Tuesday 12 December 2017

Euro 2012: The Fields of Athenry lie low beneath a river of cheap booze

Dion Fanning

It was a long and draining week. Like a man who wakes up on a Monday morning to find that his wife has left him, taking their seven children, the life savings and the cat with her, Ireland had nothing left to do but drink.

The country fell back on familiar consolations when the European Championships ended as a competition for the country but continued as a spectacle.

Like all stories in Ireland, last week in Poland ultimately became a story of drink, a story which allowed us to look back on the last time we travelled en masse to a competition in Europe and chart our progress as a nation. As regards drink, nothing has changed except the names, and maybe not even all of them.

Ireland provided the colour for a tournament which may have been necessary when Poles and Russians were fighting and the competition looked like getting nasty. Ireland also provided the self-regard, which wasn't strictly necessary with Michel Platini a highly visible presence.

In the old market square in Poznan last Saturday, it was exciting to witness the return of Irish fans to a major tournament. A week later and the sense was of a man who has run out of options and was banking on oblivion to get him out of a hole.

For many, it was a carnival of drink, a festival of eejitry which started at the top. The country delighted in our reputation as the best supporters in the world.

Of course, Irish fans are more pleasant than the violent element that once supported England and easier to be around than the dangerous element of the Poles and Russians. The idea that this might be outweighed by the round-the-clock drunkenness is seen as a heresy.

We had a chief executive who could be seen unwinding after a long day interfacing with supporters by interfacing with more supporters, late into the night.

There were those who could be heard pompously asking how John Delaney reconciles his position at the head of a drink aware campaign with the somewhat contradictory position he has taken on the ground in Sopot where he was often seen in the company of people who were drunk and were aware that they were drunk.

Yet when the tone of every media outlet reflected the joy to be had in drinking irresponsibly, without any reference to drinking responsibly or maybe even not drinking at all, it was pious to be accusing one man and one man alone of inconsistency.

Like many generals, Delaney discovered that the plans made back at headquarters were not suitable in the field and adjusted accordingly. The foot soldiers had taken one look at the underlying conditions in Sopot and decided that this war was not going to be fought with clear-eyed sobriety, it would need a campaign of shock and awe.

The reports of conditions in campsites and camper vans added to the sense that if you couldn't do this tournament drunk, you couldn't do it at all. One sponsored campsite provided free drink vouchers but they had to be used by 11.0am each morning. Given these incentives, the Irish fans for the most part embraced their role.

In the Old Market Square last Sunday morning, the Croatians were in the majority but Paddy had merely surrendered the morning. He would reclaim the night and many, many nights to come. This allowed him to forget the misery on the field and many, many other miseries.

At the Roads to Freedom museum in Gdansk, a guide referred to the harking in some quarters for the comforting certainties of communism. "Communism was fine if you wanted to eat, copulate and sleep," he said, "but not if you wanted to think." Drink provided its own certainty with Spain on the horizon.

The dread felt before the Spain game manifested itself in many ways. One man in Sopot named a possible line-up with only nine players. The two he had left out were the Irish central midfielders which turned out to be an accurate reading of what would happen,

By the time Thursday afternoon came around, Irish fans were laughing and filming for posterity as one supporter pulled his trousers down outside the stadium in Gdansk and took a crap on the side of the road. You'd need to give the performance of your life on The Fields of Athenry after that.

This, we were told, is what made the Irish supporters great. Even allowing for the massive self-regard and the goddamn sentimental awfulness of The Fields of Athenry, the display by the supporters in Gdansk moved many.

But nobody was more moved than ourselves. The FAI released a statement praising the supporters and it seemed that the fans had been conscripted and forced to go and drink in Poland rather than make some choices based on the view that they might have a good time.

There were exceptions -- the father and son who had gone to Euro '88 and were doing the same thing 24 years on were one of the most heartwarming examples.

There are still those who bristle when a foreign, usually English, commentator says something like the "Irish will party tonight". They are only reporting what they see. It may be patronising and hurtful but that doesn't mean it's not the truth. With his determination to drink through the night and continue with his drinking for most of the day, the Irish fan can't complain if he isn't mistaken with Isaiah Berlin by the foreign correspondents.

Some of our own see him differently too. Roy Keane moves closer to parody these days, like a caricature of himself with the humour and intelligence taken out. His redeeming feature is that he is not an eejit but Ireland didn't want to hear from anyone last week with a low tolerance for eejitry.

Instead we fell back on familiar consolations and the sentimentality that comes from a week on the lash. Last week, Ireland turned a man who licked the naked breast of a woman during a football match into a folk hero.

We were asked to act the eejit at the tournament and, desperate to please as always, we didn't let anyone down.

dfanning@independent.ie

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