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Euro 2016: Meet the wandering Irish fans who travel the globe

The team’s fortunes may rise and fall, but Ireland’s supporters always pull out a big performance

Niall Keaveney.Photograph: Cyril Byrne / The Irish Times
Jim Ryan. Photograph: Des Barry
Pictured is Eoin McCann, with his wife Roisin, and daughters Emma (9) and Aoife (4 months). Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

Only in Ireland might the sight of a 60-year-old man bouncing around a changing room in a Superman costume seem like a portent of success at a major international event. When kitman Dick Redmond did just that to mark Ireland’s qualification for Euro 2016 last November, screaming “I’m 60 and I’m going to France! ” as he wiped Champagne from his eye, the innocent joy and silliness of the moment seemed to summon an era of Olé! Olé! and inflatable bananas, before Trap came along with his big Italian ideas of tactics and early nights.

Four years ago in Poland, Ireland’s on-field results and camp mood were so bad that some supporters sought a literal pick-me-up, lifting the FAI’s chief executive John Delaney over their heads one night and drinking from his shoes.

Tens of thousands of fans will descend on France this month with optimism renewed, seeing hopes of progress in the hearts-on-sleeve honesty of Martin O’Neill’s players and a management team that knows how to tap into the national psyche. Roughly speaking, this means playing hard and clever, and being a bit mad.

In the same way that all football tournaments have their own winners and losers, every major final Ireland has been involved in (this will be the sixth, stretching back to Euro ’88 in Germany) had a distinct personality for those who travelled to support the team, depending on an inexactly weighted blend of state-of-innocence, location and success.

Euro ’88 and the first World Cup of Italia ’90 were Innocence events; 2002 in Japan and Korea was Exotic; USA ’94 hung on Beating the Italians; Poland in 2012 was Great Craic. “Off the pitch, it [Poland] was probably the best championship of the lot of them,” says Tommy Shields, a Loughrea, Co Galway man with a royal flush of tournaments behind him.

Shields will be one of an elite number of fans heading to France who have rarely missed a home or away game since Big Jack’s tweed-cap heyday, or even before. But not everyone has logged hundreds of laps around the Fields of Athenry – travelling soccer fans come from a wide variety of backgrounds and ages, and they go for different reasons.

The platitudinous tag of “greatest supporters in the world” once assumed a drinking problem and ludicrous hat, but there is more to the story than straightforward craic addiction. For many, the football comes first; others want to see new places, make new friends and enjoy the rush of not- at-home openness and camaraderie.

“There’s a mix between young and old, you get to meet people from all over the country, different walks of life,” says Shields, who has been to most of Ireland’s away games since 1988. “It’s kind of different to following any of the [other] Irish teams. You could be standing beside a lad on the dole and a multimillionaire – there’s no difference between anyone that travels.”

If you were sorting supporters into batches, Tommy Shields would go into the drawer marked Socialiser & Mixer. His overriding motivation, besides the football, is to make good friends in far-flung places.

In Poland, the Shields gang took up home in Torun, a small medieval city halfway between the match venues of Poznan and Gdansk. Torun became an unlikely encampment for several thousand Irish: “I’d never heard of it in me life and it turned out to be a magical place.”

As a favour to a New Zealander living there, Shields and half a dozen friends visited the local prison and played table football with the inmates. News of the visit reached radio stations and gave the visitors a certain local celebrity. The mayor of Torun reached out, and the following year he and his officials made a reciprocal trip to Galway.

“The amazing rapport between Polish and Irish fans was something to behold,” Shields says. He has since been back to Torun “five or six times”, nourishing a similar network of friends to one he established on a previous trip to Bari in Italy.

For Shields – a Galway United, Ireland and QPR fan, in that order – the thrill of the exotic resides in little details, such as the theatre he ended up in on a late-night escapade in Tokyo, when the curtains opened to unveil a mechanical bear singing Achy Break Heart in Japanese – “and what could you do but fall all over the place laughing?”.

“It’s great craic going to places like Bari and seeing lads’ reaction when you get raw octopus and stuff; or in Japan with sushi, something you wouldn’t have been used to in 2002. To see 200 or 300 Irish lads going into a sushi restaurant and eating – it’s just nuts.”

With 135 away trips and almost 90 countries behind him, Jim Ryan, a retired garda from Watergrasshill, Co Cork, could lay claim to the title of Ireland’s greatest travelling supporter. He is, literally, a journeyman, undertaking an array of elaborate voyages since his first away game at Wembley in 1976.

This year Ryan and regular companion Tony O’Sullivan will take the ferry to France and, as usual, drive around the country, meeting up with like-minded friends and hitting roads less travelled.

A non-drinker, Ryan and his companions live parallel lives to the constituency for whom daily journeys amount to little more than short hops to the pub.

“In Cyprus one time we went off the beaten track and ended up in this village,” he says. “There was this guy who was everything in the village – he was about 24 stone, and he had a Honda 50. He was the vet, he was the doctor, the poitín maker; he was everything in the village. We had a great day with him.

“You meet great characters off the beaten track. If you go off the motorways here in Ireland and into the villages, you’ll meet the same people.”

If attending sport was a crime, Ryan would be on death row by now. In addition to shouting for senior men and women away from home, he has been to an assortment of underage football tournaments as far afield as Nigeria and Bulgaria. There have been three Olympics, hockey world cups, Heineken Cup finals, Grand Nationals and much more. He was there when Sonia won a medal in Sydney and Katie took gold in London.

The time-and-expense details of such a lifelong commitment are something Ryan treats lightly: “I was a garda, I was on shift work, so it was grand. I could be off on a Wednesday and Thursday, which meant I could be in Moscow on a Tuesday evening for a match on Wednesday. And then back again for work on Friday. I took leave as well, and now that I’m retired I can go for longer. As for the financial side of it, I don’t drink, I don’t smoke and I don’t gamble.

“People say I have a very boring life, but I don’t think I have.”

While the generation of away fans coming up behind Ryan and Shields cannot compete on raw numbers, some have made their mark in other ways.

Niall Keaveney, a Dubliner whose first away trip was Bari in 2009, had a lightbulb moment in 2011 when, before Ireland were due to play a qualifier in Andorra, he noticed fans on the You Boys in Green forum (ybig.ie) wondering how on earth they could get to the principality from Barcelona.

Keaveney had logistics experience from organising a bus for friends from Dublin 8 to travel around the mountain pubs – Johnny Foxes, the Blue Light and the like – of Dublin and Wicklow. “It was a group of Italians, Spanish, Irish, Polish . . . a whole group of friends we knew.”

The entrepreneurial instinct paid dividends in Andorra: “I was thinking, I was going to the match, I’ll see if I can organise any buses. At least they’ll have 40 people on the bus so I’ll get to know people, and then maybe for the next game I can maybe contact them if I’m stuck for a ticket or anything like that.”

At Euro 2012 the following year, the Keaveney project doubled in size when he organised two coaches to bring fans from Berlin to Poznan.

For Keaveney, the lure of the away travel lies both in that camaraderie and in the boundless positivity of those in attendance. “Win, lose or draw, you know you’re going to have a good time. So I think that’s what grabbed me.”

While finals tournaments have a right-of-passage quality for many young Irish men, for the young women who travel, it can be an instructive leap into the lion’s den.

In 2012, Catherine Hayden, Eimear Feerick and three female classmates on the sports studies and PE course at UCC secured tickets for the Ireland matches and made their way to Poznan for a 12-day trip. They all played and watched football in Ireland, and assumed many other women would be going to Poland as well.

“We went over without thinking about it,” says Feerick, from Co Mayo. “Then once we got there we were really surprised by the fact that there were no other girls – like, really surprised. I remember ringing the boyfriend and saying, ‘It’s all males,’ and he said, ‘What?!‘ and I said ‘Yeah, it’s all males’. He was like, ‘Oh my God’.”

Far from being on the receiving end of countless cheesy stares and phone-number requests, she and Haden say amorous approaches were rare and easily brushed off.

“People wanted photographs because we were a group of girls, but not that much,” says Hayden, from Cork. “None of the guys were even that interested in being there for girls; I think everyone was just there for the football. And Irish guys are very protective. If anyone was giving you trouble for a second, you’d suddenly have 10 guys who you didn’t even know around you. It was like having a load of bodyguards.”

The women’s knowledge of the game and skills with a ball they kicked around in Poznan earned them instant respect among suspicious types. “And there were no queues for the toilets,” Hayden adds.

The trip, says Feerick, turned out better than they had ever imagined.

“I had an idea [what it might be like] and it definitely surpassed it hugely. I wouldn’t have ever gone to an away game, and I was just very surprised at how easy it was – how enjoyable, how interesting. We just met great people. The excitement, the comfort, the camaraderie was just unreal. I felt quite proud to be Irish.”

For Eoin McCann, a Dubliner who travelled around Poland with four friends in a camper van, the tournament brought a result far less likely than Ireland’s three heavy defeats. Late into the night of the 4-0 loss to Spain in Gdansk, he bumped into a couple of friends on the street outside an ice-cream shop. A young Irish woman named Róisín was with them, and they got talking.

One thing led to a mother: the couple had their first child, Aoife, earlier this year and last month they got married. It was not hard to decide on a honeymoon – they are on their way to France, along with Aoife and Róisín’s nine-year-old daughter Emma. A family holiday.

“If we qualify, me and Róisín are flying back out,” says McCann. “We’ve booked our flights and all.”