Saturday 21 April 2018

Last outpost of Irish football prepares for visit of FAI chiefs

John Delaney and Ray Houghton to open stand at Europe's most-westerly football ground, writes Paddy Clancy

FAI chief executive John Delaney may have enjoyed buying drinks for Republic of Ireland fans at the European Championships in Poland last month but he will visit a football ground this week that cost just a bottle of whiskey -- and which has no bar.

Mr Delaney and former international and now football pundit Ray Houghton will visit the westernmost island club in Europe on Arranmore Island, 4km out in the Atlantic, off Donegal. The most-easterly club in Europe is Luch-Energia FC whose home patch is Vladivostok city in the Russian Far East, on the coast of the Sea of Japan and near both the Chinese and Korean borders.

The FAI trip to Donegal on Wednesday, in advance of the FAI annual meeting in Letterkenny on Saturday, will be to open the tiny new stand at Arranmore United FC.

Soccer has been huge on Gaelic-speaking Arranmore for decades, mainly because islanders as young as 10 were influenced when whole families went 'tattie-hoaking' in Scotland.

"About 50 years ago that ground was put together with 20 small lots of land. Each lot cost a glass of whiskey," Arranmore United chairman Hugh Nancy Rodgers said.

Once three clubs played at the ground, which was cleared and toiled by hand before there were any JCBs or bulldozers on the island. But a diminishing population on Arranmore -- down to 500 from over 750 in a decade -- meant all three teams combined as Arranmore United, which has been playing in the Donegal League since 1987.

There's no bar in the new stand, so Mr Delaney will only share tea or coffee with the Arran fans during his hour-long visit. The Arranmore pipe band will play the guests from the ferry to the ground.

Ireland manager Giovanni Trapattoni has already sent his apologies because he cannot attend the ceremony. He will be in Donegal for the AGM next weekend, but will arrive too late for the trip to Arranmore, to visit the only island soccer club with its own ground in Britain or Ireland.

While the boys from Arranmore have to deal with a sea crossing to get to away matches, spare a thought for their friends in Vladivostok.

The players of Luch Energia have to travel over 6,000km for matches in Moscow. It means travelling across six time zones and sometimes a 14-hour flight.

Convincing the Russian professionals to play a friendly against the doughty amateurs from Arranmore looks like an east-meets-west TV documentary waiting to happen.

Sunday Independent

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