Lord of Gdansk: 20k Irish fans on the one road

In the end the Irish team qualified for Poland and Ukraine with relative ease courtesy of a 5-1 aggregate victory over Estonia in the play-offs last November but for some fans, myself included, the journey to the European Championship was not so comfortable.

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Nobody likes to hear travel sob-stories so I’ll avoid going into the minute details of mine but suffice to say that an airline connection mess-up ensured that a sold-out plane from Munich to Poznan went off with 37 empty seats. To protect the dignity of all involved the airline shall remain nameless but I can say they are: German, begin with the letter ‘L’ and their name rhymes with Gufthansa.

Lots of unhappy Poland-bound Irish fans were stuck in Germany, the only other flight to Poznan that day was sold-out and day one of our European adventure looked like being a disaster

- “I bet the Germans did this on purpose to get us to pump some of the money they’ve lent us back into their economy”

Not so fast, after some cajoling and quoting of a European charter of something that none us really knew anything about, we managed to negotiate some “meal” vouchers off the friendlier elements of Gufthansa's somewhat eclectic staff who ranged from the surly to the super helpful.

- “We can only put you on stand-by for tonight’s flight but you can use these vouchers to get some refreshments from the airport restaurants in the meantime.

- “Can we use them at the bar?”

- “Yes, you can use them at the bar?”

- “Danke Fräulein”

No food would be purchased with those vouchers.

And in the end it turned out to be a great afternoon. Pints for €2.40 in a massive beer garden with the Polish game on telly – a beer garden in an airport? You got to credit the Germans for some things.

Part of the charm of travelling away is the people you meet and when a group of Irish folks get together you rarely need all six degrees of separation.

One fan from Donegal I found out lives just five minutes away from me in London; while my father got talking to another guy who ran for office in Ireland back in the 1980s with my dad’s former boss.

The man in question, a great character named Austin who moved from Dublin to Reading 25 years ago, hadn’t spoken to my dad’s old boss for 13 years, so my dad phoned him back in Dublin and passed the phone to Austin. The two then chatted away on the mobile with all the familiarity of a couple of best mates who went for a pint with each other the previous night.

The drinks were starting to flow at this stage and what do Irish people do when they drink – they sing!

Austin got up and sang a song he wrote himself 24 years ago called ‘Plastic Paddy’ about how being Irish is not about living and dying on some small islands on the Atlantic ocean but rather a feeling that is felt by millions throughout out the world. It was actually pretty moving stuff, especially as many in the group were second generation or had left Ireland for one reason or another.

- “I offered it to the Wolf Tones but they wouldn’t record it,” revealed Austin.

The Wolf Tones’ loss.

The Wolf Tones often do sing the next old Irish rebel song we all joined in for though which seemed particularly apt given the situation we found ourselves in.

- “We’re on the one road, sharing the one load, we’re on the road to God knows where. We’re on the one road, it may be the wrong road, but we’re together so who cares….”

The German punters in the bar looked at us with a sense of bafflement.

- “These are the guys we are bailing out? Should they really be so….happy?”

Later that night, some got on the standby flight, others didn’t. However, getting a flight the following morning no longer seemed like such a tragedy. This was certainly no wasted day.

The folks at Gufthansa were finally starting to come good and were willing to put us up at an airport hotel and while some of us were still left behind in Germany, we were happy enough to see a few of our new-made friends depart on their journey.

- “See you in Poznan lads!”

I finally got to Poznan about 24 hours after I supposed to on Saturday afternoon but despite very little sleep, the buzz of being at the European Championship overwhelmed any tired bones. The words of RTE commentator George Hamilton after David O’Leary scored the winning penalty against Romania in Genoa back at the 1990 World Cup immediately popped into my head.

- “Yes, we’re there!”

Many had arrived before me and many more are still on the way. You never had to look far to see someone wearing green enjoying the first piece of sunshine they’d seen in weeks.

- “The clouds seem to disappear when you leave the Eurozone.”

The pubs in Poznan’s old town centre were heaving, the Croats like their drink too and were getting their own songs in, but they were heavily outnumbered by the Irish.

It initially seemed odd that a few of the establishments with outside seating seemed to be empty while everywhere else was jammed. However, a quick look at their menus revealed all, they weren’t selling alcohol.

There was no drunken mob here though, or even a hint of violence. Everybody seemed to have a smile on their face, and you couldn’t help have one yourself.

It has been a miserable few years back in Ireland with the economy tanking and jobs at a premium but seeing such a jubilant scene left you feeling that this just might be the lift the country’s needs.

With good grace and humour is the best Irish way to deal with these things. The picture attached to this article rightly went viral on Friday; while another flag was spotted saying ‘Social Welfare On Tour.’

A friend of mine, who will only arrive in Poznan a few hours before the Croatia match - by which time the Irish numbers in the city should have swelled to well over 20,000 - probably summed up the feeling of most in an excited message he sent me at 2:30am on Saturday morning.

- “Bag packed, tickets printed, passport ready, zlotys in my pocket. I’m like a kid on Christmas eve.”

All us Irish fans recognise the feeling and it is finally time for us to open our presents; and as long as the team doesn’t leave us with a big bag of coal, chances are we’ll be singing long into the night.

- “North men, South men, comrades all. Dublin, Belfast, Cork and Donegal. We’re on the one road, swinging along, singing a soldier’s song.”

Eurosport Yahoo! supervising editor Seán Fay has thrown his professional hat out the window and has travelled to Euro 2012 as an Irish supporter. He'll be blogging throughout the tournament

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