The Champions League; The most-watched sporting event worldwide, with an estimated 100 million viewers every year. To most football fans in Ireland, it means following the progress of an English or a Scottish team; generally one of those same six teams who appear every year with little variation. It means pubs in Dublin City Centre packed with replica jerseys and loud mouthed punters wearing them. It means people with no material allegiance crying meaningless tears for a team they’ve never seen live, and yet who they still refer to with a mythically inclusive “we.” (In my book, “supporting” doesn’t involve buying a jersey in Lifestyle sports and then sitting on your arse watching games on telly.) It means opposition like Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, a long run in the competition and a feeling of unwarranted superiority for followers of the winners.
For the majority, it doesn’t set the heart racing at the thought of a trip to the town of Oswestery, in Shropshire, to take on a team once monnikered “Total Network Solutions” in the second round of the competition. Well, for those who follow glory with a British team it doesn’t. For me, as a fan of Bohemian FC, it means absolute unbridled joy, hope and living with the feeling that my chest is going to explode until the games, both home and away are over. For Bohs are set to take on Welsh Champions “The New Saints FC” on the 13th and 20th July, and I intend to be at both games. The New Saints, or TNS for short don’t exactly match up to the glamour of the Champions League. They’ve only been in existence for fifty odd years and play in a ground that seats 1,000. Their claim to fame is losing 6-0 on aggregate to Liverpool in the same round of the competition five years ago, when Irish keeper Gerard Doherty played a blinder and Rafa Benitez claimed he was the best player on the pitch. But, this is still the Champions League, its Europe, and a level that most English Championship clubs, and never mind that, most Premiership clubs will ever again experience with the European monopoly held by a small elite. So for that I respect TNS.
But whilst British teams get back page spreads in Irish papers, the role of League of Ireland teams in the competition is often relegated to bit parts and side columns. And yet there have been famous victories in Europe; Bohemians alone have beaten Rangers, Aberdeen, Kaiserslautern amongst others in various competitions. Games that will be talked about for years, some, like the Rangers game, for ever. But inevitably, with the victory and joy, such as that expressed after moments like Glen Crowes goal below comes defeat and pain. Saddness. Utter dejection and humiliation. It’s all very well for those who say from the outside “Ah well, sure they gave a good account of themselves.” These words do nothing to alleviate the grief.
Last year, Bohemians were seven minutes from knocking out Salzburg, a team bankrolled by Red Bull, who play in an ultra-modern 31,000 all seater stadium and who have International players earning in a week what the average Bohs player takes home in a year. And what follows is the true meaning of joy followed by dejection. Bohs went to Salzburg, and thanks to this save from Brian Murphy, and a cracking goal from Joe Ndo went home with heads held high and an away draw. And while I didn’t make that game, the scenes of adulation in the members bar in Dalymount Park will stay with me for the rest of my life. I’ll be honest and say, yes, I cried. The following week, Bohemians held on for 85 or so minutes, in which they had a couple of chances to put the game beyond Red Bull but (though some in the media said inevitably, I’d think otherwise) slipped up and a silly back pass meant Red Bull took away a 1-o lead and a passage to the next round. My feelings leaving the ground that night are hard to explain. I hadn’t felt that bad for years and haven’t felt that bad since. Truly heartbroken, in depths of despair, feeling pain, anguish, sorrow.
But, as they say, thats football, and hopefully this time around, results and luck might go our way. For winning this tie means at least another four games in Europe- Two in the Champions League third round, and if we fail in that attempt, a crack at the Europa cup in the final qualifiying round where we could be pitted against English or Scottish opposition. Where then will the allegiances of average Irish football fan lie? I’d like to think that a run in Europeans elite competition might do the league wonders but to be honest I’m sceptical. What I would like is for Dalymount to be packed to the rafters on Tuesday, 13th July, and should we pass through to the next round, have the same again. We’ll see.
For ticket details, keep tuned to http://www.bohemians.ie