Will the pluck of the Irish be enough?

PUBLISHED : Friday, 15 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 15 June, 2012, 12:00am


After an exhilarating, unforgettable week of football in the endearing Polish capital Warsaw, it's time once more to crank my old Land Rover into life and join the Euro 2012 football caravan, journeying this time north to the Baltic coastal resort and port city of Gdansk. I am not there to sample the sands or spa waters, nor am I particularly interested in the volume of containers the stevedores shift.

No, not for these honourable reasons do I tear myself from the comfort of Camp Wok, which is so far on the aristocratic side of posh camping it even boasts a tumble dryer and iron, and where on my last night, we happy, pampered football-loving campers watched the shoddy Dutch bow to the German powerhouse and applauded the Danish-beating Portuguese. In laundered linen, I am travelling north to watch incumbent kings of Europe and mighty world conquerors Spain take on Ireland, who at the time of writing have one studded boot in the international departures lounge.

'Never a footballing hotbed' as the official Uefa Euro 2012 programme describes Gdansk, the seafaring mercantile city has imported top-grade football for tonight's menu and the likes of Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas, David Silva, Xavi Hernandez and the enigma that is Fernando Torres shall seek to complete Ireland's speedy-boarding check-in for an early exit.

But can the Irish, John O'Shea, Shane Long and Robbie Keane among them, cause the upset of the tournament so far? I won't be betting on it, even if I am supporting them with the romantic, glassy-eye side of my Anglo-Irish heritage.

It is time to nail my Euro 2012 colours to the aerial of my Land Rover and rip off my pretentious Beijing Guoan top to reveal the layers of the shirts that I loyally wear underneath - those of England, Ireland and Poland. England is a given. I was born there, in Winchester near Southampton, the newly promoted Premiership team I support. And - if all goes according to plan - I will be cheering on the Three Lions in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Tuesday night. Of course, it might be a Euro 2012 road too far given the far-flung location of this venue. It's the same distance from Warsaw to the futuristic Donbass Arena as it from southern England to the Polish capital. The roads are, I hear on the bitumen-vine, poor but the fuel cheap, and the locals welcoming.

My second football faith lies in Ireland because my father is Irish and I have family there - plus I have a passport in my wallet to prove my 'Plastic Paddy' credentials. Why Poland? Since it is because of the Polish, and one in particular, that my rugby-loving father finally gave up on his attempts to turn his son on to the egg-shaped ball game and reluctantly handed him over to football, a game and the players of which he derided in terms no longer acceptable in polite society.

Back in October 1973, with only three TV channels broadcasting in the UK and blanket coverage on offer, he was forced to watch the celebrated England vs Poland World Cup qualifier at Wembley. Memories of England's 1966 World Cup victory still swirled in English minds and Alf Ramsey's men - Martin Chivers, Norman Hunter (replacing icon Bobby Moore) - and Martin Peters among them, had to win to secure a 1974 Germany World Cup berth. I was seven and a goalkeeper in oversized gloves for our local junior football team.

Jan Tomaszewski, the Polish goalmouth custodian, instantly became my hero - even if he double-handily kept England out of the World Cup. We listened to the pundits claim the match would be a mere formality for England. Brian Clough likened the Polish defender Jerzy Gorgon to 'a boxer in football boots', and he declared long-haired keeper Tomaszewski 'a circus clown in gloves'.

England laid siege to the Polish goal - and Tomaszewski leapt about his six-yard box like a cat on a hot tin roof, repeatedly denying the likes of Mick Channon and Colin Bell. The hysterical match commentator echoed the nation's despair. Amid another goalmouth scramble, my otherwise indifferent father involuntarily shouted out 'go on!' at the England shirts, encouragement he reserved exclusively for the Irish back line running down the line for a try. Tomaszewski's heroics in what ended a 1-1 draw sent Poland through to the finals and demoralised the English nation. Even my father said it was unlucky, converted as he was for a few fleeting minutes into a football fan. And he didn't berate me the next day when I emulated Tomaszewski and churned the garden lawn into a muddy Wembley goal line.

That's enough meandering down memory lane. It's time to hit the road and see what the future has in store for Ireland - and if Shay Given can impersonate a Polish clown.