So, the great Polish adventure is finally at an end. As the last of the weary and bleary Irish fans trickle back home from Prague, Paris, Frankfurt, Amsterdam and beyond, they can look back at an incredible few weeks where they have done themselves and their country proud.
The football may not have been pretty but the Irish didn't let it get in their way of having a great time. I think it has been well documented how brilliant the Irish fans have been and whether or not you agree with the 'singing at any cost' approach or who the some of the chants were aimed at, there was not one hint of trouble from any Irish fan over in Poland. I think the majority of Irish fans over in Poland will say that they had a great time regardless of the results. It is a testament to the Irish spirit that the reaction to losing and playing badly is not to go out and be aggressive and make trouble but to look for positives and try and enjoy yourself regardless. It makes for an incredibly relaxed environment where all fans don't have to worry about any threat of violence.
It never fails to amaze me the lengths that some people went to to be at Poland. It was remarkable. I heard about and met some Irish fans travelling from Tasmania, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Nigeria and New Zealand just to be there to see the Irish team and to enjoy the experience of being at the tournament.
Italy 2 - 0 Ireland
Despite the scoreline, Ireland gave a better account of themselves against Italy on Monday evening. Beforehand, I never really felt that Ireland would get anything out of the match but it was good to see us have a go and give the Italians a bit of a scare. Again, silly mistakes cost us dearly and it was only a sublime finish by Mario Balotelli in the dying minutes that sealed Italy's win. I think that if Ireland had gone into that match with something more than pride to play for we could have taken something from the match. The Italians were good on the ball, passed it around very well but lacked the cutting edge of Spain. Ireland certainly rattled the Italians in the second half as we pushed for an equaliser but we just didn't get a break. Tired minds and bodies perhaps. Overall, I feel that it was the Italian's determination and their greater need for a victory that saw them through in the end. I can see better teams than Ireland having more success against the Italians in the latter stages of the tournament.
It's a pity that the match will probably be the last time we see the likes of Damien Duff, Shay Given and possibly Richard Dunne line out in green (or white as it was on this occasion). They have all given so much for Ireland over the past 10-15 years and will be rightly remembered as legends of the Irish game for generations to come.
Change. A favourite word of politicians during election time. Change is good. Change is needed. Change for the better. As the dust settles on our campaign and thoughts turn to the World Cup qualifiers, Giovanni Trapattoni will have a big job on his hands to lift morale and get Ireland back to winning (or more likely drawing) ways. Inevitably, there has been a lot of talk about this word change. Changing formations, freshening up the squad and playing a more attractive, modern style of football seemingly is what is needed.
Trapattoni has talked about some of the senior players staying on to help with this transition and ease the fringe players into a central role. As we do not have an immediate replacement for Richard Dunne it would be a big loss if he was to hang up his international boots. Whatever happens over the next few weeks one thing is certain, Ireland need to bring in younger, fresher players. Ireland had the oldest squad at these European Championships and Trapattoni has stuck with his core 11 which started against Croatia and Italy for far too long. I personally think this Irish team peaked against France in the World Cup playoff in November 2009. More than 2 and a half years on it is almost the same starting 11 lining out.
This has to, er, change. Players like James McClean, James McCarthy, Anthony Pilkington, Marc Wilson, Seamus Coleman, Greg Cunningham, Wes Hoolahan, and Robbie Brady need to be introduced or given a bigger role over the next 12 months. Current squad regulars like Shane Long, Jon Walters, Darron Gibson and Keith Fahey should be promoted to more senior positions in the squad. We need to start building a new generation of players and Trapattoni has to trust these young players. Whether or not he will bring them in, or indeed trust them, is another matter. We have only one friendly against Serbia in August before our World Cup qualifying campaign kicks off in Kazakhstan on the 7th September. The work should start now.
Trap has experimented before with a young team and a different formation in an entertaining 3-2 friendly loss to Uruguay in March 2011. This was done through a combination of injuries and player departures, with Stephen Kelly captaining the side as he was the most experienced Irish player available at 27. James McCarthy started in behind the lone forward man, Shane Long, in a 5 man midfield, and was seen as the creative force to make things happen. After the match this style of play was quickly abandoned, seemingly confirming Trapattoni's opinion that he did not have the players at his disposal to play a more creative, possession based game. Whether or not he will revisit this playing style for our next campaign remains to be seen.
This tournament has been a wake-up call for many people, myself included, as to how good this Irish team really is and how far behind other European teams we are. We were by some distance the poorest team in this competition. Despite the Irish fans' singing that the table is upside-down, it most certainly told us the cold, hard truth, we just weren't good enough. We have never been amongst the best technically so it was no surprise to be out-passed in all our matches, but we usually have more team spirit, more physicality, more of a go and more fight than the opposition.
The fact that all of these attributes were sorely lacking for most of our participation was probably the most disappointing thing. Ireland limped out, scoring just a solitary goal and conceding 9. We just didn't seem up for it. Maybe it was nerves, pressure, lack of experience, only the players and management knows what really went wrong. It seems a long time ago that we were banging on about unbeaten streaks and clean sheets. The simple fact of the matter is that under Trap we have not beaten teams ranked above us in competitive games.
The Lads on tour
Despite the Irish performance and results, the group of us that went over to Poland - Baz, Jimbo, Bleeksy and myself - had an amazing time. It was a pretty intense experience, being on the move every few days; Frankfurt, Berlin, Poznan, Gdansk, Poznan, Berlin, Frankfurt. In some ways it is good to be home! The Irish may be the best fans in the world but we are also probably the dirtiest and smelliest. It was a less than joyous experience sharing communal bathrooms with a hostel full of Irish men.
Despite this it was still great craic, and meeting all the Irish fans as well as the Croatian, Spanish, Italian and Polish fans was brilliant. Everybody we met was always in good humour and up for a laugh and all the fans mixed well. Our group had some pretty funny and ridiculous conversations, as well as some outlandish statements made. Most of these aren't suitable for print but some of the more 'PC' highlights include an in-depth conversation on the merits of Immac as well as Baz exclaiming on the train from Poznan to Gdansk that he would stay off the 'wets' for our 4 days in Gdansk. He lasted less than 5 hours.
Most of the Irish fans' moods remained fairly buoyant and positive in the hours and days after the defeats. Our group tried to believe we could pull off the miraculous result against Spain, but in reality I think we all knew it was over after Croatia, even if we couldn't admit it to ourselves at the time.
Despite being so close to the action we were in many ways more distant than the watching public back in Ireland as to what was really going on. We were living in one big bubble, disconnected from the world of internet, newspapers and TV for most of the trip. We didn't know what was happening with the Irish team and the reaction of the people back home. But we didn't really care. Most days consisted of doing a bit of walking around whatever city we were in, but, whatever token efforts of tourism we attempted, we always finished up in time to watch that day's football offering. We mostly tore the arse off it when it came to drinking. The daily diet consisted of kebabs, Subway, baguettes, KFC or whatever quick and easy fast food was available. All washed down with glass upon glass of Poland's finest beer. Bars stayed open all night and drink was cheap. A winning combination for the Irish!
Gdansk is definitely worth a trip back, it is a really beautiful town, laid back, historic and close to the Baltic Sea. Sopot, a few kilometres from Gdansk and where the Irish team were based for most of the tournament, is another stunning place, with white sandy beaches, a lovely promenade and a whole host of bars, restaurants and nightclubs on offer.
It is weird writing this final blog in a quiet house on a farm in Co. Tipperary, far removed from masses of Irish people wandering around outside, or from a dark internet café listening to Irish lads trying to remember where their hostel/hotel/apartment/tent/campsite was or trying to find their friends they may have separated from the night before. On our first night in Poznan Bleeksy met an Irish fan who had just arrived but his friends apparently thought he was due to arrive the following day. He couldn't get in contact with any of them and didn't know where he was staying so he slept on the floor of our room that night. That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the trip. Another thing we found out to our delight is that Bleeksy snores like a horse. A giant, drunk horse with a heavy cold.
Most nights we would take turns waking him up and politely ask him to sleep on his stomach or to just simply shut up. Many nights' sleep was ruined by the loudest snorer known to man. By the time we arrived in Gdansk, about 4/5 days into the trip, Baz had had enough and checked himself into a hotel just so he could get a proper night's sleep. It was great to be finally arrive back to my own room and enjoy the blissful sound of uninterrupted silence. All in all though, we got on really well, had some great laughs, and will definitely consider a similar trip to Brazil in two years time if we get there - only as long as Bleeksy gets his own room!
Anyway, I think that just about wraps things up from me. I hope all 7 of you enjoyed reading my blogs as much as I enjoyed writing them - mostly hungover in a dark internet cafe I may have previously mentioned. I hope you were able to get some insight into what it was like as an Irish fan out in the thick of things 'researching' on your behalf. Enjoy the rest of the tournament and see you in Brazil!! Oh, since you ask, Spain.
Unsurprisingly, the Spanish team put this weakest of Irish teams to the sword, without as much as breaking a sweat. Spain were absolutley class and if there is any small consolation for Ireland is that this Spanish team in that kind of mood will beat just about anyone. But we didn't help ourselves did we? Ireland have conceded a goal in less than 4 minutes in each half of football we have played at these championships. That is 4 goals down, without even having settled into the game. It is amazing that a team built on a rock solid defence has been so pourous, even against the calibre of team we have been playing against. It makes it virtually impossible to have any chance if you leak goals so quickly and easily. 4-0 may have looked harsh but it was completely deserved and could have been even more. I hope Spain can go on and win the Euros now and I can see them doing it, they look really up for it and I don't think 'hunger' or 'tiredness' will be issues for this team.
Stand up for the Boys in Green?
There has been a really positive reaction to how the Irish fans outsang their Spanish counterparts last Thursday. The atmosphere in Gdansk was, again, unbelievable. For the last few minutes of the match and beyond the final whistle all of the Irish fans were on their feet singing The Fields' of Athenry. Even though I didn't sing along, I thought it was amazing that the Irish fans were showing their support and devotion to the Irish team in this most trying of circumstances. There is however, a feeling amongst some that it was unneccesary and over-the-top and that it almost justified the performance and the loss. Nobody in Poland, fans as well as players, are happy just to 'be' here. We know our limitations but we still thought we could do ourselves proud and cause a few surprises and maybe scrape through to the quarter finals, a bit like what Greece have done (yet again!). The fact that the Irish fans were singing was to get behind the team, to say that we are with you through good times as well as bad.
Ireland go into tomorrow's match with nothing to play for except pride. Italy, on the other hand, need a win (and other results to go their way) to ensure their place in the last eight. For this reason alone, I don't think Ireland have any chance of getting anything out of the match. I can only see an Italian victory and, unfortunately, it could be 2 or 3 nil. The Italians will be up for it, they know what they have to do, they will have seen how Croatia and Spain have opened us up and they won't fear a thing. The Italians have looked surprisingly good and with Pirlo orchestrating everything for the Italians it could be another long 90 minutes for Irish fans. It would be great if Ireland could restore some pride but I have a feeling that that will have to wait until the World Cup Qualifiers in September.
Back to Poznan
We all arrived back in Poznan yesterday afternoon from Gdansk. There was a great atmosphere here last night for the Poland Czech Republic showdown. There were thousands of Polish people out on the streets of Poznan, despite the torrential downpours, and they were confident they could get the win they so badly needed. Many Irish fans were wearing Polish t-shirts and flags and wanted to get behind their second team. Unfortunately Poland didn't get the result they needed and the Czech Republic and Greece are the first teams into the quarter finals.
Throughout our time in Poznan there have been a number of incidents involving Polish and Irish fans. A few thugs from Poznan enjoy nothing more than attacking unsuspecting Irish and even Polish fans, during the day as well as at night in the city centre. We have met a few Irish and Polish people (including some people staying at our hostel) who have said they have been attacked by groups a guys from Poznan. The vast majority of Poles have been brilliant, really friendly, up for having the craic with the Irish, but it is a pity that this dangerous element exists here in Poznan. In Gdansk there wasn't a hint of trouble, but that town is far more tourist-minded whereas Poznan wouldn't as much of a tourist town. There are big groups of riot police in Poznan, watching on always, ready at a moment's notice to step in if something starts up. Let's hope they won't be needed.
Spain. What can be said about this Spanish team that has not been said before. Quite simply, Spain are a world-class team, boasting what seems like an unlimited stream of talent. They are on course for doing what no other international team has done before: winning three consecutive major championships. Not only are they a technically brilliant team, superior to any other in international football, but Spain also play a style of football that looks deceptively simple and is a joy to watch. Ireland have their system – hit and hope, containment, whatever you want to call it – and Spain have theirs – tiki taka.
Opportunity for greatness
Ireland's task is massive and, if we managed to win, it would rank as the best victory by an Irish team ever. The stakes could not be higher: win/draw or go home. Irish teams tend to perform better when their backs are to the wall, when the chips are down and when they have to come out fighting. I think Ireland were, understandably, tense for the Croatia match. We didn't settle very well. That could have been down to the fans, the weight of expectation and the enormity of the occasion. It was only when we went a goal down that we really started to get into the match, knowing that we had no other option but to go at them.
The mentality of the Irish team should be to go at them from the very first whistle. Let the Spanish know they are in a game and go at them hard. Remember Roy Keane's tackle on Marc Overmars in 2001? Whelan and Andrews should be like Rottweilers, chasing and pressing the Spanish all over the pitch. It doesn't matter if they get booked – go out and put down a marker. I watched the Czechs and Polish performances during the week and they played that way. High intensity from the start, tough, physical football and a hunger to win. Both teams knew they had to get a result and were determined to go and get it. Ireland should take inspiration from those performances.
It is hard to know what tactics Trapattoni will adopt for this match. There have been many rumours here in Gdansk that Trap is going to drop Keane and Doyle, go with Jon Walters on his own up front and have a five-man midfield including Darron Gibson. Many fans seem to have heard this from 'reliable sources', but it will hard to know whether Trap will go ahead with this or stick with his tried and trusted formation. Personally, I think it would be a better to go with the former option. We need more men in midfield to smother the Spanish waves of attack, and Walters is excellent at winning balls in the air and holding it up. He is a big, strong, physical presence and the Spanish won't like dealing with him. If Gibson plays he will need to play his best game by a Swedish mile for Ireland. Gibson can play a nice pass and is good on the ball but far too often he drifts in and out of games. If Trap sticks with his usual system I think Spain will have done their homework on us and they will find it all too easy. I have a feeling Trap won't change from his usual tactics.
Today is our third day in Gdansk and we have all been very impressed so far with the city. It is situated on the Baltic coast and has, so far, catered for the massive influx of Irish fans very well. It is a touch more expensive than Poznan but I suppose that is to be expected, with it being a tourist town. I highly recommend visiting Gdansk if you get the chance. Yesterday was the sunniest day so far in our time in Poland and we decided to head out to the seaside town of Sopot, where the Irish team is based. Sopot is about a 20-minute taxi drive from Gdansk and overlooks a beautiful white sandy beach. The Irish team is based in the Sopot Sheraton Hotel, which is right by the sea, and it appears they lack for nothing by way of facilities. It seems like a quiet little town and is an ideal spot to take it easy away from the madness of Poznan and Gdansk. There were, however, thousands of Irish knocking around Sopot on Wednesday, the vast majority taking advantage of the great weather and heading out from Gdansk for the day.
McClean down the pecking order
I was talking to an Irish fan in Sopot on Wednesday who has been camping there since Monday. I asked him if he had seen any of the Irish team around the town and he said he was talking to James McClean for a few minutes. Apparently McClean said that Trapattoni told him he was behind Stephen Hunt in the pecking order and that he didn't expect to see any game-time during the Euros. McClean said he was disappointed but that he accepted the manager's decision, and was hopeful that he might get on if he was lucky. If McClean doesn't play at all during these championships then it will be a pity because it would be great to see him running fearlessly at defences. At the very least he is gaining good experience for future campaigns and hopefully for future tournaments.
Win, draw or lose... booze
The Irish fans have arrived again in huge numbers for the match. Tickets are noticeably harder to find than they were for the Croatia match, and there are also a lot of Spanish around as well – looking very confident, might I add. The Irish fans are all still in great form, drinking and singing late into the night. We are still in the tournament and anything can happen. The weather in Gdansk is a lot cooler than Wednesday and is actually a bit on the chilly side. There is every chance it could be raining again by kick-off time, just like our match against Croatia. In the hostel where I'm writing this, an Irish fan just came back in from the town centre and stuck on six hot whiskeys. Just enough to wet his beak, as such. I don't know what his other five friends are having though...
Can we do it?
Getting something out of the Spain match will take a monumental effort, a large amount of luck, good tactics and self-belief. As usual where Ireland are concerned, my heart says that we can beat Spain, that the lads will have a serious point to prove and that we can really put it up to them. However, my head says that we just don't have the players, the technical gifts that the Spanish possess, the experience in big game situations, and a squad full of World Cup, European Cup, and Champions League winners. Spain have seen it all and done it all before. They should just have too much for us to cope and I can see them winning easily enough. I really hope I'm wrong.