The road well travelled: Greetings from Tbilisi

Greetings from Tbilisi where, after a long haul that saw us checking into our hotel at 4.30am, a modest proposal formed in my addled brain: I think Istanbul should be twinned with Limerick Junction.

The road well travelled: Greetings from Tbilisi

Greetings from Tbilisi where, after a long haul that saw us checking into our hotel at 4.30am, a modest proposal formed in my addled brain: I think Istanbul should be twinned with Limerick Junction.

Now, there, I’ll wager, is a sentence you never expected to be reading over your breakfast cereal on this or any other morning.

Thing is, the journey from Dublin to Tbilisi is such a well-worn one now for followers of Irish football that Istanbul has become almost as familiar a stopping-off point as theJunction is for those of us who regularly travel the iron road between Dublin and Cork.

Mind, this time, for the first time, our outbound trip took us through the gleaming metropolis-in-the-making that is the gob-smacking new Istanbul Airport, reputedly the biggest in the world and set also to be the busiest when fully operational, handling 200 million passengers a year.

“It’s like the most enormous, poshest shopping centre you’ve ever seen — with a few aeroplanes thrown in,” was how one wide-eyed colleague described his first close encounter with the mega-project.

Then again, Limerick Junction has a new platform and footbridge, so I think my comparison still holds.

What brings us back to lovely Tbilisi, of course, is yet another encounter with familiar friend and foe Georgia, an international fixture by now so recurring that it has driven headline writers to the depths of despair before they simply give up and resort, for theumpteenth time, to ‘Georgia On Our Mind’.

In truth, the Georgians, while never less than — come, come, what’s the word? — “tricky” opposition, have really been unduly friendly to us over recent years.

I vividly recall sitting in front of this very laptop in a hotel room in Faro five years ago and hearing the cheers of Irish supporters coming from a nearby pub, as Georgia beat shell-shocked Scotland1-0, a result which, taken in tandem with Ireland’s subsequent 4-0 romp against Gibraltar, made for a pivotal points turnaround in the qualifying campaign for Euro 2016.

And this afternoon’s opponents have been at it again in the current group, stunting Danish firepower with a scoreless draw in our home from home, the Boris Paichadze Arena.

On the other hand, it’s an understatement to say that they have never made it easy for Ireland when we’ve come face to face, whether it was Aiden McGeady having to perform last-minute heroics by doubling his goal tally to secure three points here in 2014 or, under Martin O’Neill on our last visit two years ago, the rather alarming spectacle of the visitors ending up with 26% possession in a 1-1 draw after surrendering a fourth-minute Shane Duffy lead.

So it’s more fear of the known than the unknown which tends to grip Irish hearts in these parts, compounded by a sense that the Georgians “owe us one” and that, for all their struggles to get qualifying points on the board, justice in football tends to even itself out over a long span of time.

Reasons to be cheerful? Well, since the return of Mick McCarthy, the Irish probably put on their most sustained performance of quality football in the 1-0 win at the Aviva back in March and, of course, let’s not forget that they go into this in a position of strength: top of the table and unbeaten in the campaign.

For all that, it’s no disrespect to the many admirable qualities of the current squad to say that it is hardly the most talented ever to represent the country. There are many of us who still pine for the great ‘Wessi’, for example, while watching Jack Grealish thrive in the Premier League is a painful reminder of what might have been in the Irish playmaking stakes.

When we were talking to Conor Hourihane earlier this week, he almost derisively dismissed the notion that his team mate’s defection might still be a subject for conversation at Villa Park — “people need to move on from that one, I think” he said, firmly — but he left none of us in any doubt about what we’re missing.

“He’s a fantastic player,” he enthused.

Such a good dribbler of the ball, probably the best I’ve played with. He’s quicker with the ball at his feet than running normally and if you’ve got that skill, it shows how good you are. Weight of pass?

"He’s got the lot, he’s got everything to be a very, very good player. Like I said, ability-wise he’s probably the best I’ve played with.” And Declan Rice? Ah, let’s not even go there.

Instead, let’s concentrate on what we have — an admirably spirited, energetic, positive, and well-organised side which, at its best, adds up to more than the sum of its parts — and, of particular interest now, what might be to come. Mention of McGeady is a reminder that, as we know only too well, he could blow cold as well as hot. But, on his best nights, he was still one of those rare ones possessed of a game-changing ‘wow’ factor.

The tantalising question: could man of the moment Aaron Connolly be the one to step into that breach?

Hourihane again: “We played against Brighton about three weeks ago now and he played up front for about 60 minutes and he caused our two centre-halves a lot of problems, running the channels. Just his pace, and everything about his game, really.

"He is very quick and runs in behind, causes teams problems and is probably a nightmare for defenders. That was my first time playing against him and seeing a lot of him and those first impressions were very good. So it was no surprise really that he scored a couple of goals in the Premier League and he’s fully deserving of his place in this squad.”

There’s no doubt that Connolly’s presence in the squad here in Tbilisi has introduced an extra level of intrigue and excitement in the build-up to what will be the ninth game between Ireland and Georgia in 11 years.

But, that apart, the dominant pre-match feeling is as familiar as the journey that brought us here: confidence tinged with nervousness. Or maybe that should be nervousness tinged with confidence. Same as it ever was.

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