On the afternoon of May 7th 2007, 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 traffic police.
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 receivers.
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.
Republic 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.