If the recent World Cup qualifying draw has given you wanderlust, I couldn’t recommend a trip abroad to follow the boys in Green more highly. Ireland are grouped with Serbia, Austria, Moldova, Georgia and Wales.
While those destinations may not seem too exotic, many people advised me against traveling to Poland three years ago and I couldn’t be happier that I ignored that advice. And if the dream comes alive by reaching France in 2016 or Russia in 2018, make sure to take the chance to be there. You won’t regret it.
As a lifelong football fan I’d always dreamed of following Ireland to an international tournament. So as soon as Ireland drew Estonia in the Euro 2012 play-off I started planning a possible trip to Poland with a good friend. We learned that somebody in our hometown was making the trip over in a VW camper van and in search of companions; this is when the dream began.
So 6 of us crammed into the white 1989 van, the likes of which I’d only seen before in hippy movies. On arrival at Rosslare, we were greeted by a sea of green. Fellow campers, cars, buses all decked out in tricolours. The standout was the front of a lorry that had somehow been converted into a caravan of sorts, which didn’t look too stable.
So after a marathon drive that brought us through France, the Netherlands and Germany, we arrived in our first destination, Poznan, with 24 hours until the big opener against Croatia.
The torrential rain couldn’t dampen our spirits as we set about sampling the local cuisine and ales. With an exchange rate of about 6 zloty of the local currency to a euro; we lived like kings for the duration of our three weeks stay (and the weather improved too).
The first game brought little too cheer bar Sean St.Ledger’s equaliser before an eventual 2-1 defeat. Little did we know it would be Ireland’s only goal, but by god we made the most of it!
That was followed by a trip to the sunny beaches of Gdansk. I’ve been lucky enough to attend matches at the hallowed turf of Celtic Park and Old Trafford, but I’ve never experienced anything like that night at the Arena Gdansk. With about 5 minutes to go, Ireland were 4-0 down and virtually eliminated from the tournament with a game to play.
From the far end of the ground, a defiant group of Irish fans rose to their feet to belt out one last rendition of the Fields of Athenry. What followed was truly amazing and I will take the memory with me to the day I die. The green jerseys around the stadium rose to their feet and joined in a spine tingling rendition of the famous anthem. The sound was absolutely deafening and drowned out the joyous cheers of the Spanish in seconds.
Tears were streaming down my face as I joined my countrymen in one last hurrah, but they weren’t tears of sadness, it was pride. Not in the defeat of the team, but in the spirit of the Irish even in the face of elimination. We didn’t get the results we wanted on the pitch but we made sure to leave our mark off it.
The Spanish were probably bemused as to just what we had to sing about. The singing didn’t even end after the final whistle, it continued for a good five minutes as the Irish players walked around the pitch to thank the travelling support.
As I eventually headed for the exit a Spaniard approached me to enquire how we put on such a performance despite the poor result, the only answer I could give him was “Why not!”
As we left the stadium and headed into the night, the good mood continued. While we were saddened by the team’s early exit, the shared atmosphere of pride in those emotional minutes continued. We drowned our sorrows into the early hours of the morning in a positive way that only the Irish could.
After all, we’d had the chance to witness the World Champions in their pomp, something most people can’t say they have experienced. If you’re going to lose like that it might as well be to the likes of Xavi, Iniesta and Fabregas at their best.
A defeat to Italy followed suit, but despite the poor results, the trip is one that I certainly didn’t regret. Although we travelled the length of Poland, the fields of Athenry always loomed large.