Missing joys of Euro football’s great May days

UNTIL events in Dublin last Friday tempered my misty-eyed desire for 90 minutes of the Airtricity League, this was supposed to be a column about missing out on the joys of football in May.

Since arriving in New York over six months ago, I’ve fallen into the trap of American sport.

The NBA play-offs have proved gripping. I’d watch meaningless Mets games every night if I could and I even look out for the ice hockey results.

So, as the end-of-season scenarios filtered in from throughout Europe, I decided I was going to write a kind of postcard to all the clubs who helped to remind me that football has not lost its ability to deliver a crescendo.

To make matters worse, last Friday, I wanted to be in Tolka Park to watch the rebirth of a meaningful rivalry between Shels and Cork City. It was as close as I came to homesickness (but not very close at all, really).

There used to be those Fridays when I’d wake up buzzing. We’d leave for Dublin around midday and you’d be in Fagans by 4pm or 6pm depending on the extent of traffic and messing along the way — a cliff edge off which every road trip dangles precariously.

We’d stroll to the turnstiles, knowing our dreams would be shattered again and at full-time we’d be forced to sing through the misery. We’d try to deceive our players — their heads hung in shame — that we’d get over this and we’d see them next week at the Cross, ready to roar them on again even though the league had slipped away.

But that reminiscing was quickly deflated on Saturday when news emerged about the incident involving a young City fan injured in a post-match incident near the ground.

It’s hard to know where to go with that but hopefully the kid recovers well.

The comfort for everyone should be the game itself.

It’s hard to keep up with everything, no matter how connected we are these days. However, I’ve learned that no matter where you find yourself, there’s no mistaking the bright evenings and the knowledge that they bring with them win-or-bust drama.

It’s always reassuring to know that no matter how much those in power chip away, the immediate, most basic need of almost every supporter is being satisfied or destroyed just as it always has been each and every May.

When it gets to this time of year, there’s so much at stake: all those finales, the fortunes and failings of all those teams who play with scant regard for history and total disregard for the future. Football, through its sheer volume, never fails to deliver some sort of romance, somewhere.

One of the best stories in Europe is that of Lille OSC who could, later on tonight, wrap up their first French Ligue 1 title since 1954.

I visited that slightly decrepit former mining town in 2004 to watch them easily win a UEFA Cup qualifier against Shels who were themselves coming off a memorable Champions League run which came to a halt against Spain’s Deportivo La Coruña.

Lille had just moved into temporary digs, the depressing Stade Lille-Metropole. They’re still there but will move to their new stadium next year after what will almost certainly be an attempt to defend their title.

Then there’s Napoli, who attracted us children of Italia 90 when Serie A first hit our TV screens. They’ve pulled through years of torment to nail down a Champions League spot for next season. Going in the opposite direction are relegated Sampdoria, one of the first football jerseys I ever bought.

Closer to home, there has been the renaissance of two south-coast clubs in England who came so close to extinction in recent years. Brighton and Hove Albion went up to the Championship while AFC Bournemouth could follow them if they can first get past Huddersfield in tonight’s play-off semi-final second leg.

Then of course there was the incredible climax to the Eredivisie in the Netherlands where Ajax had to beat Twente — and duly did 3-1 — in order to clinch their 30th title on the final day of the season.

After almost everything is resolved, we all become neutrals, hoping that the Champions League final can end the month appropriately. Before the big show in Wembley on Saturday week, Dublin will get its moment in the early summer sun tonight.

Far be it from me to lecture the football public on their need to appreciate a cup final when it is actually just the culmination of what has become a second rate tournament through the sheer force of its big brother.

But my fear is that tonight could pass by almost unnoticed, played silently in bars for disinterested punters discussing the visit of the Queen. Ticket prices were too high and the lack of a ‘big name’ team was a huge blow but if Porto and Braga find it in their hearts to stand up for European football’s second class citizens, then we’ll know for sure that May is football’s month.

Contact: john.w.riordan@gmail.com Twitter: JohnWRiordan


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