Thursday 14 December 2017

A country with minds in the West but hearts in the East

David Kelly

David Kelly

Armenians like to say that that if they can't achieve anything themselves, all the better if they can take down a rival. Sounds familiar.

However, given a history littered with earthquakes, genocide and political repression, perhaps theirs is an attitude slightly more explicable than that prevailing closer to home.

These folks can begrudge and befriend with equal fervour.

Yet a remarkable sense of warmth and friendliness exudes from even the poorest citizens of this land of some three million people, nestled snugly between the Black and Caspian Seas, and bordered on the south and west by Iran and, less snugly, Turkey, and on the north and east, by Georgia and, even less snugly, Azerbaijan.

"I remember being on a bus ride," recalls Jonathan Wilson, renowned soccer author, whose 'Behind the Curtain' chronicled a brief trip to Armenia nine years ago. "I was sneezing and these poor old ladies kept shoving raspberries in my face. Apparently, they thought they could help someone with a 'flu but this was food they had purchased for their families."

For those Irish fans who recall trips to neighbouring Tbilisi under Brian Kerr's first qualification campaign seven years ago, Armenia's capital Yerevan possesses neither the edginess of the Georgian capital nor the soullessness of Baku, capital of Azerbaijan, whose borders remain closed off as a result of the Nagorno-Karabakh war a generation ago.

As a race, their minds are in the West but their hearts are in the East. "That would be fair to say," says Wilson. "There is a real Mediterranean feel to the place."

A thriving cafe culture, hundreds of them leaven to the obvious Soviet stylings and manic taxi-driving in the city of some one million people, exemplifies this, as locals linger over their extraordinarily cheap drinks and meals in the stifling heat, with temperatures touching 100 degrees fahrenheit.

Passive smoking and passive attention to seat belt wearing are common traits yet, lurking within, is a stony resilience as a result of a tortured history and a difficult transition to independence from the Soviet Union.

SPORTING TRANSITION was necessarily complicated.

Armenia made their competitive bow in the qualifying tournament for Euro '96, encountering a strong group which included Spain, Denmark and Belgium, against whom they lost all six matches.

They took just a single point off Cyprus, and were held at home by Macedonia. The only ray of light in the campaign came with a 2-1 victory in the return fixture, but this single victory could not prevent them finishing bottom of the table.

Armenia had some creditable results in World Cup 1998 qualifying, holding Portugal to a goalless draw, and drawing 1-1 in the Ukraine. Two further draws against Northern Ireland and a draw and a victory over Albania saw Armenia into fourth place in the group.

The qualification group for the 2000 European Championships once again pitted Armenia against the Ukraine, and this time they were also due to play Russia. The Armenians lost three of the four matches against their neighbours, but did gain a point at home to the Ukraine. Two victories over tiny Andorra kept them off the bottom of the group, which was won by France.

There were more encounters with former Soviet states in the 2002 World Cup qualifiers, as Armenia were drawn against Belarus, and, yet again, the Ukraine. Again results were poor, with only one point from the four games, earned in a home draw with the Belarusians, as Armenia finished bottom of the table with five draws and five defeats.

Euro 2004 qualifying began, remarkably, with another encounter with the Ukraine. The match finished a 2-2, and that result, along with two wins over Northern Ireland, took Armenia to fourth place in the table.

Armenia also managed to stay off the bottom of their group in the 2006 World Cup qualifiers, but only thanks to the presence once again of Andorra, who they twice defeated, the only other highlight of the campaign a 1-1 draw with Romania.

THE DECISION to hire Ian Porterfield, Sunderland's FA Cup hero of 1973 against Leeds, for the Euro 2008 qualifiers, proved to be an inspired one, but tragically, also one of unfulfilled promise. Amongst their opponents were Azerbaijan, but UEFA decreed that the games could not take place due to the latent security risks. Porterfield, a coaching gun for hire, recruited an old friend from his Aberdeen days, Tommy Jones, who had worked with him in South Korea.

It was at once a successful but fatefully doomed alliance as Jones recalled this week from the unglamorous posting of assistant manager with English non-league side Swindon Supermarine.

"I've had a few calls from Ireland this week," smiles the Englishman. "And it doesn't tire me out talking about it at all."

Armenia had lost four of their first five matches when Jones received a phone call out of the blue from his old mentor in early 2007.

"Unfortunately, he was diagnosed with colon cancer," recalls Jones. "It was then when he called me. He wanted someone to trust beside him, to run the training sessions.

"He was going in the next day to have an operation. He knew games were coming up thick and fast and he just asked me to help out, to ultimately run the team. Ian was still able to give a team talk but there were a few games when he was poorly when I took the team."

Despite his illness, Porterfield was eyeing the August visit of the Portuguese as a potential shock, now that he had embedded his ideas into the hitherto uncertain team.

"We had put younger players in and decided we'd press higher up the pitch instead of sitting back waiting to get beaten. We pressed teams and it got the crowd going and they got behind us, knowing we were trying to win and play football."

Four days before Portugal's visit, Armenia's greatest result, a 1-0 victory over Poland, indicated that the rewards were tangible. Taking down Ronaldo and Co would be a different story.

"Ian desperately wanted to make the Portugal game, that was the ultimate goal," said Jones. "He made it, bless him. We had a fantastic result, drew 1-1 and should have beaten them really. Shortly after that, he passed away."

Jones remained on as caretaker, along with the current manager, the more conservative figure of Vardan Minasyan. "The money I earned would barely put the key in the car but I stayed for Ian, even though it was clear they were keen on someone else."

Eventually, they recruited a Dane, Jan Poulsen, but despite victory against Belgium, their 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign palled in comparison to the achievements of the English pair.

"We brought them from 132nd to 80th in the world," adds Jones, who warns Ireland not to take the hosts for granted, despite their lowly status.

"I wouldn't let them get their tails up because they've a few good young players, with good legs. The manager who's there now is more inclined to sit back and defend -- he's part of that philosophy we wanted to change.

"If they do that, Ireland could have a lot of joy if they score early because their confidence will be sapped. But if they let Armenia dictate the pace of the game, then it could be a long night."

A strong midfield and weak defence illustrates Jones' thoughts, a 3-1 friendly defeat to Iran earlier this month franking them. "For some reason, our supporters and the media expect us to win whoever we play," says Minaysan. "They forget that Armenia are not a major football country, far from it.

"They have a right to demand a decent display and total commitment, but any team can have setbacks -- just look at France. My aim is to create a competitive team for the campaign. I want our rivals to know they will not have an easy time against Armenia."

The Armenians' generosity is reflected in the common phrase, "Problem chka!" which, unlike on first hearing, actually means, "no problem." Their team threatens not to be so hospitable.

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