Why poke the bear?

In short because the bear is generally being a bit of a d”k.  Anyway, you may have thought it was all over for 2016.  But I (here meaning someone else) gives you more in the form of a trip to Ireland for the third Timmy B guest post.  Take it away, Lewiska….

It is perhaps fitting that the decision to travel to Ireland, land of Brendan Behan, Flann O’Brien and other famed eulogisers of alcohol’s creative powers, was made in a unashamedly kitsch Irish pub in Glasgow city centre after several measures of Johnny Jump Up (Irish for tequila, I think). Zenit St Petersburg, my adopted second side from a misspent year abroad in Russia’s former capital, would be in Dublin for a Europa League group stage tie with Irish champs Dundalk, and in our half-cut state making the short hop to the capital of our Celtic brethren across the Irish Sea was as natural a plan as gubbing one last tequila for the road.

Awaking bleary-eyed and late for work the following day, we set to work beseeching an unholy trinity of blank-faced HR departments (to beg for leave), the Ryanair/Aer Lingus websites (to beg for enough baggage allowance to bring at least a change of underwear), and Russian customer services (to beg for some form of redemption): cutting a long and entirely dull story short, tickets were promised us on arrival at the ground after a gruelling few weeks communing with the esoteric and abstruse realms of the Zenit and Dundalk ticket offices, before, annoyingly, having the whole sorry affair resolved over the course of a two-minute conversation with a nice Irishwoman at Ticketmaster, who Dundalk had charged with issuing tickets, the day before the game.

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When the present author and TimmyB ran an aviation themed ultra group in St Petersburg.

Scarfs and spare kecks packed in our rucksacks (praise be, Aer Lingus), we met at Glasgow Airport for 7am pre-flight bevvies, a tradition which has become as essential a part of the modern British experience as the excruciating “cheeky” Nando’s and referencing Winston Churchill as a logical panacea for otherwise unwinnable arguments about our relationship with the rest of the world. Ireland greeted us with jolly autumnal sunshine and an artfully foul-mouthed elderly taxi driver who formed such majestic, exhilarating combinations of the F and C-words that even his Scots charges in the back seat marvelled high praise indeed.

Twenty minutes and a few battered wing mirrors in the narrow streets around Croke Park later, we were deposited in St Stephen’s Green and set forth to find out what Dublin had to offer two honorary pitertsy for the day. This proved to be disappointing cooked breakfasts and overpriced import beer, though anyone entering Temple Bar should already be aware of its reputation. A fortuitous though sadly brief pint shared with Timmy Bacsi contributor Simon and his wife and folks, coincidentally in town at the same time, was followed by a directionless pub crawl and sight-seeing ramble around the city centre.

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Three jovial ‘Russians’

A few Zenit fans were now visible around Dublin’s innumerable hostelries mostly of the middle-aged couple variety bedecked in official merchandise, the bear-like husbands in baseball caps sporting matching shoulder bags to their diminutive wives, all taking photographs of each other looking very severely at pints of Guinness.

Dublin’s hospitality well and truly drunk, it was off to the Tallaght Stadium, nominally home to Shamrock Rovers, though hosting the fixture due to UEFA stadium directives ruling out Dundalk’s more humble Oriel Park. The ride to the ground was spent in the company of some Zenit fans who we’d met at the tram stop, giving me an opportunity to grind my rusty Russian back to life and field questions on Britain’s deteriorating relationship with and media attitudes towards Putin’s Russia: “Why poke the bear?”, we were asked.

Diplomatically avoiding any profound justifications for this perceived ursine molestation, we made it to Tallaght and nipped into a local hotel, which had laid on an impressive spread, by which I mean stand-up beer taps, in the foyer for the visiting fans from Russia and County Louth. The ‘home’ fans were in good spirits, with an impressive number having made the trip from the border county, and the ranks of Gardai in full riot gear seemed overkill given the peaceful, good-natured atmosphere.

Tickets collected, we made our way into Tallaght Stadium, a neat, two-sided ground whose 6,000 capacity was just about adequate for the near sell-out crowd. Having had to settle for tickets in the home end and being, quite frankly, a bit pissed, we decided to try our luck with the security and asked if we could be moved to the away section in the opposite stand. Initially receiving refusals from both the stewards and the Gardai, our cause was aided by the arrival of a couple of baffled Americans who not only had no idea where they were supposed to be sitting, but no idea which teams they’d come to see. The young copper who’d been dealing with us decided it was all more than his job was worth, so called the head of security who, under the barrage of polite logic my sputnik for the day unleashed, clearly decided he couldn’t be bothered listening to us any more and wearily escorted us behind the goal and into the Zenit section.

At the outset of the match, Zenit, backed by the financial might of Gazprom, were obvious favourites and most would have expected Dundalk to be quickly overwhelmed. However, the Irishmen had other ideas: the domestic champions had earned an extremely credible 1-1 away draw against AZ Alkmaar before becoming the first Irish team to win a Europa League group tie on a famous night against Maccabi Tel-Aviv, and it was clear from the outset that this was an organised and disciplined squad who were looking to probe for weak links in a Zenit side who were only just coming onto a game after an indifferent start to the season.

Zenit huffed and puffed for the first half, as Dundalk harried and pressed the Russian giants and limited them to the odd flashed cross and long-distance effort, while looking to catch Zenit’s dozy centre-half pairing of Lombaerts and Neto on the break. As a largely forgettable first half came and went, most of the entertainment was to be had watching the fans, as Zenit’s typically Russian tuneless chanting was countered by a boisterous section of Dundalk supporters on the opposite side of the ground who cracked out a repertoire of less dirgy ditties clearly donated by a rather well-known charitable organisation (plc) in Glasgow’s East End.

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The (pixelated) great escape.

Into the second half and Dundalk stunned pretty much anyone who cared by taking the lead from a speculative shot which slipped under the beleaguered Yuri Lodygin and into the net. The reaction from the Dundalk supporters was enough to warm the cockles of your correspondent’s cynical heart, being forever and irreconcilably a diddy fan myself (insert quick plug for Kilmarnock FC here Johnston out!), but with cockles begrudgingly warmed, it really was time for Zenit to pull the finger out.

However, it took Dundalk almost going further ahead after hitting the post from a header for Zenit to finally step up a gear. As the intermittently imperious Axel Witsel decided he did fancy it after all, Zenit began to get a grip of the game, playing further up the park, and when Dundalk’s keeper fluffed a clearance, they were duly punished as a quick interchange played in Róbert Mak for a neat finish. By now, Zenit were well in the ascendancy and their domination bore fruit five minutes after the equaliser as Witsel waltzed into the box off a one-two and returned it to Guiliano for a simple side-foot past the keeper. A late penalty for Zenit was saved, and given Dundalk’s enterprise and hard work over the 90 minutes, 1-3 would have been harsh on the Irishmen.

A 15-minute lock-in after the game hinted at Zenit’s fearsome reputation for the more unsavoury elements of the European fan ‘movement’, though despite the presence of a small contingent of the perennially topless virazh ultras, the only incident of note was an odd moment on the way out the ground when a chap seemingly minding his own business was unceremoniously launched into a bush. The fella in question was all smiles when he had extricated himself from the foliage, so perhaps bush-launching is what passes for good-natured high jinks among the MMA-trained shock troops of Russia’s bigger supports.

An interminable tram journey back to the city centre was followed by a few more drinks, the Russians resuming their posing with pints of Guinness and Dundalk supporters perhaps left ruing what might have been: their side had poked a bear, but could show off the scars with pride.

Previous – To the swamp

Next – Puck

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