From England To Wales For Ireland & Gibraltar
Republic of Ireland U19 6-0 Gibraltar U19 (UEFA European U19 Championships Qualifiers)
It’s 10:47am Wednesday 21st September 2022 and I’ve just had an email to be at a game in North Wales which kicks off at 4pm. I’m sitting feet up with a cup of tea next to Bruce the dog in my toasty East Midlands home 134 miles away… Do I tell the bosses to do one and sod off? Do I eck… I bloody love football.
‘I’m off out’ I shout to the wife, we both work from home (when I’m not trawling through the nations football fields) and she’s upstairs unmoved and unconcerned as to where I could be going, within minutes I'm in the car with my favourite napapijri gillet on, baseball cap, jeans and converse, trying to sort the sat nav. It’s her car and nothing is set up. I’m still waiting for mine to be dropped off next month, a bigger version of hers pretty much, one with more fuel in too I bet.
I’m at Clifton petrol station on the A453 so stick forty quid in and grab a meal deal and a pack of chewing gum, A50 across to Stoke onto the M6, M56 through North Wales and should be there in a couple of hours give or take. It’s not until I pass the industrial looking shithole that is Queensferry do I get on the winding single-track roads of Denbighshire, stunning climbs up and down the valleys, the views spectacular, green and grey as the fields offer some sparkle to the dull September skies.
I finally arrive around 1:30pm and park up outside a school, the ground opposite is quaint, a red gated entrance with single turnstile leading to a pleasant looking clubhouse, surrounded by playing fields, the horizon views are of rolling hills in the distance.
I’ve a little work to do before I start, so get my laptop out and check kick off time whilst I’m reading my emails, ‘it’s a 4pm KO not 3pm as for some reason I thought’, I’m an hour and half early, I need to take a walk as I’ve been busting for a piss since Chester. I get out the car and stroll up towards the town centre, Google maps tells me it’s not that far but what it doesn’t tell me is that it’s up a hill that would probably not look out of place in the Brecon Beacons.
I wander up the high street which has a couple of charity shops, a co-op and a Holland & Barrett, and decide that I should probably head back when I get as far as Bevans Home & Gardens. Making way back down the same incline I went up, I sit clenched crotch and put feet up in the car for a while until I pluck up the courage to make my grand entrance.
As I walk through the gate and haggle on my £3 entrance fee, the Gibraltar lads are already on the pitch, taking in the surroundings in red tracksuits, they look smart, and young, the under 19’s are here for their European Championships Qualifiers, facing the Republic of Ireland today who are yet to arrive, they’re both in the Welsh group with Hungary, it seems all this week’s matches will be in Wales, which makes sense, all teams staying central to one of the nations in the group playing three matches total, cuts down on travelling and gets things done quickly, the top two in the group then qualify for the next stage with the winning teams making the 2023 finals to be played in Malta.
I finally take a much-needed stroll to the toilet which is a single khazi to the back of the clubhouse, as the Ireland team arrive with swagger and take time to inspect the pitch for themselves, it’s in fab condition, lush green, flat as a pancake, plenty of grass on it, they let it grow in these parts.
By this time I’m sat high up in the sixth row of the stand, In the media section, a nice table to place my laptop and a coffee, only a quid it cost made by a man in the canteen, strong with a splash of milk, single sugar, which goes down a real treat.
As an official UEFA match, there’s a delegate from Switzerland who's liaising with the paramedics, as well as a chap who records all the stats, who’s sat with me. He’s headed over from Port Talbot in South Wales and it took him longer to get to Denbigh than I did. There’s a young Irish player in the stand, James Goldsen of Oxford United, who says in a southern English accent, "I can’t play because my passport hasn’t arrived in time".
The stand slowly fills up with Gibraltar fans, parents of players, who’s dialect switches interestingly from Spanish to English so quickly. Some have suitcases, most have packed lunches. The Irish mam and dads are fashionably late, surely they’ve not all been waiting in the bar?
The two teams walk out before first Gibraltar sing their anthem. A softly sang rendition before Ireland’s turn, where it seems half of the team haven’t yet learned their words.
Ireland are captained by a rather strapping looking centre half called James Abankwah, apparently he plays for Udinese? It’s soon apparent too that he oozes class and controls proceedings, orchestrating play from the back, although easily done when you have no-one to mark. You can put out that cigar now James!
Gibraltar sit back, in fairness, they’re gutsy, organised, but not very good on the ball, Ireland seem bigger, stronger, quicker, and immediately bully their opponents to defending in numbers.
The Irish play, coached by Tom Mohan and assisted by former Stoke striker Jon Walters, is very much, get it wide to get crosses in, a style I’ve always liked, uncomplicated, old skool and British, making use of two fantastic wingers they have. One of those wingers, Rocco Vata, is a player of Celtic FC and son of Albanian star Rudi. Rocco has tremendous feet, frighteningly fast, a real prospect, whilst another winger is equally tricky, Kevin Zefi, a left footed diva with a bit of attitude, he plays for Inter Milan and oozes quality, the pedigree of this Irish team already at this age potentially better than that of the full squad, although there are a few home-growns too, goalkeeper Reece Byrne plays for Bohemians, right back Sam Curtis from St Patrick’s Athletic is very competent and talks to his team-mates constantly.
It’s a comprehensive whitewash which ends 6-0 to Ireland, only one of those goals is scored before half time by Cork City striker Mark O’Mahony who nets his second and third before being subbed to save his legs shortly after the break.
Ireland miss a penalty and add three more later on, in truth, it could have been much more than six, Gibraltar don’t register a single shot, and have been well and truly outplayed.
Abankwah looks accomplished enough to forge a career in the game whilst Sean Grehan besides him, at Crystal Palace, capped an impressive game off with a late goal, the wingers excite whilst little Harry Vaughan of Oldham in the centre of the park was up for the battle despite of some big tackles against him. O’Mahony probably only had three touches and scored them all, whilst Vata shown promise and trickery, the real thorn for Gibraltar was defending Kevin Zefi who certainly liked to take a touch or five, but he could certainly too make things happen.
Denbigh Town is a lovely football club, and it has a superb playing surface which is second to none, the pitch the reason I'm told it got to host such a prestigious match. I was also told most of the top tier grounds now in Wales have artificial surfaces (Denbigh are tier three), 3g or 4g and that really disheartens me, seeing perfect (and not so good) pitches ripped up, understandably for the revenue that these never waring playing surfaces can now offer, but there’s something ‘real’ about playing football on grass, as the great Brian Clough once said, ‘how it should be played.’
Ireland certainly enjoyed it, pinging cross field balls around at each other at electric pace, they looked a cut above Gibraltar, who lets face it, in getting to experience the joys of international football are by being part of occasions like this, living their own dream.
Republic of Ireland: Reece Byrne (Aaron Maguire 85), Sam Curtis, James Abankwah, Sean Grehan, Alex Murphy, Rocco Vata (Ronan Maher 61), Oisin Gallagher, Harry Vaughan (Thomas Lonergan 68), Justin Ferizaj (Edward McJannet 68), Mark O'Mahony (Nathan Fraser 68), Kevin Zefi.
Gibraltar: Harry Victor, Lee Soiza (Jayden Villa 46), Julian Britto (Jayron Negron 81), Evan Busto, Kyle Rodriguez, Sean Luke Perera (Julian Soiza 62), Kevan Gonzalez, Han Stevens, James Caetano (Rafi Emrani 62), Finlay Cawthorn, Liam Jessop.
4pm Kick Off. Wednesday 21st September 2022, Central Park, Denbigh (att: 115).