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.