LIAM MACKEY: How an Albanian taxi driver evoked an age of innocence

In Uefa-speak, today is MD-1, that is to say, eve of match but also, in this case, eve of tournament.

The 24 squads are all in situ now, including Ireland who flew out from Dublin yesterday to take up residence at the Trianon Palace Hotel here in Versailles.

In such opulent surroundings, they’ll be able to sample a little of what you might call that Sun King feeling but, unlike Le Roi, they’ll be made to earn their stint in the lap of luxury by having to roll up their sleeves each day at the nearby Stade de Montbauron.

This morning, the spick and span ground with its impeccably pristine pitch, will host an open training session, a public event designed to allow the Irish visitors to say a formal bonjour and merci to their French hosts.

But it will also be the first opportunity to see just what kind of impact the heightened security around this tournament is likely to have on how the squads go about their business, long before they even reach the match venues..

My own Euro 2016 officially achieved lift-off even before I’d left Dublin yesterday.

There was already a quickening light in the eastern sky when the taxi arrived at the house to take me to the airport for the red-eye to Paris.

The driver, a man I figured was of east European origin, was delighted to discover he had a passenger on his way to the Euros. “In a few days I’m going too,” he enthused.

Turned out he’s an Albanian who has been living in Ireland for a number of years and so was obliged to watch from a distance as his homeland sparked one of the biggest surprises of the entire qualifying campaign by making it to their first-ever European Championship Finals..Ervin explained how he’d gathered with a couple of his fellow countrymen in a pub in Clondalkin for Albania’s decisive game away to Armenia in Yerevan — a place which will always figure in Irish football memory too, as the location of a celebrated Keith Fahey goal.

This time, there was no live coverage of the action in Yerevan accessible in Ireland, so the Dublin branch of the Red Army had to follow the biggest match in Albania’s history via updates on their phones — and when the whistle blew on a convincing 3-0 victory for the visitors, Ervin said that he and his pals drew astonished looks from fellow drinkers — who were entirely oblivious to the magnitude of the moment — as they jumped from their seats and screamed with joy.

They were doing much the same thing, except in far greater numbers, in Tirana at precisely the same moment and, the following day, 50,000 people gathered in the city’s main square to welcome home their heroes.

Unfortunately, Ervin hasn’t been able to get his hands on tickets for Albania’s opening two Group A games — against Switzerland and hosts France — but he will be linking up with cousins in Bologna and driving up to Lyon for his country’s final qualifier against Romania.

I’ve always had a soft spot for Albania ever since being charmed by the then fledgling democracy when I travelled to Tirana to cover Ireland’s World Cup qualifier there in 1993.

But even if I hadn’t already had that tiny purchase on the reality of a once enigmatic country, the infectious joy of a chance encounter with one taxi driver in Dublin would have been enough to win me over to their cause at the Euros.

Last week out in Abbotstown, it was a pleasure to renew old acquaintance with legendary Ireland physio Mick Byrne, who’d popped by with his two young grandsons in tow to have a look at the Irish squad training before they embarked for France.

Mick, of course, is a man at the centre of so many great yarns from the Jack Charlton era but will, perhaps, best be remembered by the general public for his televised call to arms as the Irish team bus arrived at the Neckarstadion ahead of the game against England in Stuttgart in 1988.

“We’ll do them for yiz”, Mick declared, as he stepped off the coach, a clenched fist raised in solidarity with some watching Irish supporters.

Ah, you can feeling the old spine tingling even now. Well, Euro 2016 is Albania’s Euro ’88 – and one can only hope their experience of the first time is as memorable as ours was all those 28 years ago. And I wouldn’t like to be the killjoy trying to explain to them why expanding the European Championships is such a bad idea.

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