Brian Kerr, Liam Nolan and I have arrived in Poznan too late to see the swarms of Irish fans that turned this city green for the last few days. They have moved on to Gdansk for the game with Spain tomorrow. We are here for Italy v Croatia, the other match in our Group C.
So what have I gleaned from our whistle-stop tour of Poland in the last week? Well, quite a lot actually, even if my views are only a scratch at the surface of a much deeper country with a history even more tragic than our own.
For a start, Polish people are incredibly hospitable. There is an innocence to their welcome that is like that you would have received in Ireland before the Tiger, or maybe half way through it.
This country is experiencing a mini boom – but they seem to be controlling the excesses that got out of control in Ireland.
For another thing, they love their football and their beer – so there’s not much to dislike about Poland and their people. Of course, I am a little biased as my brother Lawrence recently married Anita from Gdansk. And Liam, my producer, is married to a Polish girl and they are living in Warsaw – so there’s every reason that he would ensure that my view of this country is seen through red-coloured spectacles.
There is a massive contrast between the tourist impression left by Gdansk on the Baltic coast, the old central heart of Wroclaw, and the commercial hub that is Poznan. They each have their individual character and feel completely different.
This morning we took our first train ride, the two and a half hour journey from Wroclaw to Poznan.
By an incredible coincidence, the commentary team from Austria that sat beside us at the stadium last night for Greece v Czech Republic were the same gentlemen sitting beside us on the train this morning. What are the chances of that? Slightly better than Peter Lawrie’s hopes in the US Open this weekend in San Francisco, though I hope Peter excels himself as he is in my Irish Times Fantasy team for this week…
The train was slow at first - a ten-minute pause outside Wroclaw had us wondering whether we would ever make it to our destination.
I don’t often get to ride on trains. It’s such a relaxing form of transport: the comfortable seat, the feeling that one is travelling in the country rather than above it on a plane; or concentrating so hard on the road when driving that one misses the points of interest. Then there’s the rat-a-tat-tat, the easy rhythm that can so easily send one to sleep - but not today.
Liam and I spoke of many things on the journey; his apartment in Warsaw that he purchased with his wife Aga, the comparison of prices at home and in Poland. He is a great companion to have on a journey like this, hospitable, knowledgeable in history and politics, full of enlightenment. And he speaks Polish. That is a huge advantage in a country where only the young and the educated tend to have English.
As you all know, Brian Kerr was manager of St Patrick’s Athletic football club for many years and for much of that time he worked with Tim O’Flaherty, a man who has red and white St Pat’s blood coursing through his veins. As chance would have it, hasn’t Tim just opened a hotel in Poznan called Blooms. And isn’t our hotel literally a five-minute-walk away from there. So, bags dropped in our 14th story rooms off we went, Brian, Liam and I, to see Tim.
The first impression I got of Poznan is a thriving city, very commercial, very modern, full of activity.
Our walk took us through a magnificent shopping centre that is every bit as good as anything in Dublin. Then down a pedestrian street that Brian, who has been here before, described as ‘Poznan’s Grafton Street!’
Liam explained that Poznan is exactly halfway between Berlin and Warsaw and is therefore an established commercial centre, linked by a main road between the two capital cities. We also discovered that there are 150,000 students here – bringing all of their vibrancy and life.
Blooms is just off Poznan’s Grafton Street, a four-story building that, two weeks ago, resembled a building site. Liam was here then and couldn’t believe the changes in such a short space of time. A car park had been converted into a beer garden, a restaurant completed and three stories of accommodation ready for occupancy.
Of course the incentive of having it ready for the arrival of the Green Army was considerable. 220 fans stayed here last night, 90% of them Irish.
Tim hasn’t changed a bit since I knew him at St Pat’s in Inchicore. So hospitable, that under-stated wit, the little twinkle in his eye. We had some lunch before going our separate ways; Liam to the stadium to reccee our venue for tomorrow, Brian to write his piece for the Irish Times and yours truly to bring you this, a brief snapshot of our journey through Poland, a green and very pleasant land.