I was in Tallinn, capital of Estonia the last time Ireland played here in 2001. Back then, many thought it was going to be the next Amsterdam, the new stag party destination due to its cheap drink, ease of travel (thanks to EasyJet) and the prettiest girls this side of Prague. Little wonder that within seconds of Ireland drawing Estonia in the Euro 2012 play-offs four weeks ago, flights to and hotels in Tallinn were snapped up by Irish supporters even before match tickets were secured. But we were only allocated 1,400 tickets, leaving many fans travelling to Estonia but not getting into the game. Luckily I had attended enough of the previous matches to qualify for a ticket to this one.
Upon arrival at my hotel (Central Tallinn Park Inn, HUGE rooms) at 11:30pm Thursday night, I dropped off my bags and headed for the Old Town. Even at the frosty hour of midnight, it looked like a fairy-tale town. The hilly cobbled streets looking especially enchanting in the light fog, bathed in the warm glow of streetlights. I half expected to see a horse drawn carriage carrying a ball gowned princess on the next corner.
Nieta Baar (The Bar With No Name) is where I headed for a late pint and bite. The place was jam packed out with Irish fans. Hardly surprising given that John Delaney, curry-favouring Chief Executive of the Football Association of Ireland put €2,000 behind the bar and bought everyone a drink and raffled off 6 tickets.
Whilst the Old Town had not changed much since I was last here 10 years ago, the Tallinn surrounding it had. Where there was once drab austere Soviet-style tower blocks now stood palatial shopping malls and gleaming offices. A reflection of how far Estonia itself had come, from fledgling post-communist state to full-blown democracy with EU membership and the Euro for currency (though they might be regretting it lately).
For all that, Raekoja Plats is still where it’s at. Gothic buildings surrounding the eight centuries-old town hall square. Here is where the 2,000 or so Ireland supporters mainly gathered, between the town hall spirals and Molly Malone’s, the Irish pub situated in the square. I passed on Molly Malone’s in favour of DM Baar in nearby Voorimehe. A darkly-lit but friendly dive bar dedicated to Depeche Mode, with the walls covered with DM memorabilia and their videos playing non-stop. Quite why Basildon’s finest are honoured with a bar in Tallinn is an unanswered mystery. But we simply had to go there to sing The Mode’s Just Can’t Get Enough, a song lately co-opted into the Irish fan’s repertoire of chants.
Further on from the Old Town Square is Vabaduse Väljak (Freedom Square), where stands Vabadussõja Võidusammas, The War of Independence Victory Column, established in memory of those who fought and died in Estonia’s War of Independence from 1918 to 1920. Made of 143 glass plates, standing at 24m high with the Estonian Cross of Liberty on top, it’s an impressive sight, especially when lit up at night. Though curiously, plans for this memorial were made whilst the war was still being fought and it was only finally erected in 2009.
The match was at the A. Le Coq Stadium (named after the sponsor, the local brewery), a compact little 10,000 capacity stadium half hour’s walk west of the old town. We had the uncovered stand behind the left-hand goal to ourselves, with some Irish fans making it into the other parts of the ground despite warnings that non-Estonians would be denied entry there.
A tense, closely fought game against a physical Estonian side was expected, but it turned into a massive 4-0 win for Ireland. With Keith Andrews heading in on 16 minutes, Jon Walters doing likewise a little after the hour mark, and Robbie Keane bagging two, the first after the Estonian keeper Pareiko parried a free-kick into his path, and the second an injury time penalty. Second leg be damned, Ireland have qualified for the Euro 2012 finals and we are going to celebrate.
What happened afterwards is a bit of a blur. It’s within the realms of the likely that I went back to The Bar With No Name to celebrate, because they had promised to replay the whole match on their screens at midnight. And it’s distinctly possible that I might have been in a state of advanced refreshment by the time I left around 3am. What I know for sure is that I went for a bit to eat and my choice of spicy tacos was perhaps not the wisest with the benefit of hindsight. Elaboration unnecessary…
On my last morning I headed off for a bit of history at The Museum of Occupation, chronicling the years when Estonia was occupied, first by the Nazis, then under the rule of the Soviets. An exhibition of old uniforms, artefacts of the resistance movement, spying equipment and interactive film archives. It was surprisingly even handed, casting little judgement on the events. Possibly because a third of Estonia’s population is still Russian.
So there you have it, Tallinn is already nice place to visit But this trip is all the greater for the result. Giovanni Trapattoni is often dismissed as a very lucky manager, and certainly two Estonian players getting harsh red cards may have played a part in Ireland’s biggest away win in years. But there’s no denying Trap has organised Ireland into a strong unit, difficult to break down and capable of getting results, whoever the opposition. Rather than a tense decisive tie, the second leg in Dublin on Tuesday will now be one big celebration party. The detox in preparation starts now…
Head aega (Estonian goodbye)