NEIL O’RIORDAN, chief sports writer of the Irish Sun, on nail polish and sex appeal…dumb Irish journalists…and the most powerful girl in Poznan
Monday June 4
We play Hungary in a friendly in Budapest. It’s my first time there but the presence of a taxi drivers’ protest makes me feel at home. I am disturbed by a dream I had the previous night where I use nail polish remover instead of shampoo to wash my hair and it all falls out of a result. An internet search tells me that such dreams are associated with concerns about losing sex appeal and attractiveness. I tell a colleague who helpfully enquires as to whether I had not had this dream before. The game was in jeopardy because of an electrical storm and torrential downpour. It goes ahead and Ireland are poor but claim a scoreless draw to extend unbeaten run to 14 games. Afterwards Giovanni Trapattoni suggests he will change his team to play Croatia. Efforts to clarify whether he means personnel or formation are unsuccessful and the Hungarian hacks are amused by the row that ensues; me less so as it’s the second time in four days I’ve been involved in a shouting match with him.
Tuesday June 5
We fly from Budapest to Gdansk via Warsaw and the patience of the tired Press corps is tested when the tour guide on the bus from Gdansk to our training camp in Gdynia starts talking about passing petrol stations. A crowd of more than 10,000 turns out to watch Ireland’s training session, impressive when you consider a similar session in Ireland last year attracted about 1,000. The players reveal their game-plan when they kick a load of balls into the crowd but the locals are pleased. Trap is in a far calmer mood than the night before but there is a touch of condescension in the way he asks if we all understand him. The olive branch, such as it is, is accepted in the dailies’ briefing but perhaps it would not have been had we known he referred to Irish journalists as ‘dumbs’ in Italian to some compatriots in the broadcast section.
Wednesday June 6
A day off for Ireland which would be fine except we learned of this at only 9:30pm the previous night leaving us all to wonder how we might fill our pages given a planned mixed zone has also been cancelled. I suggest making the goalkeeping coach Alan Kelly available for interview given the lingering doubts over Shay Given’s fitness. The FAI press office agree and the former international provides plenty of colourful copy with memories of Ireland’s preparations for the 1994 World Cup when the players had to train without water because they would be prevented from rehydrating during games. He recalls losing 16 to 18lbs of weight a day and then having bottles of water stacked up in front of him ‘like Cool Hand Luke’ after the sessions.
Thursday June 7
The Ireland mixed zone takes place. I’m surprised to have people wishing me a happy birthday upon my arrival. It turns out a former Sun colleague Garry Doyle had tweeted that I turned 40 that day. I’m 33. Garry lost his job with the closure of the News of the World last year but is a good operator and is here working with uefa.com. It doesn’t seem like a natural mix but his tweets keep all of us amused. In the mixed zone, Keith Andrews tells us the players had asked for a day off while Marco Tardelli claims it was Trap’s initiative. Yet another misunderstanding in the Ireland camp but decide against going big on the story. After all it’s 72 hours before Ireland’s first game at the European Championship in 24 years and you have to ask yourself how much people care about who decided they should have a day off.
Friday June 8
Finally the tournament gets underway, 22 days after the first group of Ireland players assembled in Dublin for training. Watch the first half of Poland’s game in my room as I’m finishing work but get to see some of second in the hotel bar and watch Russia impress over dinner. I fare better than the colleagues who leave Sopot at 6pm for the five-hour drive to Poznan. With extra work to do for the Sunday edition, I decide to make my own arrangements and book a train for early the next morning. Sopot is a decent seaside resort with enough to keep us amused but the levels of drunkenness of the locals comes as shock to us. People think nothing of drinking in the morning and it’s not odd to see people sprawled on a bench by lunchtime. I know those in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones etc but it still seems excessive.
Saturday June 9
A motley crew of nine journalists get the train to Poznan just after 9am with an advance crew going even earlier. The train is something of a throwback but comfortable and there is impressive multi-tasking by one employee. One minute he’s pushing a trolley up and down the carriages and the next thing he’s whipping up some scrambled eggs in the buffet. In Gdansk it’s a hectic trip to the stadium to collect accreditation, back to hotel to dump stuff and then back out to stadium for the Press conferences. Robbie Keane gets the media onside when he politefully but forcefully tells the UEFA official who has been picking out Italians to ask questions that, as a country, Ireland have waited long enough to be here and their journalists should be given a chance to be heard. Ask Robbie about his memories of winning the under-18 European Championship in 1998 when they beat Croatia 5-2 in a group game in which the current Croat keeper Stipe Pletikosa also played. I ask him too and he provides good copy on someone he knows from a stint at Spurs.
Sunday June 10
Match day is by far the quietest work-wise with everything crammed into a few hours at night. The centre of Poznan is bedlam. For the most part fans from both sides mix well but there was some trouble the night before when some Polish hooligans decided to attack some Croats. There’s more trouble around 5pm but the atmosphere at the match is amazing. The Croat chants are better but by sheer weight of numbers Ireland’s supporters make more noise. The game is a disaster from an Irish point of view as we lose a competitive game by more than one goal for the first time since we lost 5-2 in Cyprus in October 2006 but it’s good to see the Irish fans stick with the team and still singing after the final whistle. Not many would do that. Afterwards Trap and Robbie both avoid the temptation to blame the referee for our shortcomings. Robbie again earns kudos when he tells the same blazer he can hear me when he insists I wait for a mic to pose a question. A girl in the media centre becomes the most powerful person in Poznan when she is given a remote control to unlock the fridge stocked with beer in the media centre. Thankfully, she is not quite the jobsworth as others here as the Croats celebrate and we drown our sorrows.