On the afternoon of May 7, we boarded
Azerbaijan Airlines flight AZ-007, landing in the capital Baku
around midnight. We became aware, almost immediately, that we
were in a land of wheeler-dealers interspersed with the occasional
oasis of an Irish Pub. According to Fergal McGrath, a RISSC member
based in Azerbaijan, there are between five and ten thousand Irish,
Scots and other ex-pats working the rigs in the Caspian Sea.
During our visit the numbers were
supplemented by members of the Irish Amateur Boxing Association
Team, taking part in an international competition. We shared our
hotel with the boxers and officials with whom we enjoyed the odd
pint or two.
Azerbaijan is a land of contrasts.
A Muslim country where you see young lassies waltzing around in
mini-skirts but where men should not be seen in shorts (right
on Tony! just like Leitrim). Beautiful mountainous countryside
contrasts with some of the most scarred and polluted landscape
in the world. A myriad of Derricks (nodding donkeys) populate
the scene, sucking oil from a country that used to be the world’s
number one producer.
A cool dry Baku evening presented
itself for the game. As Tony negotiated the rented 4wd Toyota
Praedo through the beserk city traffic, it appeared that the only
rules of the road were to avoid a) being hit and b) meeting the
The Shafa Stadium at kick-off time
contained a few hundred locals and about a dozen Irish, in from
the rigs. A very presentable version of Amhrán na bhFiann
was followed by the host anthem which sounded like and seemed
as long as an Italian opera.
The affable Fergal McGrath, who
puts his geology studies, analysing seismic activity to good use
out on the Caspian, was just behind us. Ireland’s start
was however, anything but seismic with the team showing too much
respect to the opposition on an admittedly bone-hard pitch. Midway
through the first half, Murad Aghakishiyev put Azerbaijan ahead
with a clever header from a debateable free kick. The goal was
just the jolt required for Ireland to raise their performance
and in particular, Aiden McGeady of Glasgow Celtic began to exert
a strong influence.
Half time entertainment was provided
by some family feuds among the local Azerbaijan supporters. The
excitement was swiftly brought under control by the Leonid Brezhnev
lookalike ‘Polis’ wearing hats as large as satellite
An Azerbaijan follower, next to
us, murmured his way through the first half with a set of praying
beads which appeared to have worked. In the second half, however,
it soon became apparent that God had changed sides as Ireland
began to lord it over a tiring Azerbaijan. The hosts became increasingly
desperate and their tackling took on a sinister hue.
Following another Azeri transgression,
McGeady floated in a free kick from the left and the golden locks
of Scunthorpe United striker Andy Keogh powered home a definitive
far post header. As the tension mounted for Azerbaijan, a particularly
vicious tackle on the influential McGeady, warranted more than
a yellow card.
Ireland continued to pressurise their hosts and with two minutes
remaining, Keogh was again on hand to hook home the deserved winner.
In the final seconds of the match, Ireland’s goalkeeper
Darren Quigley of UCD was red carded following his reaction to
being unceremoniously bundled into the net by a pair of Azeri
attackers. While disappointing, the incident did not cloud a performance
which should be more than sufficient to ensure qualification for
the Group Stage following the second leg in Kilkenny.
In far from ideal pitch conditions,
Ireland recovered from their slow start to put in a competent
and efficient performance. In addition to the excellent McGeady
and two goal Keogh, Ireland had impressive performers in Cork
City’s Roy O’Donovan and Michael Timlin of Fulham.
With Diana holding by far the best
camera in the Stadium, we inadvertently find ourselves ushered
into the post match press conference as Irish ‘journalists’.
During the exchanges a visibly annoyed Don Givens asks the assembled
journalists from Azerbaijan why his goalkeeper had been dismissed.
The touring party continued to
experience an eventful few days in the environs of Baku before
embarking on the journey home with Messrs Cullen and Fitzpatrick
coming under heavy mortar attack as a consequence of indisciplined
over indulgence in the very acceptable local Xindahal beer.
of Ireland Team
Darren Quigley (UCD);
Kevin Foley (Luton Town), Richard Keogh (Bristol City), Alex Bruce
(Birmingham City), Marcos Painter (Birmingham City); Paul Keegan
(Drogheda United), Michael Timlin (Fulham), Roy O’Donovan
(Cork City); Willo Flood (Manchester City), Andy Keogh (Scunthorpe
United), Aiden McGeady(Glasgow Celtic).
Shane Long (Reading) for O’Donovan.