As work trips go, it was up there with the more memorable.
There are people out there who have spent years following Irish clubs around Europe and witnessed nothing more than a handful of victories on foreign soil — if any — so it counted as an enormous piece of luck to have this column’s maiden voyage stamped 11 years ago with a 2-0 win for Cork City against FK Ekranas in Lithuania.
A handful of snapshots stand out: Sitting in Damian Richardson’s hotel room with other journalists as the City manager expounded — at great length — about the task facing them the next day, the dead heat come kick-off, and the contrast between the old communist concrete buildings and the glitzy glass constructions that had sprung up beside them selling capitalism’s flashy new wares.
Then, there was the warning.
Nobody took the hotel receptionist all that seriously when she told the travelling media not to walk back alone after dinner that night. The advice was taken anyway, on a whim as much as anything else, though there was reason to be grateful when dozens of teenagers and young adults were spied perching high amid the branches of the trees lining one dark boulevard later that evening.
It could have been, excuse the pun, just their regular hang-out, but it felt even more unlikely a few years later when a Lithuanian acquaintance heard the story and added some context. Panevezys, where FK Ekranas were based, had a reputation at the time as the crime capital of Lithuania. Our man reckoned the receptionist had saved us a few sore heads and lost wallets.
As a brush with danger, it doesn’t hold a candle to the tale involving Tbilisi, a taxi ride and a handful of Irish football hacks, which varies between minor stick-up into full-scale assault with AK47s, depending on who you talk to, but both are exceptions to the rule when it comes to following football around the continent’s nether reaches.
Obviously, the vast majority of trips pass off without the merest hint of such dangers but the earlier rounds of European competitions, such as those involving Dundalk, St Patrick’s Athletic, and Cork City this week, rarely fail to throw up the sort of fixtures that demand a combination of torturous journeys, deep pockets, and a sense of adventure.
Belfast, Gothenburg, Esch-sur-Alzette in Luxembourg, Rovaniemi in Finland, Iceland’s Hafnarfjordur, and Minsk in Belarus have all been penned into the diaries of Irish clubs this summer. Few feature high on personal bucket lists, or tripadvisor and Rough Guide roll calls as places to go, but they are vital, if sometimes awkward, ports of business for League of Ireland teams.
Cork City earned a cheque of just €55,000 for finishing second to Dundalk in the League of Ireland last season. They have already banked roughly eight times that by edging past Linfield in the first round of the Europa League and making their appointments with BH Hacken last night in Gothenburg and again in Cork next Thursday.
It’s rewards like that which gives the lie to the old cliché about Irish sides keeping their fingers crossed for a meeting with one of the ‘big guns’ in the earlier rounds. Progression through the preliminaries = profit, especially if trips to some provincial backwater fin eastern Europe can be avoided.
It’s why Linfield in Belfast was the jackpot draw for City last time around.
Little over 2,000 people turned up at a revamped Windsor Park, that can now hold close to 10 times that number, for the opening leg of that all-Ireland clash. Well over 10% of them had made the journey from Cork. A horrid night and a game that fell smack bang in the middle of the Irish League’s close season explained some of that, but it still made for a painfully small level of interest.
This column had the ill-fortune to take a taxi from the city centre to the ground that night with a driver buzzed up to the gills by one of those industrial size and strength energy drink cans. Worse still was the fact that he coached one of the underage sides for one of Linfield’s rivals and was all too eager to talk about that, and much more besides.
It made for fast conversation and a slow crawl through the rush hour traffic.
Even Linfield’s shiny new stadium couldn’t take from the sense that it was a meeting between have nots and those who have less, and two days in Gothenburg have served as another reminder of just how far down Irish football is on Europe’s club ladder.
FAI chief executive John Delaney spoke this week of the slower-than-wished-for progress being seen in the League of Ireland so it was instructive last night, given everyone’s eternal fascination with the Scandinavian model, to take in the brand new 6,500-capacity ground built for BK Hacken in Gothenburg and to hear tales of their state-of-the-art training facilities nearby.
As for FK Ekranas?
They were wound up two years ago after a slap on the wrists and a ban from European competitions from Uefa for unpaid bills. A reminder, if Cork City and a host of other Irish clubs needed it, of the fact that most of those sides battling it out around Europe in high summer belong to the have-nots rather than the haves.
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