IT’S NOT UNUSUAL for followers of Irish sport to travel the length of the country – or overseas – to follow their county or national teams without the security of already having a match ticket.
It’s pretty rare, though, for someone without a ticket to take a solid 24-hour journey to get there – and to end up watching one half of the game in the best seat in the house, and the other half sat in the opposing team’s dugout.
That’s what happened to Ballincollig man Conor Cunningham last Friday, though – who took a long-winded 24-hour journey to Tallinn, and blagged his way onto the touchline in the A Le Coq arena for Ireland’s 4-0 win… by borrowing an Estonian team tracksuit.
Video by CunninghamTheHero on YouTube
“Basically I’d been to a couple of Irish away matches,” Cunningham told TheJournal.ie this morning. “The last one we could make was Macedonia, away [in June, when Ireland won 2-0]. Six of us went on that trip. We had such great craic; we seemed to be telling stories about it for ages.”
Spurred on by the draw for the play-off, the same group of six – plus five more – decided to head for Tallinn, but weren’t keen on paying inflated prices for direct flights to the Estonian capital.
“We ended up taking flights from Cork to London, then from London to Stockholm, from Stockholm to Riga, and then a five-hour bus from Riga to Tallinn,” Cunningham recounts. “We were going for about 24 hours straight.”
The long-winded travel route saved the group some serious money, though – costing them around €150 each return, compared to a €350 direct flight to Estonia and back.
But, nonetheless, the lads were still travelling without tickets – and were unsuccessful in trying to get any in advance, finding that many other large groups had also travelled without the full compliment of matchday tickets.
“Every group we seemed to meet, there was someone looking for tickets,” Conor says. “But there didn’t seem to be any going on the Thursday.”
Such was their desperation that the group spent the Friday camped out in Ireland’s hotel – hoping desperately that they might bump into a player or FAI official who might have some spares.
We heard [FAI chief executive] John Delaney was raffling some tickets off, but unfortunately we just missed them… so myself and one of the lads said we’d chance our arms and see if we’d bump into one of the players wandering around.
“We were hoping we’d see Seamus Coleman – we heard one or two of his family hadn’t travelled, because he wasn’t in the squad,” but there was no sign of the Everton midfielder.
“We ended up bumping into Giovanni Trapattoni – and we got photos and stuff signed,” Conor recalls – but there was no luck finding a spare ticket for the 10,000-seater stadium.
In a last-ditch attempt to get in, the lads went to the stadium – where five of them managed to buy tickets, leaving the other six to try alternative options.
We came across the media entrance, and said, ‘Right, the game is kicking off fairly soon, we’ll chance our arm.’ One of the lads got straight through without copping anything, but by the time the rest of us came along, they copped something wasn’t right.
We tried to bluff – ‘we had been in, but we left our passes inside’, or something – but no luck.
It was then that Conor’s luck changed. As some of the other Irish fans continued to distract the security guards, he noticed an open doorway – and decided to wander in, hoping there might another door inside which could lead him in.
“When I went through it was a dead-end room, but I stopped and saw a bag of footballs. I thought, ‘Right, I’ll go over now, and chance my arm and get on the pitch as a ball-boy.’
“When I got over I picked up the footballs, and right alongside it was an Estonia tracksuit. I kitted out straight away – putting the tracksuit on over my jeans and jersey – and just started making a walk for the entrance.”
And it worked. Clad in the same gear as the Estonian backroom team, Cunningham walked straight past the security and up to the halfway line, where he sat down in the Estonian dugout a few minutes after the game had begun.
Immediately his phone began to go into meltdown – because the TV cameras had picked him up, standing behind Trapattoni, making a video of himself standing beside the pitch.
People from home had seen him on TV and were simply incredulous: Was that Conor’s shaven head in the background behind the Ireland boss?
Their suspicions were confirmed a few minutes later, when a wayward pass went out for a throw – and Conor stepped up to hand over a new ball, while looking straight into the TV cameras.