Shankly Gates and Jesus Statues – It must be Euro 2012

The final whistle goes at the Liberty Stadium and we finish the season with another defeat, the week after our 35 minute cameo in the FA Cup final against Chelsea and just five days since we dismantled the same opposition in what was to be Kenny Dalglish’s last home game as Liverpool manager. What now? Well we had the European Championships to look forward to at least. But not after another few stressful weeks of Liverpool Football Club being dragged around the public domain. Kenny gets called over to the states to deliver his end of season report and leaves no longer the manager of his beloved Liverpool, seemingly oblivious to what was coming. Not good. So arise Brendan Rodgers, best of luck to the second Ulster man to take charge of our club. He’s certainly talking a good game and roll on August, but I had a date with the Boys in Green to get over with first and my first major football championships, it’s been a while in coming.

I’m in the age bracket where it never looked like we would qualify for a major tournament, just one would do, and we had great sides in the past, but always seemed to fall at the final hurdle. Then along comes the giraffe that is Jack Charlton and all of a sudden football is in vouge again across the Irish sea, and even better we had a side containing the likes of Ronnie Whelan, Ray Houghton, Jim Beglin, Mark Lawrenson and John Aldridge. Suddenly we are one of the best sides in the world, or should I say one of the hardest to beat in the world. Our last away victory of note was against Scotland in 1987, a goal made in Liverpool, a quick free from Aldo sends ‘midfielder’ Lawrenson away and he finishes to the net. Ronnie Whelan played right back that night! We have had some more notable away ‘victories’ that will go down in Irish folklore. We have ‘beaten’ Spain 0-0, England 1-1 and Italy also 1-1 in their back yards, so it’s not all bad.

But we don’t get to many major tournaments, I was too young to travel to Euro ’88, at Italia ’90 we were stuck on an island, and it was pre Ryanair/Easyjet days, whilst USA ’94 and Japan/Korea 2002 were just too expensive.  I just had to get to one before it was too late or should I say before we aren’t good enough to compete anymore. It was looking dodgy this time as well, but Zbigniew Boniek owed me one after that dive at Heysel and pulled out the Estonia ball against Ireland. A 5-1 aggregate score later and we were on our way.

My plan was to head to Brazil in 2014 whether or not Ireland were going to make it or not. L4 has it’s own special magic for me, but second to that would be a visit to Brazil, Rio and it’s beach and that massive Christ the King statue looking down for the city below, and the Maracana Stadium of course.  But a look into the financial future of 2014 left me with no choice but to abandon the Brazil dream for now, and it was full steam ahead to Poland. I must stress that no way was I going to traipse across to the Ukraine, so it all depended on what way the balls came out in December.  Poland it was, and a group with the last two World Cup winners and a talented Croatian side, no problem for messrs Dunne, Duff, Given and ahem Green.

I and fellow regular Kopites, Chris, Clare and Sarah decided to base ourselves in Berlin for the majority of the tournament whilst heading into Poland for two games on the day of the match and spending three days in the host country for the Spanish match. It was purely for economic reasons, although in hindsight the liver was spared quite a bit of abuse also. Never been to Berlin, and it was everything we had hoped for. We attended the Germany V Portugal game at the Brandenburg Gate on the night before the Croatian game, 500,000 people having a great time; it was rude not to join in.

The next morning we travelled to Poznan for our first game against a pretty decent Croatia team. We were  on a mini-bus with three other Irish followers from Belfast, turned out one of them was a founder member of FC United, the chat moved on to our new boss and he was seething that we had got him before purple face had retired. One up to the reds I hope.

Nothing could prepare you for the sight in Poznan, thousands upon thousands of Irish and Croatians drinking merrily around the many squares the town had to offer. I don’t think the Polish were ready for this and sure enough the trams on the way out were overcrowded to the extreme. Hopefully they would get this sorted before the last game of the group. It was clear the stadium wasn’t completely finished either, the wire fences and heaps of sand were a dead giveaway. Many hundreds of fans were also bemused by the total lack of signage around the stadium, the stewards just shrugged their shoulders and apologised for the lack of organisation. The night had started badly; we finally got in before the national anthems. A few minutes in and one slow motion header and an unusually static Shay Given dive later and we are one down. Crap. Duff floats one into the box and St Ledger scores but the whistle had gone, well,  A whistle had gone,  but not the referees, it was from the crowd and I wasn’t the only one not to be going crazy when the ball hit the net. The phantom whistler continued all night as well, twat. It got worse as Croatia added more goals, one before and just after the break. Not the start we wanted. Bluenose Jelavic got plenty of abuse as well from the Irish end, not for his Everton connections of course but for his Rangers ones, that’s the problem following Ireland at times, best fans in the world my arse.

We didn’t land back in Berlin until the small hours but it was a good day, lets face it we have a limited enough side, we didn’t play well, and our hard to beat mantra went out the window tonight. It was unlike us; really need a set of Brendan Rodgers beads for the Spanish onslaught in a few days.

What was I saying about the lure of Rio, the Christ the King statue etc. We had Inter-rail tickets for our trip into Poland for the Spanish game and basically we could go where we wanted, well in the general direction of Gdansk where the Spanish game was held would be a help. A few internet searches later for a town to land in and we had hit a bit of Brazil in Poland. The small town of Swiebodzin was on our route and unbelievably the town of just over 21,000 inhabitants had raised enough money to erect their very own Christ the King statue, and what’s more, it was bigger than the one in Rio! I’m not the religious sort, but this had to be seen. So off we went to Gdansk via Swiebodzin.  The train station was something out of the Wild West, but the town itself was a joy to behold, and peering around a corner was this monstrosity of a monument, nothing could prepare you for it, it was spectacular.  It’s a canny move from the townsfolk as I’m sure it will become a tourist attraction for many years, the presence of a spanking new hotel right across from the statue was evidence enough, but the oversized Tesco’s supermarket beside it confirmed it. Good luck to them. It wasn’t the only surprise in store for us in the town. 1341607484804

Poland were playing Russia that night so a quick wash and down to explore the town before the game, walking around the squares and down a side street we go and there it was right in front of us, a quick rub of the eyes confirmed it. A pub maybe or was it a house, I wasn’t sure, but it had the Shankly Gates above it, with You’ll Never Walk Alone emblazoned across, it was a joy to see. Was it a pub but, a knock on the door later and nothing, then the door opened, a peer behind the unsuspecting person who answered confirmed it wasn’t a pub. A few points of the sign later and thumbs up signs etc also confirmed that he hadn’t a clue what we were so excited about. A DBTS sticker later and he seemed to know why we were there, but us having no Polish and the man himself no English made it impossible. So we just stuck a few more stickers on his door and took a few pictures to send home and to fellow reds in Liverpool who were delighted to see it. We drank merrily as Poland drew the match and onwards we went to the small town of Torun the next morning before hitting Gdansk for match day two.

Swiebodzen
I think it only rained twice when we were over and both were on Ireland match days, Gdansk is full of history, and the Scouse Solidarity tee would be very apt here. My word, what a lesson we were given by a Spanish side playing well within themselves I have to say, its hard to be critical when you come up against that. But another early goal again! We have to stop that, the game was over after a few minutes. Seeing Alonso run the show just breaks your heart as well. The ‘Fields’ got a great rendition towards  the end of the Spanish match,  the drunk lad in front of me was sitting beside two bemused Spanish supporters, he nudges them,
“Hear that, he slurred, that’s what  you call support” . I’m sure the two lads who have seen their country win the last two major championships and soon to be a third couldn’t give a fuck.  Me, I couldn’t sing it, and if I tried it would be “Stevie Heighway on the wing” every time.  Maybe I have serious questions to ask of myself as well.

So a  4-0 hammering and we also had to stay up the whole night before catching a train to Berlin at 6.30am – nothing for it but to drown our sorrows in the shadow of the Spanish hotel in the hope Pepe might wander over, he was probably rehearsing for the homecoming even  at that early stage. Back to Berlin to catch up on sleep and to prepare for the last game V Italy, we were out but we had a decent record against the Azzurri. Things can only get better on the playing side of things; off the pitch we had plenty to occupy ourselves with in Berlin. I’ll definitely be back to both countries, hopefully following the reds as well.

The Italian game was back in Poznan and it was notable that there wasn’t as many ‘fans’ there for the last game. I would go to all home Ireland games and a smattering of aways and the trips are great, as there would be only four to five thousand travelling maximum. You also get to meet good football people from across the island and look forward to renewing acquaintances on the following trip. But 30,000 had come to Poland and it has to be said thousands were that drunk that I’m sure they never made the matches at all. I know I’m sounding like an ‘Oul Arse’ but all my pet hates in the modern game were in full view, Jester Hats, Green Wigs, Morph suits, singing ‘Who are ya’, ‘He fell Over’ (in an English accent???) basically the viewing population of Soccer AM were there and it must have been hard  for the regulars to bear at times. We can’t even sell out the Aviva Stadium for qualifying games.

Well the good news was that we held on against the Italians for over five minutes, we were better organised, no doubt about it, but they were too good and needed the points desperately.  Ballotelli  came on to a chorus of boos, embarrassing,  and duly answered them by scoring a great second goal for a deserved Italian victory. Three games played and no points, but we did expect far too much from a limited team, they did well to get to the tournament in the first place. We just don’t have the players of the calibre of Whelan, Houghton, Aldo, McGrath, O’Leary anymore, the influx of SKY TV money has seen clubs looking further afield, across continents for talent instead of players on their own doorstep and that’s not going to stop any time soon.

Our adventure was almost over and we left the next morning to return to the North West of Ireland to prepare for another season with the Redmen. August can’t come quick enough and lets hope Rodgers will get the time to work his way into Liverpool folklore, early indications suggest he will get the time.

As for Euro 2012, it was good overall. The ‘boring’ Spain side won their third major competition in a row and sit proudly amongst the great sides of all time, the Brazil side of 1958,62 and 70 and the Uruguay side, Olympic Games winners in 1924, ’28 and World Cup winners in 1930. They are going to be hard to stop but with Brazil 2014 on the horizon we may well be in for a treat and you never know we may come across another “You’ll Never Walk Alone” house in Brazil yet.

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