurant for the bit of dinner. The Hangar bar in the old town had become a bit of a meeting point for the fans and indeed the media and, after finding myself sitting at the bar beside RTE’s Tony O’Donoghue, had an interesting chat about various things, including his infamous rapport with Martin O’Neill, over an enjoyable pint.
Having only had two hours sleep in the past twenty hours, I wasn’t up for anything too mad and spent the last part of the night chatting with our tour guide from earlier who had come in with her other half to enjoy the atmosphere. Asking me about Irish history is one of those things that sets me off but after an hour or two bending their ears, I decided that 2:30 was time to call it a night so had one last taxi haggle to get back to the hotel before crashing out to rest for match day after a quick call home.
The morning of the match brought more sweltering sunshine but given the lack of sleep from the previous day, all I saw of it was a trudge downstairs for breakfast before going back up for another couple of hours kip. The game was kicking off at 8pm local time so tentative plans were made to meet up at the Hanger bar between 3 and 4. This gave me a couple of hours after finally rising for a bit of exploring and shopping, although given the prices on offer for top quality labels and scents on offer, I think it was fair to question the bona fides!
Pretty much everything in the city seems to be open to negotiation so if you enjoy a good haggle then you’re in your element! Having dropped a couple of things back to the hotel, the three of us from the room wandered down to the square at the Hanger where the crowd was already filling out with the Amsterdam Crew and Quinn Towers arriving to join us. All the various flags and banners were being hung up around the area which made an interesting backdrop for a local wedding that was passing through. As did the chants of “Stand Up For the Bride in White!” that started up as the bride and groom posed for some pictures with the fans!
The few hours before travelling to a ground are one of my favourite times on an away trip with everyone optimistic and in good spirits as the excitement and atmosphere builds up. The nerves haven’t normally kicked in yet, you’re bumping into people you only really see on these trips, nobody is too hammered and you haven’t had a game to pick apart yet so it’s always a great time.
So the next couple of hours were spent mingling with familiar faces and meeting friends of friends with the regular chants and songs getting a good airing. Given Georgia’s proximity to the Middle East, a good number of Irish who were working in the likes of Dubai and Doha had taken advantage of the fact they had less travel time than us to get there so some interesting conversations were had about working in that area and before long, it was time to head up towards the ground.
A couple of local fans we’d been talking to had directed us towards the metro so rather than have the hassle of haggling yet another taxi fair, we took a good-natured march through the city having a bit of banter with the locals on the way. The metro itself was an interesting experience as we had to descend the longest escalator I’ve ever seen in my life which also happened to move at breakneck speed. I’m talking something that must be double the size of the really long ones on the Northern Line in London and moving at twice the speed! The stations are fairly vividly decorated which provided a contrast to the Soviet era trains that service it. A couple of stops later and we came up from the depths and walked through the subways (full of more stalls and shops selling anything and everything) to surface back at ground level not far from the ground.
By this stage the team had come out and the line-up of Randolph, Christie, Duffy, Clark, Ward, Whelan, Arter, McClean, Brady, Walters and Long was pretty much as expected. With a home game on Tuesday, I hadn’t expected Wes Hoolahan to start 2 games in four days and expected him to get a cameo off the bench if we needed to close the game out before starting on Tuesday. My only issue was my suspicion that Jon Walters couldn’t have recovered sufficiently from the ankle injury he’d picked up a couple of weeks back. I know most players will play through the pain barrier and both Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane have gone on the record as being in favour of risking players with fitness concerns once they come through training, but it didn’t work with Walters in Euro 2016 and I was doubtful that it would work here. Still, maybe we could get a good hour out of him I thought, pushing the negative thoughts out of my mind as we walked up to the stadium itself.
I assumed that Martin O’Neill would put a rocket up the team’s collective backside at half-time and we might see some sort of reaction but with an aimless Irish hoof down the pitch pretty much straight from the kick-off, it soon developed into the same pattern as the first half. At one point after Georgia had played about twenty plus passes, I actually counted how many we would have till we lost it. Five passes later and the sixth went straight into touch. The only positive was that Georgia weren’t creating any clear-cut chances but conceding possession in the manner we were doing against a team ranked 112 in the world was unacceptable.
The game was crying out for some changes and the introduction of anyone who could actually put their foot on the ball and pass it. When the first substitution came, it was Aiden McGeady, rather than Wes Hoolahan, who came on for a very disappointing Harry Arter. In fairness to McGeady, he is capable of good creative football in the 10 position on his day and his arrival did see a slight improvement. A chance was finally created on 69 minutes with a Long header over from a Christie cross but despite the change, it still looked like any chance we might create would be from a set- piece.
Georgia carried on dictating possession but we were at least pressing them a little better now and another corner, this time Walters heading straight at the keeper just after Daryl Murphy replaced Glenn Whelan, who was another to have a very disappointing game. Having got a smash and grab victory 3 years ago in Georgia after a poor performance, I started to think that there might be a chance of doing similar the longer the time ticked on and we really should have done that on 86 minutes. Long did very well to keep another long ball in play on the left wing and with the Georgia players appealing for a throw-in, played a lovely ball into McClean. While he didn’t have as much space as he did for his Vienna winner, he was still favourite to score but a poor second touch gave the keeper time to narrow the angle and a combination of the keeper’s legs and Kverkvelia’s head kept the ball out.
A chance for Georgia to win it then came with a Merebashvili shot well wide of the past. McGeady then has the chance to repeat his feat of 2014 and win it at the death as he found himself in acres of space on the end of a Walters knock down from yet another launched long ball but instead of hitting it first time or even taking a second touch to control it, he instead leant back and blazed the ball over the bar. With that being the last meaningful action, we reached the end of stoppage time coming away with a point we scarcely deserved. The players, with the exception of Shane Long, couldn’t wait to get off the pitch and were clearly too embarrassed to even come down and applaud an angry and frustrated fanbase.
With final statistics of 31% possession for Ireland and 150 completed passes against 568 for Georgia, legitimate questions have to be asked of the players and the management even allowing for the clear cut chances we had to rob the extra two points. While it wouldn’t be my preference, I’ve no issue with long ball tactics if they bring results. However, to employ that game then you need to press up on the opposition and not give them space to pass the ball at will. We’re not talking about Spain at Euro 2012 here where their quality was so good that we couldn’t get near them. In this game we deliberately sat back in our own third and made Georgia look like a top quality nation. I’ve seen some articles since pointing out the obvious that our players are generally lower Premier League/Championship level but those articles seem to ignore the fact that that is still a far higher level than the Georgian team (which was also missing key players) who dominated on Saturday play at. There’s an argument that the horrific injury to Seamus Coleman has left us without one of our leaders although he was playing in Belgrade when we only managed to complete 94 passes and were lucky to get away with a draw. The fact is that Austria and Moldova away aside, we’ve been very poor in this group and haven’t kicked on from the Euros. The tactics being employed are generally to be blamed for that, along with our decades old tendency to retreat into our shell when we take the lead. Rather than this fear that we seem to have shrinking under O’Neill, it seems to have gotten bigger. All I can hope for tomorrow is that our habit of producing good performances after poor ones (such as the Italy game after the Belgium loss in France) comes good again tomorrow but that’s been three poor performances in a row since the win in Vienna and we’ve now found ourselves in the last chance saloon from a dominant position in the group three games ago. Another concern is that the worst second place team doesn’t even qualify for a play-off and there’s a real danger that without wins against Serbia and Wales, we could potentially finish second but still miss out that way. The team selected tomorrow will tell a lot about our ambition and Hoolahan surely has to play unless this ‘injury’ mentioned today is more serious than it seems.
Once we got out of the ground, we found an offie and sat outside with a drink waiting for the crowd to die down before getting a taxi back to the old town. I wound up having an interesting chat with a couple of lads in Ireland tops from Leipzig who had decided to follow Ireland after what they considered their team, East Germany, was disbanded following reunification. As far as they were concerned the Germany team didn’t represent them (and nor did franchise club Red Bull Leipzig) so they been following Ireland for a good few years. Certainly couldn’t accuse them of glory hunting anyway!
When we got back to the old town, a good mob of us went back to the restaurant that we’d eaten in the previous night and drowned our sorrows with some good food, good wine, a few glasses of the local grape brandy, chacha and a few songs. The frustration was subsiding a bit and things were put in perspective when we bumped into Danielle and Lexie, the daughter and granddaughter of a man no longer with us and who wasn’t far from our thoughts during the whole trip.