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The season never ends

Destination: La Manga,Spain

Length of trip: 5 days

Overall rating (based on enjoyment): 10/10

Last month, the League of Ireland season came to a close. It was a very long year and I was glad to get the break. I was relieved to have all November and December off to focus on college and catch up. After the last game on the Friday night, I set about starting a group project which was due in a weeks’ time. As I went to check if I received an email off a fellow group member, I noticed I received an email off the St. Pats secretary. Thinking it was probably just a general email, I clicked on it without much thought.

“Your player has been called up on standby for the Ireland U21 squad”

I sat down to digest what I had just read.

“The squad will report to La Manga training camp on the 10th of November”

LA MANGA? (Googles La Manga and current temperatures)

I will be travelling to the south coast of Spain to play friendly matches against Czech Republic and Slovakia. Remember when I said I was glad to get the break that was all nonsense. I couldn’t believe it. Personally, the thought of even being near the U21 squad never even entered my mind, after some poor performances throughout the year, but I wasn’t complaining.

After a few days break and a few late nights, it was time to keep my fitness up for the trip ahead. Arriving in without training for nearly two weeks would be a recipe for disaster, and I wanted to give myself the best chance to make an impression with the newly assembled squad. It was the first squad at the new age level so I knew this was like a trial so the manager can examine his newly inherited crop of players.

When the squad was released I was flattered to notice that there was only four homebased (league of Ireland) players in the squad. The rest were made up of players from the best clubs in England, with numerous examples of the “granny rule” kicking in. This is where English players are eligible to play due to a distant Irish relation. The thought of being named amongst players from Man United, Liverpool and others was a confidence booster and further increased my determination to impress.

The itinerary followed a few days later.

Skimming through the very thorough plan  for each day, I realised I have two games and two training sessions essentially to try stake a future place in the squad, more realistically two training sessions and a game, as there was a squad of 22 travelling. A short time with not much room for error. Obviously I knew it wasn’t such an extreme situation, as the coaching staff reassured me that they have been watching me all season and were impressed about how I done, but still.

We arrived mid-day on the 10th to the very luxurious resort, famous for being one of the best training resorts in Europe. We made our way through the beautiful golf courses, the 5 star hotel on the resort and past many mansions, to get to our accommodation for the 5 nights. Villas. Yep villas. Arrangements had it that it was 4 per villa, so I was wondering to see who I will be getting to know for the next few days. Happily enough my room mates consisted of a fellow home based player I knew well, a Stoke and a Blackburn Rovers player (currently on loan from Manchester city). I couldn’t help but remember I should have been in lectures as I sat on the balcony overlooking the golf course in the 22 degree heat. “This is the life.”

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Training was in the “football centre” of the resort. As we made our way to training, we drove by the main pitch surrounded by a little stadium, where our games were going to be played. 8 training pitches, one as perfect as the next.

Having not kicked a ball since the season ended, I was very pleased with how I done, and was named in midfield to start the first game v Czech Republic.

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It was great to put on that green jersey once more,  its a feeling that’s hard to describe. After playing a hard 70 minutes, the manager made 7 substitutions at once. Everyone needs game time so I wasn’t disappointed. I was very happy with my performance as I exited the pitch. Unfortunately a late goal meant we lost 2-1 but the result wasn’t important.

The day after meant rest and recovery with a lot of free time to ourselves. The management organised an evening meal for us in a local restaurant. Rumours throughout the meal began spreading that all the new players, which was about 15 of us, had to sing a song as part of the initiation.

“Not a chance”

As one lad confidently stood up on his chair and rattled out ‘stand by me’, I knew there was no getting out of this. Luckily for all my teammates and coaches, they got to experience a rendition never heard before of Jason Mraz’s song “I’m yours”, one that was so dazzling it got everyone in the room singing along…..

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We had another good session the next day. The trip was going really well but unfortunately it was coming to an end. It was far more enjoyable then I originally expected and the whole team bonded well. After making a late appearance in the 3-2 defeat to Slovakia, I went home proud.

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Lads-in-bourg

Destination: Esch-sur-Alzett, Luxembourg

Length of trip: 3 days

Overall rating (based on enjoyment): 8/10

Part two of the Europa League endeavors! This time the opposition being Luxembourgian outfit, AS Jeunesse Esch. Fresh off the back of a 1-0 win from the tie in Dublin, this could be our chance of progression. We knew what had to be done. A week of thorough preparation began for the biggest game of the season. A chance of entering the the 2nd round, making that dream of a giant killing match ever closer. But we can’t look ahead of what stands in our way.

We scrutinized the opposition in preparation and I could almost name their whole squad off by heart (and what foot each one was). We were prepared, determined and focused.

We flew out on the Tuesday, departing from the platinum lounge. No, not your average terminal one or two, the platinum lounge. Firstly, as we weren’t used to this level of luxury playing in the league of Ireland, we were all given a map to help us try and find this exclusive area we didn’t even know existed. Once we all managed to find our way to the departure lounge we were welcomed into a lavish departure room with flat screens, plush couches, iPad’s to play music and free food and drink. As professional as we were and that, the boys had no problem stuffing their bags for the “long flight”, which was only scheduled to be 2  hours but any excuse I suppose for a couple of bags of crisps and chocolate bars. Here is me chilling out (also with chocolate) reading the paper, as you do, before the flight.

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Feeling like we made it, we strolled through security and onto the bus to find out what plane we were going to be flying in. Rumours were speculating that we were getting a private plane (well chartered) but being a young lad on the team, you have to take what the older boys say to you with a grain of salt. I was never the best with flying, even in the biggest of planes but the thoughts of us boarding a little delicate plane, scared the life out of me.

As we made our way to the plane I seen four private planes lined up beside one another. Three of them looking manageable, in terms of comfort and safety, the other well…..

“As long as that one isn’t ours we will be ok”

No prizes for guessing which plane we pulled up beside…

 

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As we pulled up beside the plane, we were nearly looking down at it. Greeted by the pilot with a big wave (something for some strange reason that doesn’t fill you up with a lot of confidence). The pilot himself started unloading our bags off the bus and into the “boot” of the plane. We got there safely however, despite the tight squeeze and the left propeller not spinning as the plane warmed up (something the lads weren’t shy of informing me about) but all in all it was a grand flight, with nice food.

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Now it was time to do the business.

What a beautiful country, you could see why it why it was one of the richest countries in Europe. Beautiful buildings, scenic landscapes and luxurious cars. We flew into Lux airport, and headed down south to the French boarder to a city called Esch. What a place. True beauty tucked into the mountains. Again not much time to explore and visit but from the multiple bus journeys to and fro it was spectacular.

As it was the middle of July, we had to adapt quickly to the temperature.  We trained the day before the game in their compact stadium. We knew this wasn’t going to be easy. Despite not being named on the starting eleven, I couldn’t help but feel the all too familiar pre-match nerves. The game was massive and that was summed up by the amount of fans that travelled to see us play, even though there was no direct flights to Lux.

After taking the lead in the second half, the dream was on, a place in the next round of the Europa League. However, a late strike by a substitute, made way for a very anxious finale. Still watching from the bench, I must have kicked every ball with the lads on the pitch. After they missed a late chance we knew we were in the draw for the next round! The feeling was much sweeter this time than last year’s disappointment. It made the thought of returning to Dublin on the same plane that night all the more bearable.  We were in the hat and celebrating, but what awaited us next…….

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When the saints go marching home

Destination: Balleybofey, Donegal

Length of trip: 13 hours

Overall rating (based on enjoyment): 1/10

 

Finn Harps away. The most dreaded trip imaginable in the league of Ireland calendar. Every year the first fixtures you look at is the big games, the Dundalk’s and the Rovers, but you can’t help but look to see when you’re due to make that dreaded trip. I don’t know what it is that makes the trip so horrifying. Is it the three and a half hour trip of travelling back roads? Is it the hour or so spent travelling through the North where you lose reception and have no other choice to stare at one another? Or is it the feeling after a hard fought match (and believe me there’s no harder fought fixture than up there) only to be faced with the dreaded journey home and lots of cramping bodies.

I was fortunate enough to make the trip up to Balleybofey three times this season but only two games were played.

Typical away days in the league usually mean long days of travel. Outside of Dublin, you’re generally looking at a 2 hour trip minimum. But no, not Finn Harps.

It was coming to the end of the season and our season hadn’t went as planned and with nothing to really play for (bar pride obviously) the last thing wanted or needed was to make the trek to Donegal.

My day started with a twenty minute car journey to the bus. Not the bus to Donegal but the bus to the bus to get to Donegal.( a lot of buses)  A casual two hour journey from Navan up to Dublin before the journey actually began.

It never really is considered the glamour tie but when the rain threatens to break the windows it’s extremely difficult to prepare yourself, almost like a pathetic fallacy one could say, but we headed off none the less.

Factor in another two hours mid trip for food and a team meeting and you finally reach the promise land of Balleybofey. Finn Park never seemed so beautiful. The relief when we finally got to put our bags down in the changing room was palpable. Lads suddenly began getting excited as they knew that it was almost time. We made the ritual journey out to the pitch in preparation to see what the pitch was like (where the dips and potential ankle breaking holes were) and familiarise ourselves with the surroundings. As soon as we set foot on the pitch the squelch of the water under our feet was as much confirmation as we needed. It was all for nothing. The referees rolling a ball in the corner of the pitch was all we needed to see. We had traveled all day to be sent straight back home. A waterlogged pitch. Unplayable. Game postponed.

I don’t know what was worse, the trip up, the thoughts of having to turn around straight away or knowing we had it all ahead of us again next week. I can think of many more enjoyable ways to spend my Friday, watching paint dry, watching United play, anything would have been better than that 10 hour round trip. It was a memorable trip for all the wrong reasons and one I’d definitely like to forget.

Sorry for the lack of pictures as I wasn’t in any hurry to commemorate this momentous occasion. Please find a detailed plan of my journey below ……

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The group of death

Destination: Heidelberg, Germany

Length of trip: 13 days

Overall rating (based on enjoyment): 10/10

It’s always an extremely proud moment representing your country, one every boy dreams of, and fortunately I was privileged to get the chance. Over the course of last year I was included in the Irish U19s squad for a series of friendlies, and a spot in the squad for the first qualifying round of the European Championships, which were held in Waterford. We played Malta, Gibraltar and Switzerland and we needed to finish in the top two of the group to progress to the next round of qualifiers. We finished top of the group and got drawn against Germany (of course!), Czech Republic and Slovakia. As groups go, you could consider that the group of death.

As Germany were the reigning Champions of the world at the time, we headed over to Heidelberg to play in the elite qualifying rounds, one round away from the European Championship. Only the winner of the group progressed this time so I knew we had a mammoth challenge ahead of us! (Although nothing that wasn’t achievable.)

Before we headed off to Germany we had a few days training camp in Johnstown House. Here, most of the day was spent sharpening up our table tennis skills with a bit of football thrown in. After four days preparation we flew out to Frankfurt, excited but nervous as we knew the caliber of teams that we would face.

To add to the nerves, the German team were staying in the same hotel and had players who I had just watched on TV score in the Champions League (a small bit star struck I must add). We were treated well and had the added luxury of a table tennis table, something which kept our minds off the task ahead (maybe a bit too much at times!).

A lot of time was spent on the bus going between hotels, pitches, matches and airports and was the best view we got of the seemingly beautiful city of Heidelberg. As there was three matches to play, there wasn’t much time to explore the city ourselves.

Our first game was against Czech Republic, where I remember being really disappointed as I didn’t get played against arguably the easiest team in the group. We lost 1-0 and it really wasn’t the start I or the team were hoping for. It meant we’d have to win both other games against even tougher opponents.

Thankfully, my disappointment was short lived as I found out that I would be starting the next game against the World Champions. I’m not sure which emotion replaced disappointment though as the overwhelming nerves kicked in.

The next day proved to be one of the most enjoyable days of my career so far, not because of the result (a 3-2 loss) but because I got to test myself against the world’s best and future stars of the game and coming off the pitch not feeling out of place. A very proud moment I won’t let people forget easily (that and that I nutmegged Leroy Sané, all in a days work).

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At this stage we knew our hopes were dashed but on the Bright side we were brought out to a local Irish bar (not for pints) but to watch the senior team play that night. Here, was the first time we could truly relax and enjoy the match:

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It had now been nearly 12 days away with the squad and we had become very close. After our final game against Slovakia (1-1), we were allowed some free time to explore the city. I only managed to get a picture of the shopping center (but from the picture you can clearly tell it was a lovely city)

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What a great few weeks away but nothing like the harsh reality of summer exams coming around the corner to bring your feet back down to the ground and back to reality.

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When the Saints go marching to Riga

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…

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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..)

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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.)