After three losses in a row, the Irish fans left a more lasting impression than the performances of our team on the pitch
One of the first people I met along the street in Poznan was a backpacker from Ireland, I think his name was Kevin, and he had just arrived.
Disheveled, tired and jet-lagged, he had left Japan just three days earlier with his back pack, his passport and a tricolour. He was so proud to have come from the other side of the world with our flag, as he told me.
"I just had to be here, I had to get here. I didn't care how long it took, I wasn't missing out on this."
And that was it, he had hit the nail on the head. It was the reason we were all there, the reason the loans were taken out, the reason the brownie points were won back at the ranch, the reason the kids were promised a present on the way home, it was the reason tens of thousands of us from all counties and all corners made this pilgrimage.
We had been in the dark shadow of recession, and with all that shite happening back home, we all needed a blow out, to let off some steam collectively as a country, and this was it.
The magnet of all our Irishness was this Polish town set deep into the countryside; Poznan. Whoever decided that Ireland was to play two of their qualification group matches there was a genius. It was a masterstroke for travelling fans, with plenty of Ryanair flights straight in and out, and a central Square in the heart of the town full of pubs & restaurants. For anyone who didn’t make it there, think of something akin to Eyre Square in Galway, all covered in cobblestone with bars along each side...and sunshine.
This was our home, this was our terrace. The walls of the buildings captured our chants, the banners were hung and draped, the flags were out and the green, white and gold shone proudly day in, day out. The local beer and the Polish sun helped immensely as we kept that party going for weeks, and man did we enjoy it.
By the time Friday night came around, Ireland's big game against Croatia loomed on the horizon as they started their European adventure.
Some of my good friends had just arrived into Poznan, and we were more than ready for action. The night progressed at a rate of knots, and somehow I ended up on a balcony ledge with a few hundred more of the Green Army chanting away. It may well have been the local town hall, but it served its purpose perfectly for us as we sang our hearts away like a colony of lost pigeons on the window sills of Poznan.
Despite the noise, the locals were loving it, and of course, the bars were loving it too. Poland was loving us, and the beauty of it all was that we had almost two more weeks of this ahead of us. The Miejski stadium was only about 20 minutes away from the square, and while we went by taxi, thousands more went by tram. Outside of the movies, I've never seen anything like it; driving alongside a tram full to the brim of Irish fans in high voice. You've probably seen the old, clichéd image of the packed train in India with people on the roof and hanging off the sides, well that’s the way the trams were in Poznan.
The party didn't last too long on the pitch though, as when all was said and done, Ireland had slumped to a 3-1 defeat against Croatia. Goals from yer man Jelavic and the other fella Mandzukic, who scores for fun, were a bad start, and for the fans, and unpleasant taste of things yet to come. At the back of all our minds we realized after the first game that qualifying was a foregone conclusion. I mean Italy, Spain & Croatia... Still, we had managed to get there, so what we did what we always do - we got on with it.
We knew Trappatoni hadn’t really got a clue, and while we had only scraped our way there, we had made it back after so long, and that was enough.
24 hours later the party cranked up again; we dusted ourselves down and got ready for the cross country adventure to Pope John Paul's neck of the woods. Poznan had shown us love, and now Gdansk would feel the love of the Irish too.