In the latest addition of a series of questions to Irish football journalists about working abroad, Brendan O’Brien reveals the truth about the spread in Israel, stomach cramps in San Marino, and why Euro 2012 was a letdown.
Travel Bug by Brendan O’Brien (Irish Examiner)
Can you remember your first working trip overseas?
My first football trip was probably the Republic of Ireland’s 1-1 draw with Israel in Tel Aviv. That was pretty special. There was a Jewish festival on at the time and the city was one big party. It happened to coincide with Easter as well, so a bunch of travelled to Jerusalem the morning of the match and did the touristy thing.
The only disappointment was that Ireland sat back after what was a superb first-half performance and they got caught with a late equaliser but I remember it now for the fact that the plane taking everyone home was stopped before taking off because an FAI head honcho had a bit of a turn.
Did you learn anything in particular from that trip?
Get your arrival visa stamped on a separate piece of paper as you’ll have awful trouble getting into other countries in the Middle East if your passport has an Israeli official stamp on it.
The whole trip was eye-opening culturally. I still remember the half-time spread in the media area (journalists love their free stuff!). A Mediterranean selection of breads, oils, hummus, fruit etc. At the time, the equivalent in the old Lansdowne Road was a crusty sandwich, a pot of boiling soup, and a cuppa.
Favourite place that you have visited on a work trip?
Israel would be up there along with Beijing, China. But I really enjoyed Ireland’s visit to Podgorica in Montenegro. The town itself wasn’t anything special, but the weather was superb when we were there and I always find it fascinating to see the old Communist influence in those Eastern European cities gradually giving way to capitalism.
In Podgorica, there were crumbling footpaths and buildings that looked to be on the verge of collapse but you could have a gleaming new shopping mall beside them or a Ferrari dealership.
Have you returned to any city when not working?
If it counts, I did get to go back to Stuttgart in 2005 for work and that was 17 years after I’d been there as a very young fan for Ireland’s game against England in Euro ’88. I didn’t remember any of it. The stadium had been razed and rebuilt and the area around it was very different too.
Have you visited any country during a particularly turbulent period?
Israel wasn’t in the midst of any war when we were there but it was still weird to have to walk past an armed guard to get into a McDonald’s – it was the only place open when we arrived! I suppose, though, the closest I came was when the FAI successfully lobbied for the Ireland-Georgia game to be moved from Tbilisi and it ended up being played in Mainz, Germany.
Best result a team has achieved on your travels?
Ireland beating Estonia 4-0 in Tallinn and Ireland drawing 1-1 with Italy in Bari both spring to mind. But the best result probably was a 2-0 win for Cork City away to Lithuanian side Ekranas in the 2005/05 UEFA Europa League. George O’Callaghan and Roy O’Donovan scored the goals and they had players like Liam Kearney and John O’Flynn too. That was a bloody good side.
Any cities or countries that you still want to visit?
Where do I start?
What is the best hotel you have stayed in?
I stayed in an unbelievable joint in Abu Dhabi on a GAA trip with an en-suite bathroom bigger than my house. In fairness, most of the hotels I’ve stayed in for football trips have been pretty decent. The usual journalist ‘horror’ stories about places with no wifi aside, of course.
And what about the worst?
A hostel in Melbourne when I was covering the 2003 Rugby World Cup. I’d been on the road a month and was losing the will to live even before I got in. I can still remember the particular smell of a 30-bed room filled with dirty socks and underwear.
What is the best meal you’ve had on your travels?
A very pleasant and typically French three-courser in the Latin Quarter in Paris back in November 2009. There were a few on a back-to-back qualifier trip to Slovakia and Prague as well. One place had a meat platter the size of a wagon wheel – the real ones, not the things made out of chocolate – with one lonely lettuce leaf in the middle for decoration. The food in Israel was top notch too – and not just the McDonald’s.
Should we even ask about the worst?
I’m not sure what exactly it was that I ate – or drank – but I got an awful dose of stomach cramps and a lot more besides in 2007 when travelling to San Marino. A few of us were all curled up in pain in the hotel lobby for hours as we had to check out of our rooms at noon and the game was on late that night.
Any nightmare trips?
It’s difficult to talk about ‘nightmare’ trips when you’re being paid to go abroad and watch sport, but that San Marino trip stands out for the physical discomfort and the fact that the late kick-off, and the late drama on the pitch, made for a really hard night’s work.
The whole Euro 2012 campaign was a bit of a letdown too. When the final whistle went against Croatia reality dawned and we knew the next week or whatever would all be about trying to breathe life into a dead duck.
What is the best stadium you have worked in?
The Aviva Stadium in Dublin has a few minor flaws but stacks up pretty well. Some big ones are awful, like Stade de France in Paris, which has no TV screens anywhere. It was only when our phones started hopping in 2009 that we realised what exactly Thierry Henry had just done.
I loved the PGE Arena in Gdansk, where Ireland got hammered by Spain in Euro 2012. Spectacular design on the outside and great atmosphere inside it – even if Roy Keane took exception to the Irish fans singing. The atmosphere in Poznan was bonkers too and the facilities in both were superb.
What are the three must-need items when working abroad?
A dongle to connect to wifi if/when the stadium’s proves to be useless, a laptop with a bloody good battery in it, and a mobile phone. All totally obvious, I know. I’d also add patience, an iron stomach, and a willingness to travel at ridiculous times to ridiculous places.
Best advice you could give to a new journalist going away?
Enjoy it. It’s a huge privilege.