Groundhop UK first Irish Hop – Friday July 4th to Sunday July 6th 2014 (562-564)

'There's a suspicion that the new disabled area might need a little more work...'

‘There’s a suspicion that the new disabled area at Bray might need a little more work…’

I think I was about 17 when it finally dawned on me that going on holiday with your folks might not now be the coolest thing to do. Suddenly the pleasures of setting up home on a beach for the day with bucket, spade and the obligatory flags lost its sparkle and I realised there was a whole new world of youth club trips to France, unbridled access to alcohol, and pretty girls to think about. Hopefully at 15 my son is not yet too obsessed with the latter two, but we’ve noticed that he and his twin sister have remained totally underwhelmed by our budget-conscious suggestions for 2015. Aside from the usual ‘Is there any wi-fi there?’ question, there hasn’t been too much enthusiasm about the prospect of foot-slogging across picturesque moorland to some distant pub or other. I suspect we are now on different wavelengths.

My youthful trips to northern France in the early 1970s were certainly character building, and as I survey the hoards of school-age and late-teen students sing-songing and whooping it up on the campus of Dublin City University, I suspect they’re experiencing the same. I’m here because it’s the base for 17 intrepid groundhoppers to explore a little of central Ireland, take in a bit of Irish footy, and maybe sink a Guinness or three – well, it would be a snub to our hosts not to!

The trip has been organised by Grand Days Out, the brainchild of Chris Berezai and his trusty side-kick Laurence Reade – possibly the Ant & Dec of the hopping world – and it’s something of a departure from their usual format in that it’s to a foreign land; we are a small, select group; and we’re also promised a bit of culture too. For three days we’re ferried round the Irish Midlands by coach drivers Paul (yes, we now HAVE met a nice South African) and Martin, with the chance to chill out every evening at the Student Union Bar which, although lacking the depth of beverage choice one might better encounter in a more central Dublin location (I’m thinking Porterhouse here), has the advantage of being cheapish, and is showing the World Cup footy. In fact on the Friday the place is full of Brazilian shirts, and I have to question why anyone might want to leave Brazil to come to Europe when the World Cup is on back home! Or maybe they just aren’t from Brazil….

The 17 on the trip (15 blokes and 2 ladies) meet up at Dublin airport on the Friday morning, although half of the party had arrived the previous day and taken in a Derry City European match. After a brief stop at the University, where only some of the rooms are ready, we head off into Dublin for some ‘Kulture’. This involves an interesting tour of the Guinness Brewery visitor centre, which is a slick, headphone-assisted affair, culminating in a pint of the black stuff while jostling with other overseas tourists in the rooftop bar, trying to see how many football stadia we can spot. We’re then off to some other impressive looking governmental buildings before ending up at the main Post Office, scene of the Easter Uprising in 1916. And then it’s down to Bray, a seaside resort to the south of Dublin, where we fit in a bit of food and a pint (at the local Porterhouse on the sea-front, where I try the Porterhouse Red which is not mightily impressive) before heading back up to the Carlisle Grounds where we startle the programme seller with a request for 17 of the blighters.

There’s a small clubshop hut behind one goal with a fair selection of merchandise, and I purchase a Bray beanie as I spot the arrival of a threatening cloud bank. Without being too unfair to this ground, you do get the impression it’s already been visited by the mother of all Hurricanes, had most of its superstructure blown down, and is getting by with the help of a makeshift canvas roof over the seating. Thankfully the distinctive Bray Wanderers archway above the main gates has survived. The game is a lower-mid table clash with Drogheda United, whose noisy fans are greeted with a chorus of sheep impressions as they head for the sanctuary of the covered stand when the rain sets in at half time.

The match itself is very entertaining, ending up 3-1 to the visitors as Bray finish with ten men. Two of the goals – a bullet free kick for Bray which pierces the wall and Drogheda’s No8 running through the defence before clipping high and wide of the keeper – would be goal-of-the-season contenders anywhere.

On Saturday the sun is shining as we head off up the coast north of Dublin to Skerries Mills, a wind and water mill complex popular with tourists. In fact as we depart some of the foreign students from DCU turn up with more of their infernal impromptu sing-songs and we make good our escape, this time heading up to the west of Drogheda and the site of the Battle of the Boyne. To be honest, prior to swotting up before the trip, I knew little of this event aside from appreciating that the outcome still seems to mean a lot to communities in various parts of the British Isles. We get a tour and two great video shows and I now know what it was all about! A team in green against one in orange, with lots of internationals in the ranks. Sounds just like the Premier League. Talking of football, we’re off to Longford Town and their top-of-the-table clash with Shelbourne in the Irish Division One, the second tier.

The club’s stadium is on the outskirts of town and is impressive enough, consisting of a large covered main stand on one side, with banks of uncovered seating on the other three – effectively an all-seater stadium. The clubhouse lacks any alcohol, which appears to be the Irish norm, but is selling packaged sandwiches which is ideal as hunger is beginning to set in. There’s a club shop but access is restricted by the need to bend down and twist your head through a narrow opening, which is bizarre to say the least. Apparently a Health & Safety issue due to its proximity to the pitch. There must be a better way! This deterrent doesn’t however stop Francis, one of our party, from buying every branded Longford Town product in sight. He explains that his father was born near the town and he is making a sort of a pilgrimage, which does indeed strike a chord. The game has 0-0 all over it until a couple of red cards on 60, the first for a home defender whose solid tackle is deemed reckless, and the second for the Shelbourne player who tries to exact immediate retribution. With more space on the pitch the game opens up and it’s Town who take the initiative, going in front on 63 and deciding it with further strikes on 78 and 80. ‘We are top of The League’ sing the home fans, and they are indeed!

Day 3 dawns early as we head off to Athlone and the prospect of a river cruise on the Shannon, the longest river in the British Isles. It’s a guided tour and we scan the reed beds for any evidence of the elusive Corncrake, known to favour these environs. The skipper explains that the main road bridge built across the river in recent times, has the disadvantage of blocking any river traffic in times of flood as it was built too low. The nearby Victorian rail bridge presents no such problem. Have our planners learnt nothing in 100 years? Today’s game is a 4.00 kick off  in the top division between rock-bottom Athlone Town, and visiting Derry City. After convincing officials we are not Derry fans – I’m pretty sure our cross-section of English accents bear no resemblance at all to that of Londonderry folk – we’re in and while chatting to the snack bar man about the Irish players that have featured large and long in the history of Nottingham forest – I’m wearing the hat – I almost miss out on an impromptu guided tour of the main stand facilities laid on by the friendly home club.

The stadium itself is essentially one large, impressive stand, with all of the facilities – save the snack bar – underneath. There’s a tea bar which doubles as a club shop, although with not a vast array of stock. There is segregation in the stand, but it’s not rigidly enforced and the atmosphere is pretty cordial. To be fair, despite the report on the Irish League’s website after the game, it’s not a great game, probably the least absorbing of the three we watch during our ‘hop’, and is settled by a cracking free kick from fully 40 yards which gives the keeper little chance. Athlone huff and puff a little towards the end, but the points go to Derry.

And so its back to the University, an impromptu diversion to local takeaways for a meal back at the digs, a final session in the bar, and the goodbyes before early morning Monday flights. A tremendous three days with like-minded souls. Takes me back to my late teens, in fact!

Programmes: €3 seemed to be the order of the day, as was the traditional programme seller, rather than buying at the turnstile. The best presented probably Athlone town although Bray’s is in full colour.

Floodlight pylons: 7 & a telephone tower at Bray, six in a 4 + 2 configuration at Longford (possibly some on the stand roof), and 4 at Athlone.

Birdlife: I’m reliably informed there are no feral parakeets in Ireland. Didn’t spot a corncrake either.

Club shops: As above

Music the players run out to: The only thing I recognised was the theme to ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ at Bray

Kop choir: Not really. Any vocal fans seemed to be happy to sit in the main stand at all 3 venues (case of having to at Athlone)

Away fans: Most definitely. A noisy bunch with a drum from Drogheda at Bray, eyeing us suspiciously as they leave the ground with a Garda escort at the end, as we huddle under the shelter of a tree opposite to wait for our bus. Likewise a fair few from Shelbourne on the open terrace opposite the main stand. Derry fans at Athlone were well kitted out in their red and white stripes but were watching a match where there wasn’t too much to shout about!

What’s In a Name? Hey we’re in Ireland, so you’d expect a lot of O’ (as in Peter O’Toole). And you’d be right, except – and this is according to the programme listings – for Derry City. Not an O’ in sight! O’ well.

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