Monday, 16 February 2009

A snowball's chance? Job done in San Marino

I intend that normal service should resume this week. Indeed I had rather hoped to post something about the San Marino trip yesterday, but starting the day at 3.45am (Italian time) rather militated against anything more ambitious than slouching on the settee yesterday evening. First things first, thank you to Hernandez, who responded to my tweeted entreaties and reassured an anxious group of snowbound Northern Ireland fans that the match was in fact on. It had looked desperately unlikely earlier in the day.

It would be unduly churlish to complain about Northern Ireland’s performance on Wednesday night. Although the San Marino team proved every bit as bad as it had appeared at Windsor Park, Nigel Worthington’s men did their job with minimum fuss. Given the ease with which Northern Ireland took a two nil lead, I did feel that a more whole hearted display in the second half might have yielded a truly resounding result. Additionally, three players have picked up suspensions for the must win game against Poland, which could prove particularly expensive.

To focus on positives for a moment, Damien Johnson made a welcome return after his injury lay off. The midfielder had an impressive game down the right flank. Steven Davis turned in a classy performance, looking much the most accomplished player on the pitch. Unfortunately he is also one of the players suspended next time. Northern Ireland will greatly miss the assurance he shows with a ball at his feet. Grant McCann too showed tireless work rate and capped his performance with a fine goal. So as a whole the midfield established its superiority early in the match and on overwhelming terms. Actually San Marino should have been overrun.

Whilst San Marino the team succumbed, but held its own, the match venue was swamped by a green tide. From Rimini, Bologna and high up the mountainside in San Marino itself, Northern Ireland supporters converged on the rudimentary little ground in Serravalle. Basic some of the facilities may have been (queues for two male toilet cubicles were horrendous), but the San Marinans must know a thing or two about drainage.

It is difficult to describe just how rotten an afternoon Wednesday was in the San Marino – Rimini area. From Bologna (dry but dull) the sky got progressively angrier as we approached Rimini by train. 40 kilometres away it was dry, although at 1pm it might’ve been dusk. 20 kilometres from the town the skies opened and we arrived in the train station amidst incessant icy torrents of water. The conditions only got worse as our service bus climbed towards San Marino. There was not a lighter spot in the sky when we edged slowly through Serravalle. And as we rounded hairpins in order to reach historic San Marino city, on the edge of the Apennines, rain turned to snow.

By the time we disembarked at the bus’s final stop, there were nine inches of the white stuff, we had passed a number of abandoned vehicles, the driver had struggled to maintain traction on several occasions and there was not a living soul to be seen. We had serious discussions with fellow NI travellers as to whether it might be better simply to return on the same bus and take our chances with accommodation in Rimini. Had we not found a cafĂ© with some more Northern Ireland fans, had not a kind San Marinan helped us to find the hostel and explained that this hillside Republic was perfectly accustomed to such weather, I fear that we would have immediately begun our descent.

As it happened, the next morning was gloriously sunny and San Marino revealed itself to be a scenic little place, albeit rather sleepy. Certainly the descriptions of Rimini as something akin to Portrush suggested that we made the right decision. We shared a taxi bus with some fellow supporters to the ground, enjoyed a fun post match session in the London bar and experienced nothing more unpleasant than wet feet. Whether John Paul II, whose image hung above our bed, would have approved has to remain doubtful.

Generally we had an excellent trip. Without boring you with detail, I was particularly impressed with Florence. It helped that our accommodation was excellent. A hostel in name, but beating most hotels in terms of facilities. We had a PC, internet access and Sky TV in our room. It is undoubtedly a beautiful city. Well worth visiting despite the baying hordes which infested it, even in February.


Hernandez said...

Sadly beating San Marino is virtually meaningless in terms of qualification since every other team will beat them. Concerned about the development of Lafferty. He had a poor game against appalling opposition. Everyone keeps reassuring us that he is a good target man, but is he? Certainly at Rangers he is looking very out of his depth. The lad is 21 now and needs to start delivering.

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