Destination: Riga, Latvia
Length of trip: 5 days
Overall rating (based on enjoyment): 9/10
So it was that time of the year. European football. The time of year that every League of Ireland player and fan looked forward to. Who would we draw? Where would we go? Had we any hope of progressing to the next round?
It was my first season of senior football with Pats and my first experience of the excitement and hype associated with European football. The thoughts of playing alongside teams such as Celtic and Man United had the run up to the draw feeling like it would never come. Before such glamour ties could be a possibility we knew we would first have to go to the hard fought places such as Azerbaijan or Eastern Russia to progress through the rounds and maybe set us up with a potential giant-killing match.
We ended up drawing Skonto Riga based in Riga, Latvia in round one. As these draws were usually done a week or two before the fixture was meant to be played, the management were forced to organise travel arrangements as soon as possible.
‘If you don’t bring your passport to training tomorrow, you won’t be travelling’
I was hoping for some sun, maybe a nice easy team in the Mediterranean preferably but Riga would just have to do.
The travel arrangements being made in such a rush meant the ‘special ones’ (the 10 players who picked the short straw) got to enjoy a flight to London Stanstead, where an overnight stay in Luton and a lovely 4 hour wait at the bus stop before heading off to Riga (another 3 and a half hour flight) awaited. The others endured a hassle-free direct flight from Dublin to Latvia. We arrived on the Monday to play the following Thursday and spent the days leading up to the match training and preparing for the biggest match of the year.
We stayed in the Radisson Blu for the 3 nights we were there as we were scheduled to fly straight home after the game Thursday. Our free time, (which was most of the day) was usually spent relaxing in our rooms counting down the time until we had our next meal or meeting. However, there was a trip changing moment when one of the players discovered that the hotel in fact had a Playstation 4 and a copy of Fifa 15, a moment of joy that not many at the time could express. As a result of this, one of the nights had a fifa tournament. Some say it was only a “team bonding exercise” for banter and entertainment but most of us knew this was an immense moment, where lads were terrified of being embarrassed by fellow team mates. I being one of the youngest on the team was quietly confident while the “big lads” talked themselves up but failed to live up to their self-created hype.
Let’s just say quiet confidence is key…. (proud moment No.1)
Apart from playing Fifa and sleeping, there was one day we got some free time to explore the city and I realised it was definitely a city I’d like to revisit. The average temperature was in and around 22 degrees and nothing but blue skies. The city was beautiful, something I hadn’t originally imagined it to be. Here are a few photos I conjured up with from my 2 hours of discovery…
Unfortunately we ended up losing the tie 2-1, but on a personal note I had just made my Europa league debut, coming on for the last 35 minutes of the game, a proud moment (No.2) that not many footballers my age or in general are able to say. A moment marginally greater than being named the “Fifa Champ”. (Please excuse the blurry photo, pre match nerves and all that..)
We made our way back to the airport straight after the game, full of both frustration and disappointment but we knew we had our chance to seek revenge as they would have to come to Dublin for the reverse tie in a weeks’ time (eventually losing 2-0 at home, ending this year’s European adventure but not the last one I will discuss throughout my blogs.)