Irish team set for height of luxury in Versailles
The national team will spend almost all of Euro 2016 behind a tight security cordon
The Republic of Ireland team sun bathe during Italia ‘90. Photograph: Billy Stickland/INPHO
Paul Getty, Marlene Dietrich and Sarah Bernhardt are among the many rich and famous who have checked in to the Trianon Palace Hotel in Versailles since it opened its doors in 1910. For at least half of June, you can add 20-odd Irish footballers.
After the first World War, the treaty that bears the town’s name was dictated in the hotel; during the second, the RAF and then the Luftwaffe set up their French headquarters there. Now it will be Martin O’Neill’s green-and-white army who will occupy this modest little corner of Versailles.
If it’s even remotely like Sopot, Poland, where thousands of fans descended four years ago to be close to their heroes, the well-heeled locals might want to pull the shutters, turn out the lights and pretend nobody’s at home for a couple of weeks.
Those who insist on getting on with their lives are unlikely to see much of the players. A lot has changed since Ireland began qualifying for major championships nearly 30 years ago, and this team will spend almost all of the tournament behind a tight security cordon, whether training, being briefed on opponents, actually facing them or simply passing the time.
Terrible hotels and inedible food
At least the players will be comfortable. Before Euro ’88, anyone heading abroad to represent their country in a football international could pretty much bank on returning with an evening’s worth of yarns about the hardships endured. Terrible hotels, inedible food and the cheapest travel arrangements imaginable; everybody knew to expect the worst.
Caught in the middle was the manager, who generally had to do battle on behalf of his players if he was keep their respect and loyalty. It was a war, though, that Eoin Hand, local, genial and so taken for granted by the FAI hierarchy, generally lost, as when his team was put in particularly awful accommodation before a game in London in 1985.
They complained, inevitably, and Hand decided to take the matter up directly with the English FA. Could the players stay somewhere better in return for the association taking a smaller match fee, he enquired.
Came the reply: Oddly enough, the players were supposed to stay somewhere better – until an approach from someone at the FAI proposed precisely the opposite trade-off.
The Trianon Palace has five restaurants (one of them Michelin-starred), but the players will do well to see the inside of L’Angelique. These days, chef Dave Steele travels everywhere with the team, overseeing all food preparation so as to ensure they eat exactly what they are supposed to.
Hand first proposed such a food plan back in 1985, a few months after the London game, when Ireland were due to play in Moscow. Reluctantly, his bosses in the association agreed to pay for food to be brought out – but not for anyone to prepare it. So Hand asked his wife to come and cook for the entire squad, which she did.
Jack Charlton’s success, the money it brought in and the increased expectations of the players changed things, although not exactly overnight. Ray Houghton still remembers the German hotel the squad stayed at in Gelsenkirchen before their final game at those first European Championships in 1988 as awful. Italy two years later was a pretty mixed bag, it seems, and Japan and Korea . . . well, best not to go there.
These days, the biggest problem is how to keep players occupied through a tournaments that seem to go on ever longer. In 1988 and 1990, friends and fans had a considerable amount of access to team hotels, and the attitude to having a few drinks a couple of days out from games was more relaxed than today.
Charlton, a disciple of Leeds United’s Don Revie, banned wives and girlfriends from team bases, something that caused friction in Italy with the likes of Frank Stapleton, who felt he was being treated like a child.
Other squad members found ways to amuse themselves, however, and Tony Cascarino recalls worrying he would be sent home before USA ’94 when security cameras captured him smuggling a woman he had just met up to his room.
Martin O’Neill takes the Charlton line, but expresses his views on families about the place with a jokey twist: “Generally speaking,” he says, fairly deadpan, “I don’t really want three or four children running across my path and finding out that they belong to somebody who has missed two goals against Sweden. ”
It was always thus, even if the work/play ratio has shifted somewhat along the way. Back in the day, life could be good in the squad, Cascarino later recalled. “Nightclubs were offering us appearance fees and free drink for the night. We’d arrive and be sectioned off in a corner and, by the end of the night, there’d be a thousand people on our side of the rope and about 10 outside.
“There were very few withdrawals from the squad in those days. Players were turning up injured just to be involved with the group, which was hardly a surprise when you considered the privileges.”
This, of course, was nothing new in football. The Dutch squad at the 1974 World Cup “were very easy living, we had parties,” said then Ajax star Arie Haan. But the squad was thrown into disarray on the eve of the final when a German newspaper reported a poolside party involving players and unclothed women. The phones at the hotel began hopping as partners back home called demanding to know just what was going on.
Italy’s players received another lesson in how things could go wrong at Espana ’82. After Paolo Rossi and Antonio Cabrini appeared together at their hotel window with their tops off, it was reported back home that they might actually be an item.
One drink becomes 10
Irish players have certainly been seen in bars down the years, although Kevin Sheedy, part of the squad in 1988 and ’90, says many of the yarns from those times gained a little with each retelling.
“Lads having one drink becomes lads having 10,” he says. “People read into it what they want. We did socialise, but it was at the right times. We were experienced players. We knew when to and when not to.” In any case, he says, “all the teams were doing the same thing, so it was a level playing field. Now, the game has moved on.”
When Ireland played at the last European Championships, there were rumours, more or less confirmed by manager Giovanni Trapattoni, that a couple of players had overstepped the mark and broken a curfew at their base in Sopot. Still, for the most part it was FAI chief John Delaney’s late-night socialising that grabbed all the attention.
As Delaney’s appearances on Facebook and Twitter showed, social media means those who head out risk instant coverage, so players increasingly stay behind closed doors and the manager oversees keeping them entertained. Fortuitously, these periods of incarceration coincide with there being rather a lot of football on the telly.
A typical day will involve training for an hour and a half or so from 11am followed, for the lucky ones, by some media interviews then back to the hotel. A huge emphasis is put on squad members resting after that and so most divide their time between hanging out with teammates in hotel common areas, their iPads and just sleeping.
The players gather for meals and, on certain days, for video analysis of opponents but the rest of the time is for relaxing, something that quickly becomes a chore for men in their 20s with the energy levels that come with being a professional athlete.
Quizzes and cards games have been the other traditional stalwarts, with former team physio Mick Byrne, who doubled as entertainments officer under Charlton, recalling putting on tournaments in the hotel corridors and cinema outings (where the players rated Byrne’s choice of film). That tradition endures, though these days videogames or box sets on laptops or tablets are likely to be first choice for bored players.
“We went to the World Cup and we didn’t have any of those things,” says Martin O’Neill. “We may well have had more conversations with each other in 1982.”
Indeed, for the modern-day manager, adding a communal element is the challenge presented by so much free time – and allowing them to have a few drinks together will still be seen as necessary from time to time to prevent ill feeling and frustration building over such a long period. Byrne says he used to recommend it if he sensed that some steam needed to be let off.
At least, it was put to the manager recently, his players will have all the cultural attractions of Versailles to distract them over the coming weeks.
“They would have no idea about that,” he replied with a smile.