Bitter Swede. Blog by Tony Considine
When it comes to tournament football, we don’t really do wins. From our 19 games before yesterday, only 3 have been victories with England in 88, Italy in 94 and Saudi Arabia in 02 the only numbers under the W column. We do however seem to love draws with 1 all appearing with surprising regularity and so it proved yesterday with Sweden following Russia (88), England (90), Holland (90), Cameroon (02),Germany (02) and Spain (02) onto the list. And although there are definitely positives to be taken from the performance, it was hard not to feel a bit deflated at how we surrendered the initiative once we scored from a position of complete dominance.
The 72 hours before we left had been a little fraught to say the least as we were due to fly with Air France on the Sunday and their pilots strike meant that there was a good chance our flight would be cancelled. And when the equivalent flight on Saturday morning was cancelled 24 hours before it was due to fly it’s fair to say that a little bit of panic kicked in. I spent what seemed like half of Friday on hold in the Air France system attempting to work out a re route but as the fight had yet to be confirmed as cancelled the only alternatives available were with the airlines affiliated to Air France such as KLM. And all of their flights from around Europe to Paris were fully booked. Eventually we managed to get a provisional booking on a flight to Amsterdam with KLM with an Air France connection to Paris. While we knew that the connection was likely to be cancelled, I also knew that Steve Amsterdam was running buses from his Molly Malone bar in the Dam so if worse came to worse we could hook up with them the the 6 hour bus ride. A quick call to him to confirm there was space and at least we had a contingency plan in place. Saturday was spent refreshing the Air France website on my phone every 10 minutes to see what the latest news with their schedule was. Although the fact that the flight wasn’t showing as cancelled on the system all day, it was still a huge relief when finally, at around 7 in the evening a notice came up stating they’d finalised their flight schedule for Sunday and we were definitely flying! Having been on the phone all day to the lads discussing our option, we were finally able to put concrete plans in place to meet at the airport at 7 on Sunday morning!
A 6am alarm is never a pleasant thing but it’s tolerable before a big trip so I was able to drag myself up and Louise was good enough to drop me out to the airport where Frankie, Philly and Greg were waiting along with an army of green clad supporters. Bags checked in and a couple of early roasters were acquired to set the tone and before we knew it, it was flight time. Given the drama of whether the plane would go or not, it was nice to have an easy uneventful flight and having touched down in Paris, we hopped a taxi to our rented apartment. Unfortunately, on arrival we discovered that you couldn’t check in until 4 so there was nothing for it only to find a local hostelry to kill a couple of hours and escape the rain. It was actually closer to 5 by the time we got moving again and after a couple of hours settling in, we headed down to Montmartre to catch the second half of the Northern Ireland game and try and meet some of the lads.
While Paris is a great city to visit, the sheer size of it means that it’s not as ideal as other host cities I’ve visited. Although there was a focal point where fans gathered by the famous Moulin Rouge windmill, a lot of fans were staying in different quarters around the city and although we were able to meet up with the Quinn towers and Niall (one of our travelling party from the last Euros), the likes of the Brummies and Terry the Tash’s crowd had settled down closer to where they were staying. There was also a few cousins over that I was hoping to catch but the spread of fans around the city meant this was a forlorn hope despite our best intentions. After Philly and Greg bailed out early enough, it was left to myself, Frank, Niall and the Quinns to fly the flag and with things getting a bit messy with the huge numbers drinking on the street we found a spot around the corner that was a bit quieter and wasn’t charging the extortionate prices that the bars on one main streets were. If Poland was a trip where you could hardly give away cash then France is the other end of the scale altogether with pints (actually half litres) generally costing between €6 and €10 and even the on street off licenses taking advantage of the demand and charging upwards of €3 a can. Not that this was stopping anyone but it’s fair to say that the Credit Union accounts will take more of a hammering than they did 4 years ago! The fact that the beer on sale was generally of questionable quality (and that’s being generous) meant that by 2am we were starting to flag a bit and with Gameday 1 around the corner called it a night.
The butterflies in the stomach that I normally associate with a gameday were accompanied on waking with a reminder of the questionable quality of the previous night’s beers but after grabbing an omelette in a cafe across from the apartment, we were raring to go. Although the same issues with lads staying in different parts of the city meant we wouldn’t meet up with a lot of the gang until after the game, there was a huge crowd gathered at the Moulin Rouge strip and a huge carnival atmosphere with footballs being kicked everywhere and every tourist bus that passed being serenaded with Ole Ole chants. Mr. Tayto had even made an appearance and was wobbling through the crowd throwing out bags of cheese and onion to all and sundry! We found the Quinns and soaked up the atmosphere for a few hours before giving ourselves a couple of hours to get the train out to the ground. There was the usual craic on the train out with plenty of songs and some good natured banter with the out numbered Swedes that we came across. And by the time we got through the various security checkpoints and up to our seats, there was about 15 minutes to kick off.
I was fortunate enough to bump into a couple of the cousins and an uncle that I’d missed the previous night who happened to be in the same section of the ground so had a quick catch up with them before heading back to my seat for the anthems. I’d say at least 65% of the crowd was dressed in green and while the intensity of Amhran na Bhfiann might not have reached the levels of the opener v Croatia 4 years ago, if was still a stirring rendition and a huge cheer went up halfway through as President Michael D flashed up on the screen singing his heart out halfway through! And then, with the formalities over and a new UEFA countdown from 10 to kick off finished, the real business was underway.
The team and formation Martin O’Neill had picked was the same as I’d expected bar his selection of Ciaran Clark at centre half. When talking about it the previous day I’d said that I’d pick Shane Duffy in there but there really isn’t much between all 4 of our centre backs so I was happy with the line up. As hoped, Wes Hoolahan started at the tip of a midfield diamond and although I had concerns about Jon Walters fitness, I thought it was worth the gamble given his huge impact in qualifying. The rest of the team pretty much picks itself and the setup seemed to be justified as Ireland started the game in a very positive fashion. The first real chance fell to John O’Shea when a corner was flicked on by Clark but O’Shea just couldn’t stretch to get any touch on it when even the slightest contact would have resulted in a goal. It was eerily reminiscent of the same players chance in the same stadium v France 12 years ago when he’d poked a late chance wide which would have won the game for Ireland on the day. But that first chance was simply the beginning of a purple patch for us as we took full control of the game and with Hoolahan pulling fbd strings and Jeff Hendrick having his best game in a green shirt, we began to create chances at will. Next up, Hendrick got on the end of a move and got a decent shot off but it was too close to the keeper to trouble you. Then Robbie Brady made a foray forward and he skimmed the bar with a fierce drive. Better again followed as Hendrick drive forward again, played a neat one two at the edge of the box and hit a beautiful strike that had the keeper beaten all ends up but just didn’t dip enough and instead of rippling the net the ball crashed back off the crossbar. What looked a potential foul in the box by Martin Olsson on Shane Long followed and, although possession was even enough, all the momentum and chances were with Ireland. As we reached half time it wouldn’t have been flattering to be at least a goal up, if not two.
All the talk at halftime was about whether or not we could keep up that level of dominance as we’ve had a habit under O’Neill of playing well for portions of games but not doing it over 90 minutes. This was the case in both qualifiers against Scotland, both games against Germany and the home game against Poland and away play off v Bosnia. I had hoped that we’d put it to bed with our excellent home playoff game v Bosnia and the early signs in the second half were good as we started the second half in the same manner as we’d finished the first with another chance coming Hendrick’s way and going begging before another attack would yield the best moment of the game. Seamus Coleman had gone on a run on the right wing and just when it looked like he was going to go past Emil Forsberg and ping a cross in from the dead ball line, he instead checked back, taking the defender out of the game and pulled the ball back to where Hoolahan was making his run about 15 yards from goal. Although the cross was onto his supposedly weaker foot, he read the bounce of the ball beautifully and caught it with his right foot just above the half volley. I can’t emphasise enough how good the technique was to get his body into that position and manage to keep the ball down but manage it he did! As soon as the ball left his foot, it was only going one place. We were in the end behind that goal and had a perfect view as the ball arrowed past the keeper and nearly took the net off! And if the shot had nearly taken the net off, the roar that followed it nearly took the roof off the Stade de France! Everyone had been standing for the whole game in our section so when the ball flew in it was good old fashioned pandemonium as lads and a few girls leapt across rows of seats in a mass explosion of emotion and celebration. It felt like all the pent up frustration going back to how poorly we’d fared in Poland had been released and the manner of the goal had just added to it. My heart felt like it was going to burst out of my chest and the guttural roar I’d let out pretty much knackered my vocal chords! Surely we could now push on and finish the Swedes off given how dominant we had been?
Unfortunately, as we now know, this was not to be the case. I don’t know if the emotion from the stands got to the players or if the release they got from seeing the goal go in disrupted their focus or if the goal acted as a wake up call for Sweden but almost immediately afterwards the pattern of the game completely changed. It can be easy to slip into a conservative mindset on the pitch when you have something to hold onto and throughout the campaign we have played better when we’ve either been at nil all in a game or chasing a single goal deficit. This time, immediately after the goal, we started to sit back a bit deeper and suddenly the chances started to come at our end rather than theirs. Clark foreshadowed what was to come by miscuing a clearance which Randolph had to scramble to save. Forsberg shot wide and Zlatan put a shot passed the post. A succession of corners had our defence creaking and our nerves were jangling in the stands as we hoped to weather the storm and see out the game. It wasn’t to be. With 19 minutes left Zlatan, who had finally started to become more influential, got the ball wide on the left and having shaken off Coleman, managed to fire a cross across the box which the unfortunate Clark stooped to head into his own net as he attempted to clear it. It was a little harsh on him as he’d actually played quite well but I’d have to question if there was a need to play the ball given the pace on it and if there was, if using his head was the correct choice. While there was a Swedish player coming in behind him, he may not have got on the end of it but it’s immaterial now.
Jon Walters had already exited the fray at this stage nursing the achilles injury that had been troubling him in the build up to the tournament and we’d seemed to lose our shape a little as James McClean came on and was drawn to his natural position on the left. I thought he seemed to say to Hendrick to move further across but we definitely seemed a little congested in the centre at this point. That said, immediately after their goal Hendrick managed to get a run at the Swedish defence from the right hand side only to overrun the ball slightly and the chance was gone. Other than what would be a stretch to even call a half chance from McClean that was it as an attacking force from us with Keane and McGeady not having much impact once they came on and as the game reached it’s end, it was Sweden who looked more likely to snatch a win with another Zlatan shot flashing across the goal the closest they came before the ref brought proceedings to a close.
In the immediate aftermath my he main emotion was one of disappointment that we’d let such a commanding grip on the game slip. As we left the ground we hooked up with most of the lads we hadn’t managed to meet yet as the Quinns, Brummies, Karl and Caimin, Terry, McCoy, McGarry and the rest of the London crew and ourselves all hung around Saint Denis for a couple of beers and to analyse what we’d seen. Pretty much everyone shared the disappointment but at least we’ve got points on the board which is more than we managed in Poland and after Italy put Belgium to the sword later that night then we may have a situation where if Italy beat Sweden on Saturday they will have already qualified and potentially topped the group which may work to our advantage when we come to play them if they decide to rest players or take their eye off the ball somewhat. Having gone into yesterday’s game thinking it was our best chance of 3 points and really hoping for the win, I’d be happy enough with a draw v Belgium on Saturday provided Italy can beat Sweden. It’s still all to play for in any case and how Belgium react to their defeat will be huge. They looked a team less than the sum of it’s parts yesterday and a lot will depend on how we approach the game. I had originally thought that O’Neill would start Hoolahan v Sweden and possibly rest him v Belgium and play a more containing game. But it would be a brave (or foolhardy) man to leave him out following yesterday’s performance from him. Still, a point from Belgium will keep us in the hunt and O’Neill’s innate conservatism may sway him.
We wound up staying on in Saint Denis till the end of the Italy Belgium game and had a good bit of craic with the Swedish fans in the area with a few impromptu kick abouts going on outside and plenty of colour (including a Swedish Elton John look alike) helping to bring us out of the disappointment somewhat. After sharing a taxi with a few lads (one of whom coincidentally turned out to be a pal of mine’s brother that I’d never met before!) back into the centre, we hung around for an hour or two before heading back to the apartment. It was good natured mayhem up around the square but too be honest, I’m never in the mood for major celebrations when we’ve had a result I’m not happy with. While I’ve no problem with lads who are over for the craic and the session regardless of the result, for me it’s about the football first and foremost so I was glad to get out and home for a nightcap before we called it a night. As I write this I’m moving onto La Rochelle with a big crowd from You Boys In Green on Steve Amsterdam’s bus and my better half, Louise will join me in a couple of days before we head up to Bordeaux for Saturday’s game. Unlike Poland, people are a bit more scattered around the country this time with Frank and the lads staying another night in Paris before hitting Bordeaux tomorrow and Tash, the Brummies and the Quinns heading to Biarritz and Bergerac respectively before we all get together again in Bordeaux. A win or at least a draw that feels like a win will do nicely!
Read more of Tony’s blogs following Ireland here http://afalsefirstxi.blogspot.ie/