Friday, March 30, 2012

Better late than never: Guernsey 2011

Note from the editor: Last year, I received this article about the football tournament in Guernsey for submission to a newsletter that never came about. It's about time that the article was published in a public forum and what better time than the day before the first tournament of the year and the day before the writer plays his last tournament for Belgium GAA. Read on for some valuable insights from Shane Griffin. We wish him the best of luck in his future endeavours.

Time was when travelling for a game of football meant piling into the brother's car, stopping for a Lucozade and tumbling out again long before the limbs had stiffened. These days, it’s an overnight stop in St. Malo, ferry at dawn and a seven-hour drive from Brussels, just in case the weekly duels with Cotter, Laffan and Church left any question marks over commitment.

The trip to Guernsey was my first opportunity to play Championship for Belgium, and I was looking forward to the competitive step up. We were playing our second tournament under Davey’s ‘half-press’ system, and in the four weeks since Leuven we’d become a lot more comfortable with the tactics. As we watched the first round of games however, and mingled with a few opposition players on the sideline, it became obvious that the other teams had picked up on our system too. As we prepared for our first game, against Luxembourg, a bold decision was taken to abandon the new tactics and measure how our opposition would react.

Lux had the look of a team who expected to win, and didn’t seem thrown by our out-and-out attack from the throw-in. Rather, it was us who struggled to impose ourselves on the game, and we soon began to slip behind. At half time the decision was taken to revert back to our original plan, but time began to go against us and we went down to Lux by three points.

Bowed but not broken, we knew our next game against Jersey was as much about avoiding the wooden spoon as it was about finishing top of the group. Pressure was on. It’s the mark of a man when he can hit a few wides and still try something audacious with seconds on the clock- Timmy punted the ball over from well-near half way, we took a one-point win, and our tournament was back on track.

Next up were the Hague. I don’t need to waste time here embellishing on our rivalry with the Hague. Well, we knew that it would be the ultimate test of our system. They had a few big lads in the middle, Danny up front, and a couple of other solid performers to keep us occupied.

It didn’t start well- the scores just weren’t coming. The one thing you need with a defensive system is an effective counter-attack. The vast majority of our squad were playing in their first or second pan-Euro, and for all that men stepped up that day, there simply weren’t enough forwards to come over on the boat. The Hague picked off their scores, we were weak in attack, and we went down in the end by a fairly decent margin.

Our fourth game, and final match of the group, was against the tournament hosts and favourites. We were sent on to a back pitch to play them, and I started from the bench. Shane Ryan, who had manfully stepped into goals for the day, was given a run outfield and he played with all the joy and abandon of a man who’d been confined to six yards for four games. He snatched a goal, the points were coming, and it was game on.

When Davey Barrett scored a penalty just before half-time to put us ahead, an impressive scalp began to occupy our minds. Both teams went hell for leather in the second half. I was given a run with ten minutes to go and unfortunately could do little to stop Guernsey scoring a decisive goal. It was one of those occasion where, given my limited options, the best course of action would probably have been to give away a tactical free. We had the opportunity to win it with another penalty, but it wasn’t to be. Group over- just one last ‘bronze final’ against Lux left to play.

3/4th place play-offs are often scoffed at, but not this one. We’d both probably travelled to Guernsey with legitimate hopes of contesting the final, and there had been a bit of handbags in the first game- late tackles, cheap digs, that sort of thing. From the get-go, the tension was pronounced and the stakes were bizarrely high for such an occasion. One of their players gave me some lip, I hit him a shoulder in return. He shot me a (tame) headbutt when we came together at half-time and from a simmering first fifteen it all bubbled up.

Davey was obviously looking for a bit of an excuse not just to settle a few scores but also, I think, to focus us on coming away from the tournament with something more than 1 win in 5 games. As we turned for the second half, it was game on. Sparks flew, scores came and went, but after 15 minutes in the trenches we came away with a precious win and when the final whistle was blown the two teams left the field as best of friends again.  

Something should be said for how Guernsey put the tournament together. The pitch was pristine, the dinner was gorgeous and they even collected us in cars from the ferry- a really classy touch. They fully deserved their victory in the final too. From Guernsey, it was on to Limerick. European glory? Possibly. More importantly though, another date with Lux, and the Hague, and Guernsey, and that’s as good a reason for flights home as any. 

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