Drogheda Boys abroad, Iber Cup 2016
13th July 2016
Patrick, Buster and Oisin Moore travelled the day before, and Domo and Eric would meet us at the airport, so we met the rest of the lads in Mc Donalds in the morning where i had a chance to grab a cheeky breakfast. Lots of excited faces, and hugs from parents that weren't traveling as we boarded Kierans bus. We met up with the two lads early afternoon and boarded our first flight which was to Brussels, then a quick transfer to Lisbon, all very straight forward and with the lads in great spirits.
We got to Lisbon airport around 8pm where we were picked up by the tournament bus and driven east out of Lisbon along the coast towards our hotel in Carcavelos, we passed both Benfica's Estadio da Luz, and the very impressive Jose Alvalade Stadium of Sporting Lisbon.
Monica got everyone checked in and i brought the lads up to the magnificent rooftop restaurant of our hotel for a late dinner before bedtime. Fish was on the menu, which although was delicious, the lads didn't fancy. So the next 40 mins was spent negotiating with various individuals about getting food inside them so they would have fuel for tomorrows game, which was on all their minds.
We got the lads to bed around 10.30pm (one hour later than planned) and Oisin's dad came down to pick me up and drive me to the tournament office so i could get the lads age control completed. There was a bit of a delay in this process to say the least (our own fault for not arriving in Airport together) but the girl who dealt with our registration was fantastic, and had a kindness that was appreciated by a very travel weary Mr Campbell. I didn't get her name, but thank you!
I got into my room at 2.30am and sat down to go over the starting 7 for the mornings game and pump the balls.
Tuesday (Reading & Opening Ceremony)
We were up at 7.15am and had the lads to breakfast around 8, where we met up with our appointed tournament volunteer Tomas, an impressive young man from Cascais who was interested in improving his already capable english. Tomas gave us the low-down on getting around to the various game venues and escorted us on the short train journey up the road to Estoril and the magnificent Salesianos school, with it's mini stadium, where we would face our opponents. I should also point out that Tomas did so much more, from making sure we had enough water at the games, to supporting not only the coaching team, but also the players and families. Thank You Tomas, You will always be welcome in Drogheda.
Sporting Lisbon U11 were playing Pro Touch Academy from London on the pitch when we arrived, both teams were excellent but Sporting won comfortably, and played beautiful football.
In the warm up, i saw faces i hadn't seen since April 2015 in Salou, moments before playing Barcelona. The lads were nervous. Very nervous. It doesn't happen to them often, but when it does it's like night and day. A normally vocal and energetic group of players, reduced to silent and sluggish. The heat didn't help, it was 32 degrees in the stands, but down on the astro it was closer to 40. The rubber holds the heat in and there is very little fresh air. I had a chat with the lads about using those butterflies for the positive, and they seemed to be in a good (but quiet) state of mind as they walked with their opponents onto the pitch to massive cheers from the stands from both sets of fans.
Let me make this as clear as possible. Reading U11s are phenomenal. In every way they are miles ahead of not only ourselves, but every other team we have ever played, including Barcelona. They didn't do anything different than us, just better. They were generally taller than the lads (most teams are) but it was their strength and speed that had me impressed, it was an eye opener. They had a small blonde lad playing in the center and when he got penned in at the sideline by one of our stronger players he moved him about five yards with a tap of his shoulder.
We spent most of the 1st half defending bravely and only enjoying the odd half chance and came in two down at the break. I tried to encourage the players to spread wider in possession and to keep things simple, but they knew the task in front of them was only going to get harder. It did. Reading came out in the second half flying and started hitting the target at will. Absolutely marvelous players. The heat was also taking it's toll, I remember Monica commenting on it and asking me why it wasn't bothering me? I was at a game with the lads, i explained, I'd do this anywhere. I also remember after Reading's seventh or eight goal looking up at their manager and shrugging, he gave a sympathetic laugh.
With about 3 minutes to go we had our first shot on target, i was glad their keeper had something to do. It finished 10-0. I honestly wasn't that surprised. Reading are one of only a handful of Category One Academies in England, which means they receive over one million a year in Academy funding from the FA. They train 2.5 hours on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. On Wednesday's they get the day off from their private school to spend the day (7 hours) at the club, and on Sundays they play 4 games. On a good week i can get about six contact hours with the lads and i'd wager that that is one of the highest of any U11 setup in Ireland, so you can see what we were up against.
We stayed on after the game to watch another game in our age section between the Pro academies of J-League side Yokahama Marinos and the MLS's FC Dallas. It confirmed to me that we were in the right place. This is what we were here for. To play against and learn from the worlds best.
By the time we got back to the team hotel the lads were back to themselves. Their resilience never fails to impress me.
The only real disappointing part of the week came on Tuesday evening. Awaiting Sami, Patrick , Josh and little Oisin to enter the Municipal Stadium in Cascais, during the parade at the opening ceremony took ages. We thought we could see the Irish flag towards the beginning of the parade but that turned out to be Ivory Coast and an hour later with only half the parade on the pitch there was still no sign of them. And then out they came, with Reading. Under the English flag. The announcer who mentioned every single nation and team, never mentioned them. Completely forgotten. The lads didn't really seem to know what was going on. Shortly after, Monica and myself decided to pull the lads from the continuing ceremony and head back to the hotel.
There were 300 teams at the tournament. There was a team from Austria who didn't seem to show up, but out came 4 tournament Volunteers carrying the Austrian flag and bearing the name of the club. It was a massive mistake for the Iber Cup to overlook our team like that. I know about making mistakes. I make plenty. But this left a bad taste on what was an excellently ran tournament. Myself and a very irate Monica would take it up with their officials later on in the week.
Got to bed around 1am. Phil had asked me to keep a diary so i started typing on my phone's notepad, after about 3 sentences i fell asleep.
Wednesday (GS Loures & Lisboa Oceanarium)
Lads were bright and breezy at breakfast. I had checked the other scores from yesterday and saw that Loures beat Leiria two nil. This was a massive game if we were to achieve our goal of finishing in the top two of the group. I knew Loures were in the top schoolboys league in Lisbon, so expected them to be at the same level as ourselves.
The venue was only a short 5 minute walk from the hotel. Another private school, St Julians, had two full size astro's and four 7v7 grass pitches. Thankfully we were on the grass, a beautifully manicured surface that had just had the sprinklers turned off. It was about 26 degrees with a nice breeze. Perfect.
The lads began the warmup the same as the previous day but i wasn't having any of it. I stopped everything and started a rondo, being very vocal with the players and making sure they were responding. Finally they started having fun and entered the pitch with their heads up. Job Done.
32 seconds into the game and Buster, who had got on the ball early, (always a good sign) scored the first. The next 5 minutes was a battle for possession which we seemed to shade and on 10 minutes Josh scored a wonderful goal to put us two up. Thats when the drums started. No, really. Some of the Reading parents had left their own sons game and came down with their drums to sing on our lads. "Lets go Drogheda, Lets Go" dum dum. In thick London accents. When my time with this team comes to an end, i will look back on all the surreal moments i've experienced, this was one.
We came in at half time two nil up and i explained we needed to raise our performance levels even more as opponents would start strong, which they did. For about a minute, before Patrick struck a cracker. We could easily have had another four in the next couple of minutes, with Tadhg almost single handedly protecting the defense and Oisin Sutton helping us spread the ball around the back, we were carving out chances. Oisin Moore had a beautiful curling shot from 30 yards go inches wide. Nine years old. What a player. Halfway through the half came the icing. Sami, Eric, Buster, Domo and Adam combined a flowing one-touch move before Sami smashed it in. The drums kept beating. Loures pulled a goal back and a minute later had a penalty awarded, which Oisin was unlucky not to save. The lads had to steel themselves to get through the last few minutes but did so comfortably.
I feel our level surprised our opponents. They would've saw the 10-0 from the previous day and wouldn't have seen Reading (who were winning 9-0 with a red card in their match on the next pitch as our game finished).
After Lunch we headed into Lisbon to visit the Oceanarium, a magical place. The banter on the train journey into the city between Monica, myself and the players was fantastic, one of my best memories. The Oceanarium has various tanks full of fish and sea creatures from each ocean. To see Sharks swimming around with Manta Rays inches from your face with the sounds of the deep ocean playing in the background is a truly immersive experience. I'm not doing the place justice. If your in Lisbon, go visit.
It was about an hour back into Carcavelos and it was about five hours since lunch. I could tell Monica, who had planned the whole day and worked her socks off was wrecked and suggested we stop and bring the kids to her favorite fast food establishment for a Happy Meal, she quickly agreed. Inside while i sat sipping on a welcome smoothie and surfing the Iber cup website for results on the free tablets provided, a young lad in a Sporting Lisbon tracksuit sat next to me and loaded up the same website. He looked familiar and I asked him which age section he played in? In broken english he confirmed it was U11 and asked me which team i was with? I pointed at the badge on my polo shirt, and with a half concerned, half sympathetic look on his face he said "oooh Reading. Very good" before his mother called him away from the strange man drinking a smoothie and surfing the web.
Got back for dinner and got the lads to bed on time. Watched the Portuguese Big Brother, finally figured out the air-conditioner and picked the team for the make or break fixture in the morning.
Thursday (Leiria e Marrazes, Bubble Football, & Ricardo Quaresma)
Every other team staying at the hotel seemed to be in the restaurant for breakfast at the same time. There was the U15 Italian team that i kept forgetting the name of (ASD Alcione), the U12 Urawa Red Diamonds, who were incredibly disciplined and never spoke to anyone, a couple of teams from CD Vasconia of Spain, Ullern U15 from Norway, and the lad's new best mates IF Lodde U16 from Sweden, who were vastly experienced in European tournaments, smashing lads, and ate all the food if they got there before you.
We were back in Salesianos for the game against Leiria, a team from the north of Portugal who i knew very little of. They had lost both their games and hadn't scored a goal. I hate these games. These are the ones when you go up against a team on the rocks and get smashed. It's happened to us before.
I warned the lads about complacency and used my new favorite slogan "earn the right to play football" alluding to starting fast, winning early challenges and gaining control of the ball. I think i heard Jonny Giles say it on telly the week before.
When the game kicked off, my fears were confirmed, we pushed on early but the failure to convert chances made the lads anxious and rush their play. Eric hit an amazing shot from the halfway line with the outside of his foot and the keeper pulled off a save that world cup era Gordan Banks would have been proud of. Sometimes i like to fool myself and think i've had an input on the special things that Eric comes up with during games. Truth is he's just that lad who was born with it.
Halftime came and it was nil all. Leiria had gone close a couple of times and we weren't playing well. I told the lads to keep calm and keep the ball on the ground and the chances would come. One minute into the second half Leiria scored after a ball over the top and a brave finish. It got a little hotter down on the astro.
We camped in their half for the rest of the game. Domo was excellent, he was involved in everything. I kept moving him from right to left so he could effect more of the game and with eight minutes remaining he scored the equalizer. Two minutes later Sami, the hardest working player of the week scored our second and with two minutes to go, Patrick finished the game off in style scoring clinically. Their resilience never fails to impress me.
After the game a tournament official informed me that we were the first Irish team to make the A playoffs since the tournament began 7 years before. Considering all other Irish teams who have played have been league representative sides i felt this was an added bonus to finishing in the top two and was delighted.
We got back for lunch, and Monica again worked her magic organizing the rest of the day. It was a train into Cascais, then taxis to Playbowling, an adventure center type place with paintballing, air soft and the like. I gave the lads a choice of activities and they chose Bubble football and Bowling, there may have been Pizza involved but in case Rory is reading, I can confirm it was wholemeal bread and grilled chicken with spring water instead of the cans of pepsi that were cruelly photoshopped in on the instagram photos.
Bubble football in 29 degrees, outdoor, is a lot of work but also a lot of fun. Don't mess with the Graham who is inside a big plastic bubble, as every one of the team, and Monica found out numerous times. There is no need for the added football, just 11 crazy Irish and 1 Portuguese in bubbles trying to blindside each other before smashing them to the ground. Monica suggested that i should try to roll around inside the ball for the craic, and proceeded to demonstrate, the ball stopped rolling when she was upside down with her legs flailing out the top of the bubble. it was hilarious. Then Josh, Domo, and Tagdh smashed into her. I couldn't stop laughing, as Adam and Oisin sneakily hit me from both sides. We lasted about 45 minutes inside the bubbles before needing about 5 bottles of water each.
After an uneventful game of bowling and the alleged meal, we headed back to the hotel to catch the start of the Portugal - Poland match on the Lobby TV. When we got to the lobby, we found about 20 Polish people had taken it over, stretched out over the sofas and cheering or booing, depending on who was pictured on the box. Then CD Vasconia showed up and joined in with the Polish, their old hatred of Portugal evident for all to hear. The receptionist came over and asked the crowd to be quiet but was drowned out by the noise. Monica looked like she was a minute away from murdering all the Polish so i knew it was time to act. I instructed the lads to dive on the sofas, rescuing valuable real estate from the Polish, and then the lads started to sing. Soon the Italians arrived and joined in with the lads, then IF Lodde showed up and did the same, the atmosphere was brilliant. Around 100 people crammed inside the lobby singing their hearts out for Portugal. None except Monica was Portuguese. The poor Poles and Spanish never stood a chance. Patrick was loving it, and invented new songs on the spot as the game carried on. I didn't let the lads watch extra time, it was a late meal and bed. I came back to the lobby to find it had now been filled with Portuguese people and witnessed them win the shoot-out, it was noisy on the street outside the hotel that night and i hoped the lads would be able to get a good nights rest before our game against Blue Dragon from South Korea.
Friday (Blue Dragon and Heartache)
Although Yokahama are from Japan, I assumed the South Koreans would be a similar setup, Technically proficient, creative and beautiful to watch. It was cloudy that morning and i was hoping for a little rain, just so it would feel a little more like home but it never came.
The game was back on the brilliant grass pitches of St Julians and we got there in good time. The Koreans arrived at the same time, huge kids with dyed blonde hair, this would be the first time we played a non european team since Reading earlier in the week. As i had done every other day i walked over to shake hands with the opposition manager before the warm up, he looked a little bemused but i gave him a smile and wished him luck. Monica was just finishing the physical part of the warm-up when i realized my mistake. "I forgot the balls" i said to her, She laughed, strolled over to the Korean team and came back with two balls, I started a rondo with the lads while she warmed up Oisin.
I always make a point of keeping an eye on the other team's warm-up. It gives a good indication of what your up against. The Korean warm-up left me confused, it was very simple and focused much more on the physical side of things, before they practiced shooting. Not the warm-up i was expecting from a technically proficient team.
Before the game kicked off the Korean players shook the lads hands and then walked over to me and each bowed. I had no idea what to do, so i bowed back. The koreans looked confused.
The game kicked off and the opposition's warm-up made more sense. They would aim to use their size and strength, bypassing midfield with their keeper and looking to win second balls from headers and long shots from clearances. It was working. The first five minutes were a disaster. They pummeled us. One-nil, Two nil. Was this going to be another massacre? I wasn't having it. The lads were quiet again and were needing leadership to come from somewhere other than themselves. I'm usually quiet on sidelines but i was as vocal as i've been in years, i had to be. Monica was shocked, i remember her tapping me on the shoulder and proclaiming "Graham you are acting like the Portuguese managers, Portugal has changed you!" maybe she was right, but it had to be done.
And it worked. The lads started to get into the game and started to create chances, and with a couple of minutes of the first half left, Eric tore down the left flank and delivered a perfect low cross halfway between the keeper and last defender, Domo arrived on time and we were back in the game and looking more like ourselves. With seconds remaining in the half, Josh rounded the last defender and was assaulted inside the penalty area. The ref pointed to the spot. It's amazing to think that it's both Josh and Sami's first year in football, both lads involvement in those moments is poignant and a testament to what can be achieved in a short space of time with a player at our club. Sami was nervous before the game, he gets a sick stomach when he's nervous and he couldn't start the game for us, after 5 minutes and two goals down i convinced him to go on, he changed the game for us when he did. Sami's a brilliant penalty taker, he has a natural clean strike of the ball and i was confident he would stick it in the back of the net but i was aware of his nerves, so i called to Buster and told him to ask Sami if he still wanted to take the kick, Buster shouted to Sami and looked back over and gave me the thumbs up. I was impressed by the kid's bravery. He put it a little too close to the keeper who made a good save. I felt gutted for him and a little guilty. But he will learn more from that missed penalty than 50 successful ones.
The whistle for half time sounded and i made a beeline for a dejected Sami to assure him that more chances would come his way and to put the miss out of his head. I explained to the lads that our opponents were not interested in a game of football as we knew it and chose to have a battle instead. The lads said "then thats what they'll get".
It's not the size of the drog in the fight, It''s the size of the fight in the drog.
The second half was intense. Blue dragon trying to impose their size advantage and the Drogheda Lads battling and playing nice football when they could, we were edging it and i felt sure another goal would come and was thinking about a penalty shoot-out. But it didn't come, in the last seconds Josh received the ball on the edge of the box and rifled it towards the goal only to see it go about a foot over the bar. The game was over and we were out. The lads were distraught. I called them in and told them how proud i was of them, and then i instructed them to go over and applaud their parents, who gave us fantastic support all week. While the lads got a couple of hugs off the fans the Korean players came back over to me and we played the Bowing game again. Surreal moment number 492.
After the game the travelling parents offered to take the kids off our hands for an hour or two so we could have our first break of the week and we thankfully accepted. We took a walk down the beach, grabbed lunch and a coffee and walked down to the large castle at the end of the beach we had been wondering about all week. It turned out to be a military base so obviously we couldn't get anywhere near it. Monica took a selfie. Job Done.
We headed back to St Julians in the early evening, the lads wanted to cheer on Reading in their 8-0 win over the Pro touch academy we had watched on Tuesday, and I wanted to watch Blue dragon's next match against the Guadaloupe national team. I wish I hadn't. I was convinced we should have won the game and felt even worse when i saw the Guadaloupe team. They were playing 4 at the back, 0 in the midfield and 2 up front. They were huge, their keeper all of 6'1, but i think we could have outplayed them. Guadaloupe won on penalties and got the prize of facing Spanish giants Deportivo La Coruna in the last 8. They lost that game 10-1, a score we probably wouldn't have bettered by much but thats were i think we deserved to finish, top eight. But football doesn't work like that and there is always the next game. Thats why i love it.
U12 premier league starts in March. I wonder who we will get first?