Sunday 15 September 2019

Bon voyage: Our greatest fans ready for Euro 2016

The Green Army prepares to march joyfully again - but how do they do it?

Road to everywhere: Tony Franklin with some of his international match programmes and tickets at his home in Portrane, Co Dublin. Photo: Frank McGrath
Road to everywhere: Tony Franklin with some of his international match programmes and tickets at his home in Portrane, Co Dublin. Photo: Frank McGrath
Louise Mimnagh with John Giles

Graham Clifford

An understanding other half, a football-mad boss and a generous Credit Union - the three ingredients needed to become a dedicated, long-term Republic of Ireland supporter. Have all of those and you can start ­preparing for the European Championships in France next year.

So says Tony Franklin who's been following the Boys in Green across the world for 40-odd years. The Enniscorthy native, who moved to Dublin in the mid-1960s, has dedicated much of his life to following the Republic of Ireland. He survived that nasty night in Belfast's Windsor Park in 1993, the more than slightly unusual Tehran play-off to qualify for Japan and Korea 2002 and many a trip behind the old iron curtain.

"I couldn't tell you how many Ireland games I've been to home and away, hundreds I suppose," explains Tony, adding: "My first time watching Ireland was in the early 1970s at Dalymount Park. Sure we've been all over the world. And last Monday's win over Bosnia, and the atmosphere in the ground, reminded me of the great Charlton era."

Tony, now retired, worked as a nurse in St Ita's Hospital in Portrane. "We did shift work so you could easily swap to go to games and work it up when you came back. And my late wife Marie was very understanding, though at times I'm sure she would have preferred I stayed at home - especially when the three kids were small and we were going to troublesome countries. We sacrificed things over the years so I could travel to matches but the Credit Union never let us down!"

It's expected that at least 50,000 Irish supporters will travel to France next summer - with lending institutions preparing for something of a loan request onslaught.

On the evening of December 12, the draw for France 2016 will be made in Paris - a city reeling from a spate of devastating terrorist attacks. Indeed, some supporters who had intended to cross the Channel may well decide to stay put. But Tony Franklin says there will always be security threats and life and football must go on.

"I can understand if people are fearful but I'm sure security will be at an all-time high. You know, we faced security issues in Northern Ireland, Israel, Iran and elsewhere but as long as the team was playing, we were there," he told Review. "The terrorists won't keep us down and we need to show solidarity and unity with the French people."

Another green-clad fan who has clocked up the air miles over the years is Davy Keogh. His flag with the words 'Davy Keogh says hello' has become as iconic in Irish soccer as the 'John 3:7' is for the GAA.

On Monday night, as the country revelled in Euro 2016 qualification glory, Davy, who works for a business which makes sports kits in Dublin, was celebrating with the Irish players at the Aviva Stadium's VIP Lounge. "It was amazing, sure my wife Esther was in there as well, magic, everyone was overjoyed," Davy told me this week.

Since 1979, Davy has been on the road. He conjured up his famous flag for Euro '88, wanting to create something a little different. Soon fans started looking out for his flag at away games.

"The friends you make while travelling to support Ireland are amazing and you get to know some of the players over time as well," he tells me.

Indeed Davy was asked by '3' - the Irish team's primary sponsor - to present Aiden McGeady with his man-of-the-match award live on air following Ireland's 2-0 win over Andorra in the tiny principality back in 2011. "For some reason the person who was supposed to present the award wasn't there so they asked me to do it, which was a lovely touch. I planted a kiss on Aiden's cheek too on live TV and anytime I meet him now he jokes about it," said Davy this week.

He's also developed a good relationship with James McClean, with the pacey winger even giving Davy his jersey after the clash away to Bosnia Herzegovina in the play-offs. "We've a sound bunch of players there now. There's no superstars amongst them and as a result they're a tight unit. And they appreciate the fans, you can see that at every game," said Davy.

So how does he afford the travel and all that supporting Ireland in away matches entails? "Ah, look it's only myself and the wife, we have no kids, so when we can put a few bob away, we do and sometimes Esther will come with me to matches as well. We're constantly saving for the next game, the next trip. Sure we love it and because of supporting Ireland we've visited parts of the world we would never have seen otherwise."

While at Euro '88, Davy and 13 of his friends travelled around Germany in a camper van in which they slept each night. With the passing of time the accommodation and transport requirements have modified. "On the day of the draw for the Euros one of the lads, Wayne O'Sullivan from the Ballybrack supporters' club, will sit with the laptop out and as soon as we know where we're going he'll have flights and hotels booked within minutes," he says. "He'll have already checked out each venue to see what's available around it. Sometimes he'll even book things in advance and then cancel when he knows they're not required. You should see him in action. Within half an hour of the draw being made we're all booked up for the entire championships."

And in Galway, Louise Mimnagh, who works with BreastCheck - the national breast screening programme- will also be waiting to find out where to next. "I've been travelling for Ireland away matches now for eight-and-a-half years and the Bosnia game away in the play-offs was my 30th Ireland match on the road," she explains.

Louise, who tells me that her favourite country that she's visited to roar on the Boys in Green is Armenia, explains why it has become such a huge part of her life. "Look, I don't take beach holidays so travelling to Ireland matches is my outlet. And the friends you make along the way and different cultures you experience are amazing."

She, too, believes the safety issues in France will not deter her from following Ireland next summer. "I was actually on the Tube in London when the 7/7 underground bombings occurred," she says. "I think, sadly, terrorism has now become part and parcel of the world we live in. We can't let it freeze us in fear."

Whatever the fears, whatever the cost Irish fans will pour into France in their tens of thousands next June - and with our tails up who knows where this footballing odyssey could end?

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